Cover of the first hardback edition
|Publication date||February 1974|
|Followed by||The Deep|
Benchley was inspired by several real-life incidents, such as the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 that included five attacks, four of those resulted in death over 12 days 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.
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, the father of the summer blockbuster film. It was followed by three sequels.
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 out in the open waters where she is attacked and killed by a Great White Shark. When her body is found by the police 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, fearing it would 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 out to kill the shark, but disappears out on the water. Brody heads out with his loyal deputy Leonard Hendricks and finds Gardner's boat anchored off-shore, empty, and 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 is dissatisfied with life and misses the affluent life she left behind when she married Brody and had children. She immediately 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 begin pouring to the town, hoping to catch a glimpse of the killer shark. Still haunted by the guilt of the previous deaths, Brody sets up patrols on the beach and on the water to watch for the fish. After a boy (dared by his friends to go out into the water, with the promise of ten dollars) narrowly escapes being attacked by the shark close to the shore, Brody finally closes the beaches and hires Quint, a professional shark hunter, to find and kill the fish. Brody, Quint, and Hooper set out on Quint's vessel, the Orca; the trio soon find that they are struggling against each other as well as the shark. 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, which are launched from the Orca at sea with a device similar to a skeet launcher. Brody and Hooper constantly 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 on each night. On the third day, Hooper reveals to Brody and Quint a shark proof cage that he had shipped from Woods Hole. Initially Quint refuses to allow the cage on the boat, suspecting that it will be useless for protection against this particular fish, but he relents when Hooper offers the captain an extra hundred dollars in cash. Once out 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 him.
Brody is dispirited and also realizes that there is no more money to pay Quint to continue the hunt, but Quint no longer cares about his fee; he is now obsessed with killing the shark. Meanwhile, Larry Vaughan arrives at the Brody house before Brody himself 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've 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 stopping and 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.
Benchley 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." Then, in 1964, he read a news story about a 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. He again did not act on his idea until a discussion with his editor in 1971. Benchley himself cites the 1964 incident as the inspiration for his novel, and the further exploits of fisherman Frank Mundus who caught several great white sharks off Long Island and Block Island. Some writers (including Richard Ellis, Richard Fernicola, and Michael Capuzzo) suggest that his inspiration also came from Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, as well as Coppleson's rogue shark theory.
Doubleday editor Tom Congdon had read some of Benchley's articles and invited him to lunch to discuss some ideas for books. 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. Congdon recalls that Benchley wrote a page in his office, "and I gave him a cheque for $1,000. On the basis of that he did me 100 pages."
Much of the work had to be rewritten as the publisher was unhappy with the initial tone. Congdon recalls that the "first five pages were just wonderful. They just went into the eventual book without any changes. The other 95 pages, though, were on the wrong track. They were humorous. And humour isn't the proper vehicle for a great thriller." Benchley worked through the winter in a room above a furnace company in Pennington, New Jersey, and in the summer in a converted turkey coop in Stonington, Connecticut.
After various revisions and rewrites, Benchley delivered his final draft in January 1974. According to Carl Gottlieb, who would share with Benchley the credit for the film's screenplay, Benchley had only received a $7,500 advance "for a year's work and a lifetime's preparation." This was far less than what Benchley was used to as a professional writer, and, furthermore, the advance had been paid sporadically during the writing process.
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". 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.
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." 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".
Publication and film rights
Benchley says that no one, including himself, 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, 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, then in the book clubs, followed by a national campaign for the paperback release. Bantam bought the paperback rights for $575,000, which Benchley points out was "then an enormous sum of money".
Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, film producers at Universal Pictures, heard about the book at identical times at different locations. Brown heard about it in the fiction department of Cosmopolitan, a lifestyle magazine then edited by his wife, Helen Gurley Brown. A small card gave a detailed description of the plot, concluding with the comment "might make a good movie". The producers each read it overnight and agreed the next morning that it was "the most exciting thing that they had ever read" and that, although they were unsure how they would accomplish it, they had to produce the film. Brown says that had they read the book twice they would have never made the film because of the difficulties in executing some of the sequences. However, he says that "we just loved the book. We thought it would make a very good movie."
