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Peter Benchley ‘Jaws’ Review


Benchley_Jaws_full_cover

Written by: James Keen

“…Once upon a time there was a shark that ate people…” -‘Jaws’.

Next year, specifically February of 2014 will be the forty year anniversary of Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel ‘Jaws’, a book with a narrative that concerns itself with the efforts of a small island community to catch and kill a great white shark that has been gobbling up some of its residents. It’s now become an overly familiar yarn and a formula that has been repeated in other iterations of the horror genre. This is perhaps more of a thriller in terms of its execution with infrequent descriptions of the shark’s terrible antics keeping the gore to a tantalizing minimum with the effect of upping the suspense.

Our principle ‘hero’, Martin Brody is a middle-aged police chief whose jurisdiction is the small Island of Amity, a municipality which depends on the Summer tourist trade to keep the residents off welfare stamps during the consecutive Winter. Brody is married, has three kids and is proud of the fact that there hasn’t been a fatality in Amity since 1957. His young wife, Ellen, though appears dissatisfied with her lot in life, yearning for something exciting or unexpected to occur. Brody is an interestingly flawed character but shares much in common with the other secondary characters here in that they are difficult for the reader to feel any sympathy for. We have the corpulent opportunistic Harry Meadows who runs the local rag, ‘The Amity Leader’, the sleazy ichthyologist Matt Hooper and the wholly self-obsessed Mayor of Amity with mafia-connected debt problems, Larry Vaughn. And of course there’s the transparently Melville-inspired ‘Quint’.

Benchley’s story begins well enough but quickly devolves into irritatingly familiar soap opera dynamics and melodramatic narrative set-pieces; the sexually frustrated housewife, the ‘heated’ cliched exchanges between the beleaguered police chief and Town Selectmen and there are  set-pieces in the book which are so stilted and wooden that they leave the reader wondering why an editor wasn’t a little more aggressive in limiting the overall page count. For example, there’s a dinner get together that becomes interminable in length whose only function it seems is to list the amount of alcohol Brody can consume in only a few hours and a recounting of the recipe for ‘Butterfly’ lamb. Later on in the text there’s a cringe-inducing episode describing Ellen’s marital transgression that involves her rape ‘fantasies’.

‘Jaws’ is a surprisingly light read overall, in fact it’s the lack of any kind of discernable or meaningful subtext that is arguably its downfall. While Benchley’s descriptive abilities are perfectly serviceable when it comes to describing the shark and its environs, it’s when he shifts focus to his cast of characters that the narrative becomes embarrassingly simplistic. Brody at one asinine point in  the text is described as being “…determined to deprive the fish of any more people…” Awkward chunks of the text further reveal the author’s limitations as a storyteller, “the past always seems better when you look back on it than it did at the time…”, “…she hated her life and hated herself for hating it…” and so on.

There’s a strong element of fear of many differing types running through the novel; Brody’s fear of his own fading virility, Ellen’s fear that she may have missed out on chances in her life to be happy, but curiously there’s very  little fearful tension whenever the shark appears and this again is due in part to a lack of empathy with Benchey’s stiffly drawn characters. It should be pointed out that there’s a disturbing undercurrent of misogyny here along with racist and homophobic undertones that perhaps are in keeping with the spirit of the times in the early Seventies but it is worryingly significant throughout the novel.

It’s difficult to re-read this novel without having the movie version repeatedly pop into your imagination and that’s particularly damaging here as it highlights all the inherent problems in Benchley’s book and provides a stark and unfavorable contrast. It’s unfortunate the core text is so repulsively delineated as you simply don’t care about any of Benchley’s characters to the extent that at one point this reviewer wished the monstrously ‘intelligent’ shark would somehow manage to devour most of the principals here.

Order Jaws here.

Rating: 2.5/5

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About The Overseer (1669 Articles)
Author of Say No to Drugs, writer for Blumhouse, Dread Central, Horror Novel Reviews and Addicted to Horror Movies.

7 Comments on Peter Benchley ‘Jaws’ Review

  1. Wayne C. Rogers // May 30, 2013 at 1:34 am // Reply

    James,
    I read Jaws when it first came out and found myself more interested in the Sheriff’s wife and her affair with the Oceanographer, especially when she stops by a local restroom on the beach and takes off her underwear before meeting him. Now, the movie is something else. I’ve seen it about twenty times and still won’t go more than ankle deep into the water though I spent a number of years living on a North Carolina beach before moving out west. Forget the book and watch the movie. Robert Shaw is excellent as Quinn.

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    • jameskeen89450 // May 30, 2013 at 9:31 am // Reply

      Hi Wayne. The book plays like it was written by Dan Brown’s father or someone equally workmanlike. And Quint is a mere sketch of a character here and might have been more believable if he’d been named ‘Ahab Jnr’ instead of Quint.

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  2. Having never read the book I cannot put down much here . I am not a fan of bigotry …in any form racial….homophobia …sexual …I think maybe I will stick with the movie…which I agree was a good watch….Vitina

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    • jameskeen89450 // May 30, 2013 at 9:39 am // Reply

      I think the narrative maybe underscores the cultural zeitgeist at that time and it may be unfair to rail against it for that, but it doesn’t help that the book plays out like a more violent, slightly spicy version of that old soap opera ‘Santa Barbara’.
      The movie’s screenplay is just amazing (the Indianapolis speech repeatedly chills the blood) and the movie itself, to my mind, is one of the finest pieces of cinema there is.

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  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. This is one of those really odd books that was re-imagined into a film that came out far better than the original. (I think Benjamin Button is another.) “Jaws” is actually my favorite film and sometimes I think Benchley’s novel bears no resemblance to what made the film so great – the camaraderie of the men on the ocean fighting the “beast.” Really great review! 🙂

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    • James Keen // May 30, 2013 at 9:27 am // Reply

      Thanks a lot, Lexacain. It’s amazing that the movie turned out the way it did given its lowly origins. I’d read this about twenty years ago and it was kind of shocking to re-read it, having forgotten just how mediocre it really was.

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  4. Hi, my name’s Lauren and I am currently studying how novels compare to their Spielberg movie adaptations in Blackpool, England. I would really appreciate it if anyone could take the time to fill out this survey for my research . Thank you for taking the time to read my message, here is the link to my survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/GKY5Z2D

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