While I’m sure there are those who disagree, Jaws is the crowning exception to the rule “The book is always better than the movie.” In adapting the book to the script the story was transformed, made stronger and streamlined, and fixed all of the problems of the novel. To be transparent, Jaws is my all-time favorite movie. Ok, maybe the top five but that’s splitting hairs and ranking is largely dependent on which of my favorite movies I have most recently seen.
I love every frame of the movie. I love the characters, the direction, the cinematography, and the phenomenal score (obviously), it is as close to perfect as movies get. I even love the screwy chronology, the continuity errors, and especially the fake-looking shark with a hinging mouth. However, as much as I love the movie, I do not love the book.
Jaws the movie is about a killer great white shark that stalks the water off Amity Island in New York and police chief Brody, shark expert Hooper, and grizzled fisherman Quint tries to kill it. That is also what happens in the book, but the shark isn’t a shark so much as it’s an act of god hellbent on destroying the local economy. The big difference between the book and the movie is that none of the main characters are likable.
Several changes were made for the better when adapting the book. In the book, Brody is a townie with a chip on his shoulder, his wife Ellen is a former “summer person” and lived in New York before marrying Brody. Hooper and Brody do not get along at all, and the younger man has an affair with Ellen. Brody immediately suspects this and spends the last half of the book obsessing over it. Quint doesn’t live in Amity so the only stake he has in catching the shark is the money. He also is a remarkably unpleasant character.
In the movie, the shark is a shark. It is a monster of a fish that always seems to be lurking even when you can’t see it. The movie is streamlined on that plot, and there are no subplots that are not already in aid of the main story. In the book, the shark is an engine of change. The arrival of the shark dredges up secrets and pushes the town to the brink of ruin, helped along by Mayor Larry Vaughan and his “The beaches will stay open!” directives because he’s in hock to the mafia.
Boats patrol the water for days, never catching sight of the twenty-foot shark until the plot requires the shark to reappear. Benchley writes from the shark’s perspective a couple of times, then drops this after the second attack. This is disappointing because those passages are riveting, suspenseful and well-written. While the movie ending is somewhat implausible it is a rousing conclusion. The book’s ending is the example given when you look up the word “anti-climactic” in the dictionary.
Jaws was Benchley’s first novel, and it shows. Peter Benchley was a gifted writer, and the story he tells in Jaws is compelling despite its many flaws. But if the movie had never been made, no one would remember this book. If you have never read Jaws, it is worth reading as a comparison with the movie. However like Fight Club, The Godfather, and The Silence of the Lambs, don’t be surprised if reading the book just makes you want to re-watch the superior movie.