A look at Jaws by Peter Benchley
It’s a good time to be a shark lover. Not only is it the most wonderful week of the year, Shark Week, the 25th Anniversary no less, but Jaws has recently been released on Blu-ray. As a result, a lot of people have sharks on their mind, and a lot of people online are either talking about Shark Week, or talking about the movie. Seeing as one of my first posts was on shark week, and there is very little new realms of discussion concerning Jaws (it’s a cinematic masterpiece – what more to say?), I’ve decided to join in the discussion, but will touch on a topic few if any are discussing – the book that started all of it, Jaws by Peter Benchley.
While I touched on the novel briefly during my article on the author, as a novel, Jaws is quite remarkable in its own right. When first published, the book was highly regarded as a chilling page turner, making the rounds in both the Book of the Month Club and the Reader’s Digest, as well as remaining on the New York Times Best Seller List for almost a year, a rare feat at the time. In its heyday, Jaws sold 9.5 million copies, and had sold around 20 million copies at the time of Peter Benchley’s death in 2006. While the movie itself is notable for being the first modern blockbuster, the novel made its own pop cultural impact, specifically in being the first successful modern thriller novel, and Peter Benchley, along with the likes of Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton and John Grisham, would become one of its most notable contributors.
The core of the story is shares much in common with the classic film based on the novel – a rogue Great White preys upon beachgoers in a Long Island resort town, and after eating several people, three locals try to kill it. There are some noticeable differences between the film and the novel however, ones that add entirely new details and depth to the story. Perhaps most notable, while the film focuses much more on the shark, the novel gives a great deal more attention to the town and people of Amity, especially how a town heavily dependent on tourism suffers given a disaster that scares away the tourists.
Another thing done in the novel is much more development of the characters, especially when it comes to negative portrayals – I won’t spoil too much, but some character arcs involve affairs, the Mafia, midlife crisis’, and lesbians (Having read the book for the first time in elementary school, this is where I learned what a lesbian was, to my mother’s horror). Toss in some changed details about the ending, and you get a novel that is jarringly different and just as good as the film.
If there is one quality both the book and the movie share, it’s that both keep you on the edge of your seat, largely thanks to the superb writing style of your book. I mean it when I say the author Peter Benchley is tragically overlooked as a writer, and as Jaws showcases, he was and is one of the all time best when it comes to a gripping page-turner. His prose is masterful, especially the ones from the view of the shark, which a few exceptions aside, may be the best chapters from the eyes of a predatory animal ever written, and the novel makes several allusions and references to other literary works, especially Moby Dick. The result is a book far richer than its thriller origins might otherwise indicate, and a far cry from the ‘airport novel‘ many critics write off.
The book today seems to have largely been passed over, which is a tragedy. Jaws by Peter Benchley is just as good today as the day I first read it, and I’ve made a habit to reread it at least once every summer. It truly is an underrated classic, and an often overlooked milestone of modern literature. I recommend it heartily to avid readers and Jaws fans alike, and I hope it will find a place as one of your favorites too.