Jaws (novel)

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A black cover depicting a woman swimming and a shark coming towards her from below. Atop the cover is written "Peter Benchley", "Jaws" and "A Novel".
Cover of the first hardcover edition.
Author Peter Benchley
Cover artist Roger Kastel
Country United States
Language English
Genre Horror Novel
Publisher Doubleday (hardcover)
Bantam (paperback)
Publication date
February 1974[1]
Media type Print
Pages 278
Followed by The Deep

Jaws is a 1974 novel by Peter Benchley. It tells the story of a great white shark that preys upon a small resort town and the voyage of three men to kill it. Benchley was inspired by several real-life incidents, such as the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 that included five attacks over 12 days, four of which resulted in death, and the exploits of shark fisherman Frank Mundus. Doubleday commissioned him to write the novel. Film producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown read the novel before its publication and bought the film rights. They helped raise the novel's profile and when it was published in February 1974 it became a great success, staying on the bestseller list for some 44 weeks. Reviews were mixed, with many literary critics finding the prose and characterization lacking despite the novel's effective suspense.

The film adaptation was directed by Steven Spielberg and released in June 1975. Many of the novel's minor subplots were omitted from the movie, which instead focused more on the shark. Jaws became the highest grossing movie in history up to that point and is regarded as a watershed film in motion picture history and the father of the summer blockbuster film. It was followed by three sequels.

Plot summary[edit]

The story is set in Amity, a fictional seaside resort town on Long Island, New York. One night, a young tourist named Christie Watkins skinny dips in the open waters where she is killed by a great white shark. When her body is found washed up on the beach, it is obvious that she had been attacked by a shark. Police chief Martin Brody orders Amity's beaches closed but is overruled by mayor Larry Vaughan and the town's selectmen, who fear this will damage the summer tourism on which the town's economy is heavily dependent. With the connivance of Harry Meadows, the editor of the local newspaper, the attack is hushed up.

A few days later, the shark kills a young boy and an old man not far from the shore. A local fisherman, Ben Gardner, is sent to kill the shark but disappears on the water. Brody and deputy Leonard Hendricks find Gardner's boat anchored off-shore, empty, with large bite marks in the side. Hendricks pulls a massive shark's tooth from one of the holes. Blaming himself for these deaths, Brody again moves to close the beaches and has Meadows investigate the people Vaughan is in business with to find out why the Mayor is so determined to keep the beaches open. Meadows uncovers his links to members of the Mafia, who are pressuring Vaughan to keep them open in order to protect the value of Amity's real estate, into which they had recently invested a great deal of money. Meadows also brings in ichthyologist Matt Hooper from the Woods Hole Institute to advise them on how to deal with the shark.

Meanwhile, Brody's wife Ellen misses the affluent life she left when she married Brody and had children. She strikes up a friendship with Hooper, especially after learning that he is the younger brother of a man she dated years before. The two have a brief affair in a motel outside of town. Throughout the rest of the novel, Brody suspects they have had a liaison and is haunted by the thought.

With the beaches still open, people pour to the town, hoping to catch a glimpse of the killer shark. Brody sets up patrols to watch for the fish. After a boy narrowly escapes being attacked by the shark close to the shore, Brody closes the beaches and hires Quint, a professional shark hunter, to kill the fish. Brody, Quint, and Hooper set out on Quint's vessel, the Orca. Hooper is angered by Quint's methods, which include disemboweling a blue shark they catch and his use of an illegally fished unborn dolphin for bait. Quint taunts Hooper for refusing to shoot at beer cans with them. Brody and Hooper bicker as Brody's suspicions about Hooper's possible affair with Ellen grow stronger. At one point, Brody attempts to strangle Hooper on the deck.

Their first two days at sea are unproductive and they return to port each night. On the third day, Hooper reveals to Brody and Quint a shark proof cage. Initially Quint refuses to allow the cage on the boat, but he relents when Hooper offers him a hundred dollars. On the ocean, after several unsuccessful attempts by Quint to harpoon the shark, Hooper goes underwater in the cage to attempt to kill it with a bang stick. He is so taken with the shark that he resolves to first take photos. However, the shark attacks the cage and, after ramming the bars apart, kills Hooper.

Larry Vaughan arrives at the Brody house before Brody returns home and informs Ellen that he and his wife are leaving Amity. Before he leaves, he reveals to Ellen that he always thought they would have made a great couple. When Brody and Quint return the following day, the shark repeatedly rams into the boat and Quint harpoons it three times. The shark leaps onto the stern of the Orca and the boat starts sinking. Quint plunges another harpoon into it, but as it falls back into the water, his foot gets entangled in the rope, and when the shark drags him under, he drowns. Now floating on a seat cushion, Brody spots the shark swimming towards him and shuts his eyes, preparing for death. The shark gets to within a few feet of him before succumbing to the wounds inflicted by Quint. It sinks down out of sight, its dead body suspended in the water just beyond the light by the barrels attached to it, and with Quint's body still dangling from it. Using the cushion as a makeshift float, Brody starts to paddle back to shore.


