By Peter Benchley (Bantam Books; 1974)
JAWS, one of the most iconic bestsellers of its time, was the debut novel of Peter Benchley. Published in February 1974, it can be viewed, together with James Herbert’s THE RATS and Berton Rouche’s FERAL (both of which likewise appeared in ‘74), as the inception of the “nasties” horror fiction subgenre, which as the 1970s wore on gave us man killing crabs, snakes, dogs, panthers and so forth.
These days the central fascination of Benchley’s novel is its depiction of many of the conventions of the nasties subgenre in embryonic form: the bloody attacks on various clueless individuals (complete with mini-biographies of said individuals), the attempts by the virtuous hero–one Martin Brody, the police chief of the small New England beach town Amity–to convince clueless authorities of the depths of the menace–a great white shark–confronting them, and the final epic confrontation with that menace, which here takes the form of a MOBY DICK-inspired boat manned by the crusty seafarer Quint, who had a previous encounter with sharks and so has a score to settle.
JAWS is also a prime example of a novel whose popularity has been dwarfed by the movie adapted from it. In fact, it’s not at all off-base to opine that anyone approaching this novel for the first time will be at least partially familiar with the Steven Spielberg directed movie version.
The novel naturally contains many elements you won’t find in the movie, and, frankly, in most cases that’s not such a bad thing. One example would be Brody’s clash with authorities that results in his cat being killed, an event that’s totally forgotten in the following chapter. Another is Brody’s class consciousness, which always seems to rear its head whenever he’s around Amity’s more prosperous citizens, and results in some bad behavior on his part. There’s also a rather steamy fling Brody’s wife has with Brody’s colleague Hooper (the Richard Dreyfuss character in the movie), resulting in lines like “Sometimes she found that, without knowing it, she had been rubbing her hand over her vagina” that didn’t make it into the movie. The ending of the movie is also far better than that offered up here–semi-spoiler alert: the evil shark dies in both, but its demise here is far less spectacular than it was onscreen.
As he’d go on to prove in subsequent novels like THE DEEP and THE ISLAND, Peter Benchley has a real talent page-turning fiction, and JAWS remains a compelling piece of work. Obviously it’s not nearly as affecting as it must have been back in ‘74, and nor can it be separated from the movie, which it seems is destined to come first in the minds of most people. That’s hardly a just state of affairs, but I’m afraid that’s how it is.