Saturday, July 6, 2024

Jaws the Book vs. Jaws the Movie: Which is Better?


Scott D. Parker

I finally did something I’ve been wanting to do for many summers: read Peter Benchley’s Jaws. 

The original hardcover came out in February 1974 and the movie the following summer. I’ll admit that it took me quite a long time to see the movie. I can’t remember the first time I saw it, but it might’ve been on one of the network broadcasts. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I finally saw the whole thing. 

But what about the book? I remember my mom reading the paperback in the late 70s. This is one with the movie poster as its cover so you can imagine how much my pre-teen self enjoyed that cover. Wink. My library had both the ebook and the audiobook available last month so I decided this was the summer.

Oh, and book spoilers from here on out.

The Similar Things 

The story is the same one you know from the movie: a great white shark terrorizes the little summer town of Amity, New York. The deaths that follow threaten the town’s annual livelihood so something has to be done about the shark. 

Police Chief Martin Brody is from out of town, a former cop from New York, and his initial instinct is to close the beaches. He’s married and has three kids (the movie only has two). Harry Meadows is the editor of the newspaper and he and Brody are friends. Meadows calls in shark expert, Matt Hooper, to investigate.

Meanwhile, Mayor Larry Vaughn does not want the beaches closed because it’ll mean tourists and their money won’t come. And Quint is a fisherman who takes the job of hunting and killing the great white.

The overall plot of the book matches the movie but the film jettisons certain subplots.

The Differences

Ellen Brody grew up as one of the richer “summer” people. These are the folks who live elsewhere and come to live in Amity for the summer. Now she finds herself living full time in Amity and she’s having doubts about her life. She’s a mom of three kids. She’s married to a man that she’s not sure if she truly loves anymore because, partially because he “took her away” from that other lifestyle. 

Matt Hooper is decidedly not how Richard Dreyfuss is in the film. Where Dreyfuss is short and nerdy, in the book, Hooper is tall, handsome, and way younger. He’s also the younger brother of a guy Ellen dated. And he’s from that other life. All of that plays out against Ellen’s midlife crisis and, well, she cheats on Martin with Matt.

I kept thinking she’d turn away or that Matt would stop himself but no, they have their fling. But as the story plays out, Ellen does lots of soul searching and ultimately comes to realize that she likes the choices she made and is happy with her life. And she’s ready to turn the page and renew her relationship with her husband…if he survives the shark hunt.

Mayor Vaughn in both the movie and book wants to keep the beaches open, but in the book, there’s more than just civic pride. Turns out he’s in deep water with the mob and he needs the beaches open so that his day job as a realtor can be successful and he won’t get into more trouble.

Quint is still just as dedicated to killing the shark as Robert Shaw is in the movie, but it’s just for the money. Nonexistent is Movie Quint’s time aboard the USS Indianapolis and the Arab-like hatred of sharks. 

The ending is different as well. Hooper dies in the shark cage and Quint, rather than being eaten, is dragged underwater by a rope that snagged his leg and drowns. And the finale? Well, the shark is swimming to Brody as he hangs on the sinking boat and then just dies. And Brody swims to shore.

The Verdict

I won’t bury the lede: stick with the movie. And the vastly better movie poster.

The class-related sub-plot with Ellen is interesting as is the midlife questioning of her life’s choices. Having the mayor be in debt to the was a nice wrinkle, one that gave the character more motivation than the movie version. 

Quint is way better in the movie than the book as is the whole shark hunt final act. The camaraderie the three characters experience is wonderful and I like how each man comes to see the other two a little bit differently, especially when Quint and Hooper compare scars.

Robert Shaw’s monologue about the Indianapolis is spellbinding and remains one of the best parts of the movie.

And the ending, when Brody shoots the oxygen tank in the shark’s mouth the beast explodes is exactly the kind of ending you want in a summer blockbuster. And Hooper lives and they both swim to shore together.

I’m glad I read Jaws by Peter Benchley and I encourage others to give it a chance if you are curious. But I think I’ll be sticking with the 1975 film from here on out. The wife and I watched it again last week and it holds up remarkably well.

Sidenote: The wife read that Roy Scheider used his movie The French Connection to help Steven Spielberg to cast him as Brody. So I’ll give you one guess as to the next movie we watched.  

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