Peter Benchley had a long fascination with sharks, which he frequently encountered while fishing with his father Nathaniel in Nantucket.[2] As a result, he had been thinking for years "about a story about a shark that attacks people and what would happen if it came in and wouldn't go away",[3] particularly after reading in 1964 a news story about fisherman Frank Mundus, who caught a great white shark weighing 4,550 pounds (2,060 kg) off the shore of Montauk Point at the eastern end of Long Island, New York.[4][5]

By 1971, Benchley worked as a freelance writer struggling to support his wife and children.[6] In the meantime, his literary agent would schedule meetings of publishing house editors.[2] One of them was Doubleday editor Thomas Congdon, who had lunch with Benchley seeking book ideas. Congdon was not impressed by Benchley's proposals for non-fiction, but was interested in his idea of a novel about a great white shark terrorizing a beach resort. Benchley wrote a page in Congdon's office, and the editor then offered a cheque of $1,000 for 100 pages.[4] Those pages would comprise the first four chapters, and a full manuscript would be worth an overall advance of $7,500. Benchley only begun writing once his agent reminded that if he did not deliver the pages, he would have to return the already cashed and spent money. The hastily written pages were met with derision by Congdon, who disapproved Benchley's attempt at making the book comedic.[2] Congdon only approved the first five pages, which went into the eventual book without any changes, and asked Benchley to follow the tone of that introduction.[4] Benchley worked through the winter in his makeshift office above a furnace company in Pennington, New Jersey, and in the summer in a converted turkey coop in the seaside property of his wife's family in Stonington, Connecticut.[6] After various revisions and rewrites, with sporadic payments of the advance in-between, Benchley delivered his final draft in January 1974.[7]

Title and cover[edit]

The title was not decided until shortly before the book went to print. Benchley says that he had spent months thinking of titles, many of which he calls "pretentious", such as The Stillness in the Water and Leviathan Rising. Benchley regarded other ideas, such as The Jaws of Death and The Jaws of Leviathan, as "melodramatic, weird or pretentious".[3] According to Benchley, the novel still did not have a title until twenty minutes before production of the book. The writer discussed the problem with editor Tom Congdon at a restaurant in New York.

We cannot agree on a word that we like, let alone a title that we like. In fact, the only word that even means anything, that even says anything, is "jaws". Call the book Jaws. He said "What does it mean?" I said, "I don't know, but it's short; it fits on a jacket, and it may work." He said, "Okay, we'll call the thing Jaws.[3]

Steven Spielberg, who would direct the film adaptation, recalls that the title intrigued him when he first saw the book. He points out that the word was "not in the national consciousness at the time. It was just a word. It was kind of an unusual word."[8] Situating the incident in the era of the explicit film Deep Throat, some retrospectives suggest that upon seeing the title Spielberg asked if the novel was about a "pornographic dentist".[9][10]

Bantam assigned New York illustrator Roger Kastel to do the paperback cover. Kastel studied the Great White exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History, taking pictures of the ones lying on easels for cleaning. The female swimmer was then created as Kastel took five minutes at the end of a photo shoot for Good Housekeeping to place a model onto a stool and get her to do an approximation of the front crawl. The art would eventually be reused by Universal Studios on the film posters.[11]


Benchley cites the 1964 incident as the inspiration for his novel, as well as the further exploits of fisherman Frank Mundus who caught several great white sharks off Long Island and Block Island.[12][13][14][15] Some writers (including Richard Ellis, Richard Fernicola, and Michael Capuzzo) suggest that his inspiration also came from Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, but Benchley himself denied it.[16]

Publication and reception[edit]

"It was a first novel. It was a first novel about a fish."

-Peter Benchley[3]

Benchley says that neither he, nor anyone else, initially realized the book's potential. Tom Congdon, however, sensed that the novel had prospects and had it sent out to The Book of the Month Club and paperback houses. The Book of the Month Club made it an "A book", qualifying it for its main selection, then the Reader's Digest also selected it. The publication date was moved back to allow a carefully orchestrated release. It was released first in hardcover in February 1974,[1] then in the book clubs, followed by a national campaign for the paperback release.[7] Bantam bought the paperback rights for $575,000,[1] which Benchley points out was "then an enormous sum of money".[3]

