How Jaws Went From Best Selling Book to Blockbuster Movie

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Jaws was the horror thriller that made Steven Spielberg a star director and changed the face of modern moviemaking and marketing. The simple story, about a Long Island beach town terrorized by attacks from a great white shark, became one of the most iconic films of all time and is both one of the cinema’s great adventure stories and most memorable monster movies. The roots of the movie lie in a novel by Peter Benchley, a writer and journalist who was trying to salvage his career when he penned the tale of the shark that drove millions of readers and moviegoers out of the water.

Benchley, who had always had an interest in the water and in sharks, came up with the idea for Jaws when he read about a fisherman who caught a 4,500-pound great white off the coast of Long Island in 1964. Benchley had written one book, a travel memoir called Time and a Ticket, but had spent most of the ’60s as a reporter and editor for outlets like The Washington Post and Newsweek before taking a job as a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson. By the early 1970s, however, Benchley was having a hard time making ends meet and supporting his family as a writer, and perhaps in desperation pitched his shark story idea to publishers.

Doubleday offered Benchley a $1,000 advance for the first 100 pages of his shark tale, with the author eventually receiving a total of $7,500 in advance money for the complete novel. But after Benchley delivered his first four chapters, his editor was not pleased and demanded a rewrite, reportedly keeping only the first five pages — the now-legendary scene in which a woman swimming at night becomes the shark’s first victim. The editor, Thomas Congdon, wanted the entire book to follow the tone of that first scene. After a year and a half, Benchley finally delivered his manuscript, and he and Congdon threw around titles like The Stillness in the Water, The Jaws of Death, and Leviathan Rising before settling on one word: Jaws.

Jaws was published in February 1974 and, thanks to some canny marketing moves by Congdon — like getting the then-influential book clubs interested — became a tremendous success, spending 44 weeks on the New York Times hardcover best seller list. The film rights were sold to Universal and the paperback rights went to Bantam, which paid $575,000. More than five million copies of the paperback were in readers’ hands by the time the movie came out.

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Peter Benchley was given first crack at the screenplay for Jaws and wrote three drafts, but none were satisfactory and the script passed through several other hands, including award-winning playwright Howard Sackler, before Spielberg gave it to his friend, actor and writer Carl Gottlieb (who plays the newspaper editor Meadows in the film). Gottlieb was rewriting throughout the production while on set and is credited as the main screenwriter with Benchley, although filmmaker John Milius and others contributed further additions.

Benchley’s original novel is a fairly dark affair with pulp thriller pacing and overtones. His prose is not remarkable but functional. Compared to many modern paperback thrillers, which tend to fatten out at 400 pages or more, the first-run paperback of Jaws was a relatively slim 310 pages. And yet the author still managed to pack a variety of subplots into his story that had to be jettisoned for the screen (spoilers ahead if you’ve never read the book or seen the movie, as unlikely as that seems).

Perhaps the biggest changes had to do with the characterizations of Matt Hooper, the ichthyologist played by Richard Dreyfuss in the film, and Ellen Brody, the wife of police chief Martin Brody (played by Lorraine Gary and Roy Scheider, respectively). In the book, Ellen is an Amity native who came from money and, it is hinted, married “down” when she walked the aisle with the more blue-collar Brody. Hooper is also from the area, also from money, and Ellen at one time dated his older brother and hung out with young Matt occasionally back in their carefree summer days. Ellen’s longing for her previous life leads her to initiate a fling with Hooper – a brief afternoon one-off that nevertheless raises the suspicions of her husband, who is already feeling insecure over his wife and Hooper’s shared background.

Unlike the film, where Hooper and Brody quickly become a team despite their disparate backgrounds, there is a steadily rising tension between the two in the novel that culminates in a near-physical confrontation on Quint’s (Robert Shaw) boat during the shark hunt in the latter third of the story. And also unlike the movie, Hooper does not survive his encounter with the great white while in his shark cage: he dies horribly in its massive jaws, and to make matter worse, Brody accidentally hits his corpse in the neck with a bullet while shooting at the beast. Brody never does find out what happened between the scientist and Ellen, deciding to let it go, and Ellen realizes that her present life is more important than anything she held onto from the past.

The second major subplot eliminated from the movie is Mayor Larry Vaughan’s (Murray Hamilton) connections to the Mafia. In the film, Vaughan’s fatal reluctance to close the beaches is seen as, at best, trying to save his town’s economy and, at worst, sheer greed and ignorance. But in the book, Vaughan has helped members of the Mafia invest considerably in prime Amity real estate, and the longer the town beaches are closed, the more the value of their property goes down. This is discovered by Meadows, the newspaper editor who publishes the story as a way to redeem himself for helping with the cover-up of the initial shark attack (with the Mafia subplot removed, Meadows becomes far less important in the film, with Carl Gottlieb admitting in interviews that he cut a lot of his own role out of the picture).

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There’s even one grim sequence late in the book where Brody returns home to find his wife and family distraught: someone has walked up to their front yard and snapped their cat’s neck right in front of Brody’s youngest son as a “message” to the chief. Outraged at the clear threat, Brody brings the dead cat to Vaughan’s house and throws it at him. A horrified Vaughan, his life and career in ruins, soon leaves town with his wife.

There are numerous smaller changes from book to screen – such as an old man killed by the shark early in the novel being changed to a younger man eaten after the beach is reopened later in the story – but perhaps the third biggest alteration is in the way the fish eventually dies. In the book, Brody is left alone in the sinking wreck of Quint’s boat, the Orca, after the shark has swamped it. Quint is dead (not eaten as in the film, but drowned as he is dragged underwater by a rope attached to one of the harpoons he struck the fish with) and the shark is now swimming for Brody, who floats helplessly in the water and awaits death, only to open his eyes and see the fish — mere feet away from him – suddenly stop and slip beneath the waves, finally overcome by the three harpoons embedded in its flesh.

While that ending plays into the random nature of the shark’s overall attacks, it doesn’t sound like something that would make for an exciting or cinematic finale. So in the movie Brody shoots an air tank that has become lodged in the beast’s throat, blowing it to bits. As in the book, Brody swims back to shore, only accompanied in the movie by a still-living Hooper.

Some critics pointed out at the time of the book’s publication that none of the characters seemed particularly likable, and with the exception of Brody, they may be right. Quint comes off as more money-hungry, willing to let people die if the town doesn’t pay double his usual rate, and of course there’s already the sordid doings of Hooper, Ellen and Vaughan. The book also has a more dour, cynical tone to it. What Jaws the movie did was take the core story, strip away the other elements, and most importantly, start out as a horror tale and gradually shift into a high-seas adventure tale – a delicate balancing act that it pulls off incredibly well.

That’s why, 40 years later, we’re still talking about it and watching it. And while Benchley’s book was well done on its own terms – it’s a fast, terrific “summer read” – it’s the movie version of Jaws that has been more fully imprinted in our cultural memory.

This article originally appeared on June 19, 2015.


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