Backlist Burndown: Jaws by Peter Benchley
As book bloggers, sometimes we get so caught up reading review titles and new releases that we end up missing out on a lot previously published books. As a result, one of my goals this year is to take more time to catch up with my backlist, especially in my personal reading pile. And it seems I’m not the only one. Backlist Burndown is a new meme started by Lisa of Tenacious Reader. Every last Friday of the month, she’ll be posting a review of a backlist book and is inviting anyone interested to do the same. Of course, you can also review backlist books any day you want, as often you want, but be sure to watch for her post at the end of the month to link up!
I’m reviewing something a little different for this month…
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Suspense
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: First published February 1, 1974 by Bantam
Length: 309 pages
Author Information: Website
A whole generation was scared off from swimming in the ocean by the Spielberg film based on this book. Embarrassingly, I have to say my own reaction was even more extreme. It was the early 90s and I must have been about 7 when I watched Jaws for the first time on VHS, and for an entire week I refused baths because I was terrified little great whites were going to pour out of the faucets and eat my face. I was an especially wimpy kid with an overactive imagination.
Anyway, fast forward more than ten years, because that was how long it took before I finally managed to screw up the courage to watch the movie again. By then, I was in college and had forgotten much of what happened in the story, so aside from my memories of a couple horrific iconic scenes that have forever burned themselves into the hard drives of my mind, in many ways it was almost like seeing it for the first time all over again. The difference was, I was no longer a child. And chalk it up to the impatience of my twenty-something-year-old self or the fact that the movie was already more than 30 years old by that point, I realized then how needlessly I’d hyped that experience up for myself. Watching Jaws through fresh eyes, it occurred to me that the movie was actually kind of…boring.
But don’t get me wrong; I’ve certainly come to love the film now that I’m older, because I obviously wouldn’t have bothered to check out the book it was adapted from if I wasn’t such a big fan. So, why have I rambled on and on about movie in this review so far when, really, I should have been discussing the Peter Benchley novel instead? Well, it’s because a lot of things because clearer to me after I read this. Let’s face it, barring a handful of edge-of-your-seat moments in the beginning of the film and of course John Williams’ classic score, things don’t really get going until Brody, Hooper and Quint finally end up on the ocean to hunt that big damn shark. Up until that point, much of it was terribly long and terribly dry, and if I thought that about the slow burn build-up of the movie, a part of me couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to make out with the source material.
Truth is, I ended up being pleasantly surprised. The book kept me thoroughly entertained from start to finish, and not only on account of the differences from the movie. It’s clear to me now that a faithful adaptation wouldn’t have worked at all, because of the much deeper, more profound themes in the novel—which I hadn’t expected at all. Benchley must also have realized that writing a horror/suspense-thriller book about a man-eating shark wasn’t going to be easy, if nothing else because every scene on land was going to require a little something extra. After all, no ocean means no shark, and no shark means no action. In other words, boring.
So, not surprisingly, actual scenes with the shark—or “the fish”, as it was called in this book—were written with this cold and almost detached attitude, leaving readers with no illusions as to its brutal nature, and when it kills, you can bet there’s no skimping on the blood and gore.
But hey, what about when the story isn’t focused on the shark? Well, as a matter of fact, plenty of other things happen, including Mayor Vaughn’s connections to the mafia, and a torrid affair between Brody’s wife and Hooper. Ellen Brody, who was barely an afterthought in the movie, is actually a central character in the novel with a major storyline surrounding her intense longing for the affluent life she led before she got pregnant by Brody, which is why she ended up marrying him and settling in Amity. The overall feel of the book is undeniably more melancholy and mature.
On the flip side, the darker tone meant that we lost much of the bromance that made the movie so enjoyable towards the end, and the characters were all so thoroughly unappealing that more than once I ended up rooting for the shark. The finale was also nowhere near as explosive or satisfying, so ultimately, I think it’s safe to say that while the book wins in some areas, it also loses spectacularly in others.
Still, I have to say reading Peter Benchley’s Jaws was more enjoyable than I thought it would be, especially for an older book that’s so inherently associated with its popular adaptation. I’m guessing if you’re interested in checking it out, it’s because you’re like me—a fan of the movie who was really curious to see what in the novel made it in, what got changed, and what got cut. If you want to get the full picture, this is definitely a must-read.