Upon release,Jaws became a great success. According to John Baxter's biography of Steven Spielberg, the novel's first entry on California's best-seller list was caused by Spielberg and producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, who were on pre-production for the Jaws film, buying a hundred copies of the novel each, most of whom were sent to "opinion-makers and members of the chattering class".[1] Jaws was the state's most successful book by 7 p.m. on the first day. However, sales were good nationwide without engineering.[1] The hardcover stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for some 44 weeks - peaking at number two behind Watership Down - selling a total of 125,000 copies. The paperback version was even more successful, topping book charts worldwide,[17] and by the time the film adaptation debuted in June 1975 the novel had sold 5.5 million copies domestically,[18] a number that eventually reached 9.5 million copies.[1] Worldwide sales are estimated at 20 million copies.[19]

Despite the commercial success, reviews were mixed. The most common criticism regarded the human characters, with Michael A. Rogers of Rolling Stone declaring that "None of the humans are particularly likable or interesting" and confessing the shark was his favorite character "and one suspects Benchley's also."[20] Steven Spielberg shared the sentiment, saying he initially found many of the characters unsympathetic and wanted the shark to win, leading to characterization changes in the film adaptation.[4] Benchley's writing was also reproved by literary critics, with Time reviewer John Skow described the novel as "cliché and crude literary calculation", where events "refuse to take on life and momentum" and the climax "lacks only Queequeg's coffin to resemble a bath tub version of Moby-Dick."[21] Writing for The Village Voice, Donald Newlove declared that "Jaws has rubber teeth for a plot. It's boring, pointless, listless; if there's a trite turn to make, Jaws will make that turn."[22] An article in The Listener bombarded the plot, stating the "novel only has bite, so to say, at feed time," and these scenes are "naïve attempts at whipping along a flagging story-line."[23] Andrew Bergman of The New York Times Book Review felt that despite the book serving as "fluid entertainment", "passages of hollow portentousness creep in" while poor scene "connections [and] stark manipulations impair the narrative."[24]

Nevertheless, some reviewers found Jaws entertaining on its description of the shark attacks. John Spurling of the New Statesman asserted that while the "characterisation of the humans is fairly rudimentary", the shark "is done with exhilarating and alarming skill, and every scene in which it appears is imagined at a special pitch of intensity."[25] Christopher Lehmann-Haupt praised the novel in a short review for The New York Times which highlighted the "strong plot" and "rich thematic substructure."[26] The Washington Post '​s Robert F. Jones described Jaws as "much more than a gripping fish story. It is a tightly written, tautly paced study," which "forged and touched a metaphor that still makes us tingle whenever we enter the water."[27]

In the years following publication, Benchley began to feel responsible for the negative attitudes against sharks that he felt his novel created. He became an ardent ocean conservationist.[4] In an article for the National Geographic published in 2000, Benchley writes "considering the knowledge accumulated about sharks in the last 25 years, I couldn't possibly write Jaws today ... not in good conscience anyway. Back then, it was generally accepted that great whites were anthropophagus (they ate people) by choice. Now we know that almost every attack on a human is an accident: The shark mistakes the human for its normal prey."[28]

Film adaptation[edit]

Main article: Jaws (film)

Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, film producers at Universal Pictures, heard about the book before publication at identical times. Upon reading, both agreed the novel was exciting and deserving of a feature film adaptation, even if they were unsure how to accomplish it.[29] Zanuck and Brown purchased the film rights to the novel for $50,000 after an auction. (Another source quotes the figure as $175,000.)[10] Andrew Yule cites the figure as "$150,000 with escalation clauses to $250,000, plus a percentage of the profits".[9] Although this delighted the author, who had very little money at the time,[3] it was a low sum, as the agreement occurred before the book became a surprise bestseller.[10] Steven Spielberg, who was making for the duo his first theatrical film, The Sugarland Express, was hired as the director.[30]

Benchley's contract promised him the first draft of the Jaws screenplay. Overall, he wrote three drafts before passing the job over to other writers;[10] the only one credited beside Benchley himself was the responsible for the shooting script, actor-writer Carl Gottlieb.[31] Benchley also appears in the film playing a small onscreen role as a reporter.[32] For the adaptation, Spielberg wanted to stick with the novel's basic concept, while removing Benchley's many subplots and changing the characterizations, having found the characters of the book unlikable.[10] Among the changes were the removal of the adulterous affair between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper,[33] making Quint a survivor of the World War II USS Indianapolis disaster,[34] and changing the cause of the shark's death from extensive wounds to a scuba tank explosion.[35] The director estimated the final script had a total of 27 scenes that were not in the book.[33] Amity was also relocated as an island in New England, as while location scouting the book's Long Island setting, Brown found it "too grand" and not fitting the idea of "a vacation area that was lower middle class enough so that an appearance of a shark would destroy the tourist business."[36]

