Vote and Rate Jamie Clubb's articles and reviews

Friday 29 August 2014

The Lines Before the Score: A Reflection on "Jaws" the novel

Jaws (novel)
Jaws (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently picked up my copy of “Jaws” and I have to admit that the opening passage is very hard to beat. Consider these very famous lines: 

“The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail. The mouth was open just enough to permit a rush of water over the gills. There was little other motion: an occasional correction of the apparently aimless course by the slight raising or lowering of a pectoral fin -- as a bird changes direction by dipping one wing and lifting the other. The eyes were sightless in the black, and the other senses transmitted nothing extraordinary to the small, primitive brain. The fish might have been asleep, save for the movement dictated by countless millions of years of instinctive continuity: lacking the flotation bladder common to other fish and the fluttering flaps to push oxygen-bearing water through its gills, it survived only by moving.”

Opening passages to novels are vital. It intrigues me how a good author can draw his reader in at the get-go. Anthony Trollope, in his “Autobiography”, puts it very simply: “Of all the needs a book has the chief need is that is be readable”. Maybe it comes from being born into a family that performed without the privilege of being given grants or being patronized by wealthy indulgent benefactors, but I believe strongly that all artists owe something to their audience. A great novel, no matter what a critic will tell you, should have some very attractive first few lines. Please forgive my obvious simile, but Benchley’s words in this passage are siren-like.  You are immediately drawn into the depths of the sea and propelled along with the instinctive movements of the story’s lead antagonist into the primal terror that awaits you on the next few pages. 

I first read the novel, “Jaws”, now superseded in fame by the Steve Spielberg masterpiece of film, in an abridged form in my secondary school library. Later I was in conversation with my grandfather, who had read the book when it first came out in 1974, and he said what I was feeling at the time, it’s a book that is very hard to put down. A lot of different factors are responsible for the enduring success of “Jaws”. The film’s expert suspenseful direction, cleverly adapted screenplay, excellent cast, beautiful cinematography and who could forget the primeval chords of John Williams’ memorable score. The movie, as we know, has been heralded as the first summer blockbuster and has gone onto inspire a huge range of films, from its own sequels to many clones involving sharks and other predators of the deep to less obvious masterpieces in their own right, such as 1979’s “Alien”. Part of the book’s own success might be down to the book’s editor, Tom Congdon, suggesting “Jaws” for a title. 

The copy I ended up purchasing cost me £3 a few years ago from a second-hand book shop in Cornwall. It’s a worn hardback – not abridged this time - and was published for a book club on the year of the novel’s initial release. Although this doesn’t quite make it a first edition there is something nice about possessing an edition that was published ahead of the huge success that would follow. This edition was out before Bantam had even bought the rights to publish it as a paperback let alone before it was picked up by film producers. Knowing this helps me appreciate the essence of what became a bestseller before it became the prototypical summer blockbuster. The next time someone tells you that the plot of “Jaws” is not very good and really it was just Spielberg’s direction or John Williams’ score that made it a success, draw their attention to the fact that the novel was immediately accepted by Book of the Month Club, when it was first submitted, and was subsequently picked up Reader’s Digest before staying on the bestseller list for 44 weeks. 

Sadly “Jaws” has suffered from the critics and several relegate it as purely populist success. This is in somewhat contrast to the movie, which although it was an enormous commercial success and spawned some very silly sequels and imitations, has received a lot of favourable criticism. There have been several scholarly dissections of the movie and the Library of Congress selected it in the United States National Film Registry for as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
I disagree with the critical consensus of the book. That opening passage speaks volumes about the author’s literary skill. The art he has chosen may be sensationalist, but then so was Sheridan Le Fanu’s and Edgar Allan Poe’s. They still knew how to play their populist pieces with style. Yet again, I find myself looking at the artificial lines of artistic merit and finding then being little more than snobbery. I will go more into detail on this in another essay. For now, I ask that you look at that opening passage again and consider the brilliant way it immediately engages the lay reader with looming terror yet fascinatingly interweaves Peter Benchley’s knowledge of marine biology. The idea that a book’s main protagonist is this perfect killing machine that has evolved yet little changed over millions of years gives the sensationalist genre a type of gravitas that easily suspends disbelief. This seriousness and scientific awareness is present throughout Benchley’s story. He was famously against the dramatic and explosive ending that Spielberg insisted on because this did not resemble the behaviour of great white sharks. 

However, despite being inspired by real life events such as the capture of a 2,060kg great white shark off the shore of Long Island in 1964 and the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks, “Jaws” is an exercise in mythological influence. Benchley was working off the theories of the time on sharks. His novel and the movie would prompt an unprecedented amount of interest in sharks, and a greater understanding of these fascinating creatures. Benchley has said that he couldn’t write “Jaws” now knowing that the vast majority of shark attacks were accidents whereby the animal had mistaken a human for its prey. Indeed attacks on humans are considered to be freak occurrences by most marine biologists. Nevertheless, as has always been the case, sensational fiction indirectly ends up creating more awareness about an issue than just about any other media. 

At least Benchley’s work does not enforce a type of pseudoscience or pseudohistory on you, as is the case with Dan Brown and at least “Jaws” isn’t some partisan documentary. Instead what you get is a 1970s take on the Leviathan (a name Benchley considered a few of his title ideas) and Cetus ideas from ancient mythology. As more exploration has been done and more incredible examples of fossilized remains have revealed the existence of the giants of prehistoric times, we see that “Jaws” reflects that fearful wonderment. Although the shark of the book is diminutive compared to its Cenozoic ancestor, it is part of the Megalodon legacy. On that note, I encourage you to read the less scientific but fun novel, “Meg” by Steve Alten, which also has an excellent opening chapter.
Although Benchley wrote the first three drafts of the script that became the movie, “Jaws”, Howard Sackler did uncredited work and comedy writer, Carl Gottlieb, was brought on to lighten the tone. Benchley’s book has a decidedly darker tone than Spielberg’s movie and it works well as a novel. All of the novels three main protagonists were unlikeable to Spielberg and I guess might have been ahead of the audiences of the time, even 1970s audiences who were into gritty thrillers and dramas at the time. I find them to be simply more complex and I think an audience that has accepted the moral ambiguity of “Game of Thrones” and “Dexter” would possibly buy into these less clear-cut characters if anyone dared to make “Jaws” the mini-series.

I consider the movie “Jaws” to be one of the best films made and certainly one of the best horrors movies in history. However, the book also deserves to be re-appraised. Like “The Godfather”, a piece of classic fiction that is overshadowed by its brilliant movie adaptation and often snubbed by literary academics, “Jaws” is a true “page turner”. Both books have subplots that were completely dismissed in their movie versions, but work well in a literary sense. Despite being in a simplistic thriller mould, “Jaws” is almost a tragedy with the three main protagonists heading towards a type of final reckoning with a force of nature.   

I recommend you go back before the movie and before the rousing score, and consider the original novel. It is great in full, abridged or to listen to as an audio book, especially at night. 

Don't forget to check out Jamie Clubb's main blog