Despite being the most obvious answer to the question “name a film that’s better than the book”, Peter Benchley’s debut novel ‘Jaws’ is an entertaining read. Published way back in 1974, it has stood the test of time pretty well and still grips today, with some themes that haven’t dated too badly.
Sian reviewed it here 2 years ago, but she wasn’t much of a fan, so I thought I’d write a review to balance things out.
Amazingly (or perhaps not, given how fickle publishers can be), it’s the only one of Benchley’s 8 novels that is still in print, in the UK at least. It was, of course, a huge success on its original release, the hardcover staying on the bestseller lists for almost a year. It’s not hard to see why. The concept both grabs the attention and makes it a great beach read. The classic cover can’t have hurt either. The first edition hardback has a more stylistic version of the shark’s head and swimmer design that became so famous. It was the Bantam paperback that carried the lower brow but more effective picture that went on to be the movie poster. And that title! Benchley claims it was arrived at out of desperation as the date of publication approached. He reminisces that he told his editor “it’s short; it fits on a jacket, and it may work”.
The setup and characters will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film. Giant shark preys on swimmers off the beaches of Amity Island, local police chief Brody tries to protect his citizens, eventually teaming up with Hooper, a young marine scientist, and Quint, a grizzled boat captain.
The plot is slightly different from the movie’s, with a much slower second act that focuses on Chief Brody’s marriage. It’s less effective than the pacier and more eventful approach the film took, but it does do a good job of building the relationship between Brody and Hooper. The final act is more similar to the film, although it lack the brilliant drunken scar comparing competition and the classic ‘sinking of the Indianapolis’ speech. What it does have in spades is the musing on modern masculinity, with Brody as the Everyman, Hooper as the trendy intellectual and Quint as the embodiment of macho charisma. The three metaphorically compare dick size whilst hunting the fish, making it feel at time a bit like low rent Hemingway.
Unfortunately, this being a popular novel from the 1970s, it’s not without its representation issues. It’s deeply racist at times, and the biggest female character, Brody’s wife, is really only there to give Brody and Hooper a trophy to fight over.
But for all that it’s great fun. The shark is a suitably menacing enemy, and Benchley manages to keep things tense despite that fact that all anyone has to do to keep out of trouble is stay on dry land. It has everything a holiday read should have and is worth a picking up even though you’ve seen the movie.