Released on theaters in 1975, Jaws became the highest-grossing film ever at the time, a record it held for two years until the release of Star Wars.[37][38] Its success lead to three sequels, none of which had Benchley's involvement despite drawing on his characters.[39]



  1. ^ a b c d e f Baxter 1997, p. 120
  2. ^ a b c Benchley 2006, p. 14-17
  3. ^ a b c d e f Benchley, Peter, "A Look Inside Jaws", produced by Laurent Bouzereau, available as a bonus feature on some laserdisc and DVD releases of Jaws
  4. ^ a b c d e Dowling, Stephen (February 1, 2004). "The book that spawned a monster". BBC News. Retrieved January 19, 2009. 
  5. ^ Downie, Robert M. Block Island History of Photography 1870-1960s, page 243, Volume 2, 2008
  6. ^ a b Hawtree, Christopher (February 14, 2006). "Peter Benchley: He was fascinated by the sea, but his bestselling novel tapped into a primeval fear of the deep". The Guardian. Retrieved August 18, 2008. 
  7. ^ a b Gottlieb 1975, pp. 11–13
  8. ^ Spielberg, Steven, "A Look Inside Jaws", produced by Laurent Bouzereau, available as a bonus feature on some LaserDisc and DVD releases of Jaws
  9. ^ a b Yule 1996, p. 48
  10. ^ a b c d e Brode 1995, p. 50
  11. ^ Freer, Ian. "The Unsung Heroes of Jaws". Empire. Retrieved December 1, 2014. 
  12. ^ Capuzzo 2001, p. 297
  13. ^ Ellis 1983, p. 209
  14. ^ Fernicola 2002, p. 180
  15. ^ Robert M. Downie (2008). The Block Island History of Photography, Vol. 2. , pages 240-243
  16. ^ "Corrections". The New York Times. September 8, 2001. Retrieved August 18, 2008. 
  17. ^ Benchley 2006, p. 19.
  18. ^ "Summer of the Shark". Time (New York City). June 23, 1975. Retrieved December 9, 2011. 
  19. ^ Knight, Sam (February 13, 2006). "'Jaws' creator loved sharks, wife reveals". The Times (London). Retrieved January 26, 2008. 
  20. ^ Rogers, Michael. "Jaws review". Rolling Stone. April 11, 1974. p75.
  21. ^ Skow, John. "Overbite". Time. Vol. 103. February 4, 1974. p76.
  22. ^ Newlove, Donald. The Village Voice. February 7, 1974. pp23-4.
  23. ^ The Listener. Vol. 91. May 9, 1974. p606.
  24. ^ Bergman, Andrew. "Jaws'. The New York Times Book Review. February 3, 1974. p14.
  25. ^ Spurling, John. New Statesman. Vol. 87. May 17, 1974. p703.
  26. ^ Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "A Fish Story...or Two" The New York Times - January 17, 1974.
  27. ^ Jones, Robert F. "Book World", The Washington Post. Sunday, January 27, 1974. p3.
  28. ^ Benchley, Peter (April 2000). "Great white sharks". National Geographic: 12. ISSN 00279358. 
  29. ^ Bouzereau, Laurent (1995). A Look Inside Jaws ["From Novel to Script"]. Jaws: 30th Anniversary Edition DVD (2005): Universal Home Video. 
  30. ^ McBride 1999, p. 232
  31. ^ Pangolin Pictures (June 16, 2010). Jaws: The Inside Story (Television documentary). The Biography Channel. 
  32. ^ Bouzereau, Laurent (1995). A Look Inside Jaws ["Casting "]. Jaws: 30th Anniversary Edition DVD (2005): Universal Home Video. 
  33. ^ a b Friedman & Notbohm 2000, pp. 11–12
  34. ^ Vespe, Eric (Quint) (June 6, 2011). "Steven Spielberg and Quint have an epic chat all about JAWS as it approaches its 36th Anniversary!". Ain't It Cool News. Retrieved January 2, 2012. 
  35. ^ Bouzereau, Laurent (1995). A Look Inside Jaws ["Climax"]. Jaws: 30th Anniversary Edition DVD (2005): Universal Home Video. 
  36. ^ Priggé, Steven (2004). Movie Moguls Speak: Interviews with Top Film Producers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. p. 7. ISBN 0-7864-1929-6. 
  37. ^ Fenner, Pat. C. (January 16, 1978). "Independent Action". Evening Independent. p. 11–A. 
  38. ^ New York (AP) (May 26, 1978). "Scariness of Jaws 2 unknown quantity". The StarPhoenix. p. 21. 
  39. ^ Kidd, James (September 4, 2014). "Jaws at 40 - is Peter Benchley's book a forgotten masterpiece?". The Independent. Retrieved January 28, 2015.