Roy Scheider - Chief Martin Brody
Richard Dreyfuss - Matt Hooper
Robert Shaw - Captain Quint
Lorraine Gary - Ellen Brody
Murray Hamilton - Mayor Larry Vaughn
Carl Gottlieb - Harry Meadows
Steven Spielberg - Director
Zanuck / Brown - Producer
Carl Gottlieb - Screenplay
Bill Butler - Cinematography
Peter Benchley - Original Novel
John Williams - Film Score
Steven Spielberg has described Jaws as "a great episode of Sea Hunt mixed with a little Moby Dick." Add Jack Arnold's The Creature From the Black Lagoon and Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (both 1954) and you have a fairly accurate description of the film's major sources. Oh yes, I almost forgot one other major source: the source novel for the movie.
Peter Benchley's book, Jaws, was fundamentally a concoction--a well-oiled thrill machine crafted by the author (with substantial input from his publisher, it has been reported) to make the most of its commercial potential. And that it did. The "most-read" novel since Mario Puzo's The Godfather, the book hit the best-seller list in a spectacular way, catapulting Benchley into the literary major leagues (earnings-wise, that is) and adding a brand new monster to the horror hall of fame. It was inevitable that such a hot property would be picked up for the movies (actually, the rights had been sold before the book became a mega-hit). Not so inevitable was the prospect of the screen version's turning out to be a considerable improvement over the book and an even bigger hit to boot.
In fact, all through shooting (a technical and logistical nightmare that stretched on for almost a year), the consensus of most involved with the project was that Jaws the movie might very well prove to be a bust. An almost sure sign that disaster was in store was the fact that the script was continually being rewritten even as shooting progressed. In addition to the author's own draft was the contribution--a major rewrite---of Carl Gottlieb, who would share screen credit with Benchley. Playwright Howard Sackler and writer-director John Milius were called in to supply extra scenes as well. The irony is that the script--written in patchwork style though it may have been--succeeded in adding some emotional resonance to the tale that had woefully been missing. [The novel keeps you turning the pages to be sure, but you don't give a damn what happens to anybody.]
In adapting the book to the screen, Spielberg and his various collaborators threw out a good deal of Benchley's more melodramatic contrivances (the Mafia's fingers in town politics and the lucrative tourist trade; the adulterous affair between ichthyologist Matt Hooper and Sheriff Brody's wife), transformed all the major characters into something more than potential shark meat and, most importantly, revised the ending in order to give the story something it didn't have before--a hero.
Portrayed in the novel as a bit of wimp for whom the reader can muster little empathy, Roy Scheider's Sheriff Brody is transformed by the film into a believable everyman hero with whom the viewer continually identifies. Pressured into inaction by the seaside town's greedy officials, Brody is challenged with overcoming his guilt over the lives that have been lost as well as his own deep-seated fear of the water in order to carry out what he clearly sees as his duty. Though he appears the least likely of the shark-hunting trio to actually bring about the monster's destruction he is, in fact, the one who accomplishes the job. With the massive great white shark bearing down on him, Brody fires a bullet into a canister of oxygen lodged in the beast's mouth and blows the creature to bits.
The other two members of the shark hunting expedition are equally well drawn in the film. Richard Dreyfuss' Matt Hooper (in the book an adulterous, well-heeled and pampered egomaniac who gets a well-deserved comeuppance when he's eaten by the shark) becomes a source of strength to Brody by acting as his dedicated aide and loyal confidant. When Hooper tremulously descends into the water inside the flimsy shark cage and can't summon the spit to moisten his goggles, the viewer is right there with him, genuinely hoping that he will survive. It is to the filmmaker's credit that after developing Hooper into such a winning character they didn't alienate the viewer's feelings by having him perish.
Robert Shaw's Irish-brogued Quint (sort of a junior league Captain Ahab in the book) also becomes more multi-dimensional in the film. The motives behind his escalating obsession to destroy the shark--even if he has to kill himself and everyone else to do it--are frighteningly revealed in one of the film's best and creepiest scenes (written expressly for the film by John Milius and greatly expanded at Spielberg's request) in which Quint tells of his nightmarish World War II experiences aboard the USS Indianapolis, the ship that delivered the Hiroshima bomb and was later sunk by the Japanese in shark-infested waters, resulting in the loss of almost a thousand men. Having survived that horrific experience, it's almost as if Quint (like some of the Nazi death camp survivors) harbors a secret guilt over having been spared and is determined not to let that happen again. The scene provides a terrifying edge to his character that not only makes his mad destruction of the boat (his surrogate self) more credible, but contributes to Hooper and Brody's (as well as the audience's) growing sense of panic--for Quint is clearly as much of a danger as the shark itself.
Spielberg's direction of Jaws lacks the cloying, manipulative sentimentality and emphasis on empty (albeit exciting) wall-to-wall action that has become characteristic of his later (yet even more financial successful) work. The film's plentiful tension and suspense grow as much out of our involvement with and concern for the characters as from our fear of the, "monster" itself. Quite wisely, Spielberg also avoids showing us too much of that monster--until the spectacular finale when the requirements of the story demand that it make a prolonged appearance. One of the reasons why came about, ironically, because the mechanical shark itself was inoperable throughout most of the filming, forcing Spielberg to shoot around it. Also, ingeniously constructed though it is, it does tend to look obviously fake if the camera lingers upon it too much. Fortunately, Spielberg's doesn't--not even at the end, where he counteracts the problem of over exposure by offering only quick shots of the beast interspersed with underwater footage of real sharks, thereby keeping the suspension of disbelief intact. Regardless of the box office returns of his subsequent films, Jaws (along with his 1971 telefilm Duel) remains the best of Spielberg's early work.
--JOHN McCARTY, from
The Modern Horror Film, 1990.
A selection of Jaws related films.
Find Jaws on eBay
A selection Jaws related books.
A History of Horror
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