One of the reasons the 1975 film adaptation is hailed as a masterwork of suspense cinema is because the monster is rarely seen. Turns out, not having the monster be a prominent part your novel doesn’t work quite as well.
The novel starts off well. The first half of the book is pretty compelling, and the movie follows the plot reasonably well. The scenes where the shark attacks its victims are pretty scary – especially the opening scene, which legitimately made me nervous about the open ocean. Not that I’m a huge fan of the ocean in any case, despite living only two miles from the shore. Though it isn’t fear of the unknown, and neither is it the fear of the known – I just don’t like the heat and sand. But it’s easy to see how an unsuspecting audience drove a panic in the summer of 1975 when this movie came out. Well, Spielberg didn’t get this from nowhere – the book is every bit the source material for the excellence of the film. And it wastes no time getting to the bloodshed.
And then….a huge segment of the middle part of the book is about Sheriff Boyd’s wife being unhappy in her marriage, and developing an extra-marital affair with Matthew Hooper – the character played by Richard Dreyfuss. Also, the mayor has gotten in hock to the New York mafia, and has bought up a lot of properties to pay off this debts. Closing the beaches has seen a sharp decrease in the value of these properties, and his push to keep the beaches open is motivated by self-motivated greed.
This, ultimately, is the biggest difference between the book and film. In the book, the mayor just disregards the warning of Chief Brody – no one takes him seriously, in fact. In the book, everyone takes agrees with him that the shark exists, and is dangerous. The conflict is more political, and driven by the corruption of the mayor.
Given what’s happened with the mask mandates and stay-at-home orders over the last year, it’s impossible to read this book (or, to a lesser degree, watch the movie) without thinking about how people can often be convinced to favor economic concerns over their own health and well being. And no matter how often I witness the sacrifice of human life on the alter of capitalism, I’ll never understand the culpability of the very people who offer themselves up to the wealth of others.
Overall, this was a good read, and the movie chose wisely by excising the wife’s subplot. Technological limitations dictated the amount of screen time the shark got in the movie, and by all accounts this only escalated the tension and suspense. In the book, however, I could’ve done with a lot more shark and a lot less discontented housewife.