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Reviewed by C.J. Bunce

For the Fourth of July that is arriving on the heels of the fortieth anniversary of the premiere of the blockbuster movie Jaws, what better time for a summer reading of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel that the movie is based on?

Well it was a good notion.

And it’s the notion in the novel Jaws–the premise–that fortunately inspired scriptwriter Carl Gottlieb, and Benchley himself–to both expand the novel, and more importantly, whittle it down, into such a finely executed, classic film.

But wait, Jaws was a bestseller!  A book that was on everyone’s bookshelf in the early 1970s!  Who doesn’t remember that book cover, and who didn’t sing the praises of that book?

The first third of the novel is quite good, exciting reading that fans of the film will be familiar with:  The death of a young woman at night swimming with her boyfriend in the northwest beach community of Amity, the politics of Chief Brody and the Mayor keeping the beaches open, and the subsequent death of a boy and lambasting of Brody by the boy’s mother for not closing down the beaches after the first death.  The introductory chapters really set up the reader for a wild ride.

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Unfortunately from there the story drifts off course and never returns to the excitement of the set-up.

According to the forward matter in this writer’s own well-read paperback copy from 1974, every major publication from the Washington Post to Publishers Weekly to the Chicago Sun-Times and even the Christian Science Monitor called it “spectacular,” “fascinating,” and a “thriller.”  Yet 1970s standards must be different from today.  Most of the novel meanders through far too many uninteresting subplots.  These include: (1) a mob-influenced mayor trying to maintain real estate values for never seen or revealed partners, (2) a preposterous and oddly coincidental past between Brody’s wife and ichthyologist Hooper and their awkward, sleazy, and call it what it is gross affair in a hotel, (3) a key character, newspaper reporter Harry Meadows, who Gottlieb would play in the film, has a role as large as Hooper’s and Quint’s, despite adding little to the story, (4) the introduction of crusty seaman Quint with virtually no character motivation or development, and (5) a climax scene so brief and bland it’s a miracle this novel was ever noticed by anyone.

Benchley writing quirks include an incessant reference by every character to the great white shark as “the fish.”  It’s a shark, why not just call it a shark?  The repeated reference to that term grates after only a few pages.  For fans of Ernest Hemingway’s equally slow-paced The Old Man and the Sea or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Jaws may be a good read: Benchley echoes so many themes from those works that Jaws is somewhat of an homage, even mirroring Ahab’s demise with Quint’s mode of death.  The awkward pacing throughout the book could stand to have a good re-write.  The climactic shark hunt at the story’s end is broken up into days at sea with returns home at night, removing any suspense at all.  And then the story just stops.

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Luckily Steven Spielberg hired friend Gottlieb (then known more for his comedy writing) to re-write the story during filming of his production.  Cutting from the script the affair between Hooper and Brody’s wife, giving Quint his memorable backstory aboard the USS Indianapolis, adding so much humor to cut the fear, and removing the newspaperman subplot all contribute significantly to the suspense of the story.  Swapping a natural tendency of a community to protect its wealth during tourist season for the novel’s overdone, complex rationalization incorporating mob elements and a media frenzy, swapping insulting views of coastal societal culture mores for the simplicity of small town politics, and gutting a big city mob element all make the movie so far better as a story that the novel pales compared to it.  Benchley’s view of women and sex in the 1970s should shock the conscience of any present day reader, strangely in the same way Ian Fleming showed his misogyny and skewed view of women in his 1977 novel The Spy Who Loved Me, previously reviewed here at borg.com.

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Many a classic novel stands up to scrutiny in any age.  Jaws doesn’t make the cut.  Benchley’s novel likely succeeded in its day because of its novelty–the premise of a shark terrorizing a small town was understandably popular as a suspense/thriller/horror tale for an audience that hadn’t yet read the novels of Michael Crichton.  As bestsellers go, his Jurassic Park flat out runs circles around Jaws.  

Looking for a great summer read?  You’d be better off taking a pass on Jaws.  Instead, watch the movie again or pick up a paperback copy of Jurassic Park.

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