Reading the Screen: Jaws

You probably heard that a 15-foot great white shark was spotted recently off Cape Cod’s Nauset Beach (if not, you can read about it in the Cape Cod Times). Which, I think you’ll agree, is sufficient justification to talk about Jaws (1975), Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel.

jaws_novel_coverJaws, the novel, was a huge hit, and so was the movie. (It was the first movie to gross more than $100 million domestically, and that was when a movie ticket cost about two bucks. ) But there are substantial differences between the two.

Here’s just some of what got left behind when the book became a movie: a subplot involving organized crime; an, um, romantic dalliance between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper, the oceanographer; and Hooper’s death.

Key plot elements, wouldn’t you say? I think you’d be wrong. They might be key to the book, but not to the movie. Benchley’s subplot concerning Mayor Larry Vaughan’s Mafia connections would have weighed the movie down. Ellen and Matt’s brief affair would have been an unnecessary distraction. And Hooper’s death? People would have stormed out of the theater.

Jaws is an excellent novel, a first-class thriller, but it’s a novel. It wouldn’t have made a good movie: too much going on. Spielberg and his screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb, kept what was important — a beach community, a shark, and three very different men — and threw out the rest. To borrow a nifty notion from William Goldman, they kept the story’s spine. (They also made the characters a heck of a lot more sympathetic and likable, too, which is why killing Hooper would have been disastrous for the movie.)

I’m not generally a fan of movies that make significant changes to their source material, but that’s because the changes are usually not necessary. Here, they were. And if you don’t believe, me check out the novel — you’ll see what I mean.

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