JAWS, The Movie? Masterpiece! JAWS, The Book? Well...

(NOTE - This was written for this week's Collins' Crypt prior to the site going dark due to unsettling news about the site's (new!) owner, Cinestate. I present it here so that it doesn't go to waste, and encourage you fine folks to make a donation to RAINN if you can.)

In this era of certain sites championing every birthday for every movie ("Happy 17th birthday to DARKNESS FALLS!" is a phrase no one should utter, even ironically), I occasionally worry about legit milestone birthdays being lost in the noise. At a certain point, our eyes are going to be trained to just glaze over tweets like "On this day in 19whatever, (MOVIE) was released!", because half the time it's a film no one even needs to remember at all, let alone celebrate. For me, I try to stick to multiples of five for movies that - thanks to the relatively long time since their release - have stood the test of time and continue to hold their power. In other words, we do not need anyone writing up a piece for this week's 25th anniversary of CONGO, thank you.

And then there are movies like JAWS, which are worthy of any and all celebration people deem fit to bestow upon it. This year marks the 45th anniversary of its release, and Universal wasn't about to let Twitter mark the occasion with a few GIFs and people misquoting its most famous line. In addition to releasing the film on 4K UHD Blu-ray*, they put together a massive package that would make any fan of the film drool: it's got the 4K set, the board game from Ravensburger, another game from Funko, and a complete wardrobe: t-shirt, swim trunks, hat, and socks. In addition to all of that, there's an "Amity Island Summer of 75" boxed collection that has even more goodies, including a beach towel and Quint's wooden keyring.

In fact, it's pretty much everything you could ever want about JAWS (the movie, not the franchise) except for the novel that started it all. The film rights to Peter Benchley's debut were purchased by producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown before it was even published, so it was still riding high on the bestseller list when the film was released, which is rare. In turn, the novel's fans made up a sizable chunk of the film's record-breaking audience, which makes it a good thing we didn't have social media in 1975 because anyone who loved every word of the book was probably disappointed at the considerable changes Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb (who took over after Benchley himself wrote a few drafts) made for their adaptation.

I myself read the book when I was 12 or 13, but apart from Hooper dying at the end (and sleeping with Brody's wife), I couldn't really remember much about it or how it differed from the film. So when all this stuff arrived and gave me an excuse to watch the movie again, I realized "Hey, I have a lot of extra free time these days due to *gestures at everything*, maybe I should read the book again while I'm at it." And so I dug it out of the ever-growing pile of books I own because movies I love are based on them (but will probably never get around to reading) and flipped it open, laughing at it was pretty different starting with the very first page. Instead of college kids who just met at a beach party, we meet an established couple who leave the house they're staying in and have sex on the beach before the woman goes off skinny dipping while the man passes out.

So sure, the end result is the same (a girl gets killed and her date doesn't notice), but the circumstances have all changed, something that's common throughout its 309 pages. The basic plot remains the same: a week after that (presumed isolated incident) a little boy is killed, which mounts pressure to close the beaches, something the mayor is opposed to, but after another attack the chief hires a man named Quint to take him and an ichthyologist named Matt Hooper to head out on Quint's boat to track and kill the shark. Spielberg and co. knew that this basic outline was perfect - it's just that Benchley's version of these events and people needed some overhaul. His book is a decent enough timekiller, no doubt, but if filmed word for word it wouldn't have been a particularly great movie, and certainly not one of the most beloved of all time (or, for what it's worth, the inventor of the summer blockbuster).

The biggest problem is that Benchley's characters are largely unlikable, including Brody himself. He's basically a beta male with a temper as opposed to a guy who is faced with his first real challenge as the chief in a sleepy little beach town; even when he stands up to Vaughan and the other town elders he comes off as a man who doesn't like being bossed around and protecting his pride as opposed to one that's doing it because it's the right thing to do. And his personal investment isn't even shark related - instead of one of his kids nearly being a shark victim himself, a mobster kills the family cat in front of one of them, as a warning for him not to close the beaches.

Wait, what? A mobster? Yes. In Benchley's novel, Vaughan is partly against the drastic measure because he owes a lot of money to the local mob, who have interests on some properties in town, so the whole "don't close the beaches" element takes on a different meaning here. For what it's worth, Benchley offers a few slice of life scenes about the ramifications of a closed beach season on Amity (people are already losing their jobs due to slower business, even Vaughan isn't exactly well off and eventually has to leave town), something the movie only offers lip service to, but the mob nonsense is extraneous at best - the movie's simple "We need summer dollars" works perfectly, whereas Benchley practically makes it sound like even a few more deaths would be preferable.

Matt Hooper comes off even worse. Not only do him and the chief not get along (upon their first meeting, Brody instantly decides he doesn't like him and also that he could probably kick his ass if he had to), but he also quickly hops in bed with Brody's wife, and even almost taunts the chief with it when they're out on the Orca. Quint is more or less the same (albeit without the songs and Indianapolis speech that made him as memorable as he was), though he also only appears in one quick scene in the first 215 of the book's 309 pages before reentering the story, as opposed to the halfway point as he does in the film (and no, that one scene isn't the same as his film introduction - it's closer to his wordless turn watching the crowd after they catch the tiger shark). I truly believe Harry Meadows (the newsman played by Gottlieb himself) has more of a role in the novel than Quint.

But honestly? The thing that really makes the movie so much better than the book is the latter's total lack of warmth or humor. Think about your favorite moments in JAWS, and things like the younger son mimicking his father, Hooper's "So... how was your day?", and of course the scar comparison scene will come to mind... and those were all the total invention of the film. Brody's kids are total non-entities in the novel (even the aforementioned cat killing part is just told to Brody later), the three guys on the boat barely speak civilly at all, let alone bond, and I honestly think the closest Benchley gets to humor is the chief making fun of his wife's cooking (I can write a separate article entirely on how badly Mrs. Brody comes off here). The mob stuff and weird lack of suspense (the affair sequence goes on so long that the shark isn't even mentioned for about 30 pages straight, and the guys on the Orca return home every night - even after Hooper's death!) are one thing, but Benchley's seeming commitment to having us root for the shark just kept the book at arm's length for me, regardless of how it paled in comparison to the film.

Long story short, there's a reason there's 45th anniversary branded swim trunks for the film, but little celebration for the book it was based on. It isn't the first film to improve on its source (Puzo's THE GODFATHER comes to mind), but it's strange that there literally isn't one part of the book that was dropped that I thought "I wish this was in the movie" (not counting ironic desires; it'd be kind of funny to see Roy Scheider and his "man's man" tan get cuckolded by the goofy Richard Dreyfuss), which has to be a first for an adaptation. In 30 years of knowing what JAWS is and that it was based on a book, I can truly say I have never once talked to someone who thinks the movie did the novel a disservice, which is both testament to the latter's shortcomings (again, it was a bestseller - people obviously liked it, then) and the former's status as an inarguable masterpiece. And so without irony I say, Happy anniversary, JAWS.

*No new extras, so unless you're a 4K champion - or lenticular cover junkie - there's no reason to upgrade from the definitive 2012 release that it otherwise matches exactly. It looks spectacular though! You can see the fibers on Larry Vaughan's anchor suit!


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