According to John Baxter's biography of Spielberg, the director, Zanuck, Brown and friends bought a hundred copies of the novel each to push the book onto California's best-seller list. Most of these copies were sent to "opinion-makers and members of the chattering class". Jaws was the state's most successful book by 7pm on the first day. However, sales were good nationwide without engineering; within weeks of release "it was climbing towards an eventual 9.5 million sales in the US alone".
Zanuck and Brown purchased the film rights to the novel for $150,000 after an auction. (Another source quotes the figure as $175,000.) Andrew Yule cites the figure as "$150,000 with escalation clauses to $250,000, plus a percentage of the profits". Although this delighted the author, who had very little money at the time, it was a low sum as the agreement occurred before the book became a surprise best seller.
Jaws was published in February 1974 and became a great success, staying on the bestseller list for some 44 weeks. By the time the film adaptation debuted in June 1975 the book had sold 5.5 million copies domestically, and eventually reached 9.5 million copies. Benchley's 2006 obituary in The Times says that "Jaws stayed for 40 weeks in the bestseller charts of The New York Times, eventually selling 20 million copies."
Steven Spielberg has said that he initially found many of the characters unsympathetic and wanted the shark to win. Book critics such as Michael A. Rogers of Rolling Stone magazine shared the sentiment but the book struck a chord with readers.
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. 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."
- Baxter 1997, p. 120
- Downie, Robert M. Block Island History of Photography 1870-1960s, page 243, Volume 2, 2008
- Benchley, Peter, "A Look Inside Jaws", produced by Laurent Bouzereau, available as a bonus feature on some laserdisc and DVD releases of Jaws
- Dowling, Stephen (2004-02-01). "The book that spawned a monster". BBC News. Retrieved 2009-01-019.
- Capuzzo 2001, p. 297
- Ellis 1983, p. 209
- Fernicola 2002, p. 180
- Robert M. Downie (2008). The Block Island History of Photography, Vol. 2., pages 240-243
- Hawtree, Christopher (2006-02-14). "Peter Benchley: He was fascinated by the sea, but his bestselling novel tapped into a primeval fear of the deep". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-08-18.
- Gottlieb 1975, pp. 11–13
- Spielberg, Steven, "A Look Inside Jaws", produced by Laurent Bouzereau, available as a bonus feature on some laserdisc and DVD releases of Jaws
- Yule 1996, p. 48
- Brode 1995, p. 50
- Brown, David, "A Look Inside Jaws", produced by Laurent Bouzereau, available as a bonus feature on some laserdisc and DVD releases of Jaws
- Zanuck, Richard D., "A Look Inside Jaws", produced by Laurent Bouzereau, available as a bonus feature on some laserdisc and DVD releases of Jaws
- "Summer of the Shark". Time (New York City). 1975-06-23. Retrieved 2011-12-09.
- Knight, Sam (2006-02-13). "'Jaws' creator loved sharks, wife reveals". The Times (London). Retrieved 2008-01-26.
- Benchley, Peter (April 2000). "Great white sharks". National Geographic: 12. ISSN 00279358.
- Baxter, John (1997). Steven Spielberg: The Unauthorised Biography. London: Harper Collins. ISBN 0-00-638444-7.
- Brode, Douglas (1995). The Films of Steven Spielberg. New York: Carol Publishing. ISBN 0-8065-1951-7.
- Capuzzo, Michael (2001). Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence. New York: Broadway Books. ISBN 0-7679-0413-3.
- Ellis, Richard (1983). The Book of Sharks. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0-15-613552-3.
- Fernicola, Richard G. (2002). Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks. Guilford, Conn.: The Lyons Press. ISBN 1-58574-575-8.
- Gottlieb, Carl (1975). The Jaws Log. New York, New York: Dell.
- Yule, Andrew (1996). Steven Spielberg: Father to the Man. London: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-91363-4.