How many times have you heard someone say “The movie was all right, but the book was better”? It seems like an unwritten rule that the book is always better than the movie. But there is one instance where the consensus is exactly the opposite, and the movie is held in universally higher regard than the book. I am talking about Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 film Jaws, based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, about a man-eating great white shark terrorizing the summer town of Amity, New York. On vacation in Maui recently, I realized that I had never read the book nor seen the movie in its entirety, and set about to rectify the situation. After reading the book poolside and watching the movie, I concluded that the movie is better. Like, way better. A lot of people these days probably don’t realize that the movie is based on a book, and there are good reasons for that.
Let’s start with the characters. In both versions, there are three main characters. There’s police chief Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider in the film), ichthyologist Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss), and the crusty sea captain known only as Quint (played by Robert Shaw). The number one reason the movie is better than the book is that in the book, these characters are jerks. Brody is the most likable of the three, but he still turns into a whiny little prat sometimes, fighting with his wife and being a complete ass at a dinner party she throws, and later trying to strangle Hooper.
Admittedly, he has a good reason for wanting to strangle Hooper, since he suspects Hooper has been sleeping with his wife (Which he has. More on this later). Hooper, in turn, is a complete bastard. He’s a selfish prick. In the book, he gets eaten by the shark, and I was glad to be rid of him. In the movie, he survives and swims back to shore with Brody after the shark has been vanquished, and it’s a great moment. He can be a bit annoying in the movie, but he’s far more likable onscreen than on the page.
Quint, meanwhile, is a foul-mouthed old sailor who uses illegal bait (dead baby dolphin fetuses he claims to have cut out of the mommy dolphin) and kills various sea creatures without mercy or hesitation, pretty much just for the fun of it. These three sound like swell guys, don’t they? In the movie they actually bond as they hunt the shark together, but in the book they spend the entire time on Quint’s boat together hating each other’s guts. You know the iconic scene in the movie where Hooper and Quint compare scars, Quint shares his tortured history, and the three of them sing drunkenly together? Yeah, that doesn’t happen in the book. They hate each other and are openly hostile the whole time.
When reading the book, the basic rule that I discovered was that the stuff about the shark was great, and everything else kind of sucked. The book delves into the residents of Amity in more depth than the film, but none of it is very interesting. Amity is a small town of about a thousand year-round residents, with the population increasing to around ten thousand during the summer. The year-round residents depend on the summer crowds to sustain them through the rest of the year, so when the pesky shark starts dining on tourists and Sheriff Brody is forced to close the beaches, it could spell doom for the town. The book does a good job setting this up, but adds two hugely unnecessary subplots, one simply boring and the other horrendously offensive on just about every level.
We’ll start with the boring one. In the movie, the mayor of Amity, Larry Vaughan, is a slimy fellow who wears ugly suits, but his role in the movie is greatly diminished from his role in the book. In the book, he talks about getting pressure from his mysterious “partners” to keep the beaches open, and there is a lot of speculation from the other characters about who his “partners” are. Wouldn’t you know it, his partners turn out to be members of the Mafia. He owes them a lot of money and is basically trying to cover his own ass the entire time. He doesn’t care about the wellbeing of the townspeople, he wants to keep the beaches open so he won’t be ruined financially. The problem is: who cares? Vaughan’s subplot adds nothing to the story, it’s just filler. It doesn’t even get any resolution, Vaughan just disappears. Does he run away? Commit suicide? I dunno. None of this is in the movie, because it doesn’t need to be.
This brings us, unfortunately, to the really bad subplot. The stuff about the mayor’s mob ties may be boring but at least it’s not offensive. All of that is about to change. The book’s other major subplot involves Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen. Ellen came from a wealthy family, the kind of family who lives in Amity during the summer. She’s constantly thinking about her past, and even though she loves her husband, she can’t help but feel occasionally that she married below her station. All of this is iffy, but here’s where it goes off the rails. When Matt Hooper shows up to help out with the shark situation, she immediately becomes infatuated with him. She invites him out to lunch at a nice restaurant, far enough away from where she lives that she hopes no one will recognize her. You see where this is going, right?
But wait, it gets worse. Once Hooper shows up, the two of them proceed to have one of the most appallingly offensive conversations I have ever read in any book in my entire life, and I read a lot of books. She tells him about how she misses her family, and misses some of the circles she used to be a part of when she was younger. A bit odd to be sharing something so personal with someone you barely know, but all right. Then she starts telling him about what she fantasizes about. Uh-oh. She tells him she fantasizes about being raped. Aaaaand you’ve lost me. But it goes on. They proceed to have a detailed conversation about, if the two of them were to hook up, how they would do it. Which they then enact. And the entire sordid enterprise ends in a graphic sex scene between the two of them.
And if all of this sounds bad to read about, let me assure you that actually reading it in the book is much, much worse. It goes on and on and on. The entire scene takes up around 30 pages (a conservative estimate) and feels like it will never end. Not to mention that a woman telling a man she fantasizes about being raped is appalling and tone-deaf and just…unbelievable. I can’t believe Peter Benchley wrote this scene. I can’t believe his editors and publishers didn’t make him get rid of it. I can’t believe it made it into the book. Thank God the movie producers had the good sense to ditch all of that crap. Nothing of either of these two subplots is at all present in the movie, and the fact that the movie succeeds as well as it does is evidence that the subplots didn’t need to be there in the first place.
Remember when I mentioned that Brody tries to strangle Hooper? That’s because he suspects Hooper of sleeping with Ellen. But then Hooper gets eaten by the shark, and Brody paddles back to shore at the end of the novel without ever finding out the truth. Maybe I’m being too hard on Benchley about the whole Ellen/Hooper thing. Jaws was his first novel, after all, and maybe he ironed out some of these issues with his later works. But I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t read any of his other books, and after Jaws, I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to start. The bad subplots don’t completely ruin the book, but they come close. The section in the last third of the book with Brody, Quint and Hooper on Quint’s boat hunting the shark is tense and by far the novel’s strongest section, but it doesn’t resonate like the movie’s climax does.
And speaking of the ending of the movie, it’s great. Who can forget the iconic moment when Brody, desperate, alone, in the smashed remains of Quint’s boat, fires his rifle at the shark, shouting “Die, you son of a bitch!” before finally hitting the tank of compressed air lodged in Jaws’ jaws (eh?) and blasting the fearsome beast into ever so many chunks of shark meat? It’s freaking awesome, and it is not in the book. Neither is the scene, brutal even by today’s standards, where Quint is slowly consumed by the shark, screaming bloody murder while blood sprays from his mouth. In the book, Quint’s leg gets caught in the ropes attached to one of the harpoons that has been lodged in the shark, and gets pulled overboard. The shark succumbs to multiple harpoons and dies from its wounds, dragging Quint into the briny depths along with it. The shark expires, and Quint drowns. It’s anticlimactic, to say the least.
It’s no wonder that the movie is better known and better liked than the book. It’s a near-perfect example of how to make a great movie out of less-than-stellar source material. It takes everything that’s good from the book and makes it better, while getting rid of the bad stuff. It tells the same story in a much more efficient and streamlined way. Jaws is a tale of man vs. nature and while the book sometimes loses sight of that the film never does, which is why it remains the superior version of the story.