What is the appeal of this story of a killer great white shark haunting an American beach resort?
For an entire generation, bathers were apprehensive about swimming in the sea, some too terrified to even set foot in the water. The tiniest of dorsal fins poking above the surface would cause panic.
Not surprising, given the gory scenes in the movie and even more gruesome passages in the book, too graphic to quote here. And who can forget John Williams’ theme tune, with its haunting tuba solo? Peter Benchley’s original 1974 novel sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, while Spielberg’s film, which sold out theaters a year later, became the world’s highest-grossing film at the time.
Now, The Folio Society has recently published a new illustrated hardcover version of Benchley’s novel, with an introduction by the author’s widow, Wendy.
But what is it about this story of a killer great white shark haunting a US beach resort that has such enduring appeal, nearly half a century after it was first written?
“It’s great storytelling and excellent character development, and it’s scary too,” Wendy tells the Daily Express.
“It makes people face what would happen if there were some bad, uncontrollable force that they didn’t know how to deal with.”
She suggests that we are all obsessed with predatory monsters because, in a primitive way, telling chilling stories about them prepares us for an imminent threat and ultimately gives us the chance to escape from them. Similarly, she admires the way her husband’s book and Spielberg’s film ultimately inspired respect for marine life.
“Peter and I received hundreds of letters saying that Jaws got them excited about the ocean and made them think about what goes on below the blue surface,” she adds.
Unfortunately, Jaws had another, more insidious impact on the public: demonizing sharks and, in particular, great white sharks.
The late Jaws writer Peter Benchley and his wife Wendy, seen in 1975
After the film’s release, American fishermen took to the seas to catch and kill sharks by the thousands.
Research by a Canadian marine biologist suggested that, between the mid-1980s and 2000s, in the Northwest Atlantic, flagship species such as the great white shark and hammerhead shark suffered losses of up to 75 percent.
In reality, great whites rarely attack humans. According to a database compiled by the University of Florida, they are indeed the most dangerous sharks. However, worldwide, there have only been around 350 documented attacks, resulting in fewer than 60 deaths.
In December, Spielberg admitted to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs that he lamented the way sharks suffered because of the monster he and Benchley had created: “The decimation of the shark population because of the book and the movie. I’m really, really sorry.”
Benchley himself, who died of pulmonary fibrosis in 2006, was equally mortified by the way his novel resulted in needless shark deaths and dedicated the rest of his life to ocean conservation. Wendy explains how a diving trip to Costa Rica in the early 1980s strengthened his resolve to campaign on behalf of these magnificent creatures. It was an unforgettable experience, but for all the wrong reasons.
“I was absolutely amazed because I had seen carcasses of hammerhead sharks on the bottom of the sea with their fins cut off,” he recalls. “At the time, shark fin soup was a delicacy. Hundreds of millions of them were killed every year, mainly for their fins.
Pedro was disgusted by what he saw.
From left, Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw
“Great white sharks have survived, virtually unchanged, for millions of years,” he later wrote of the species he chose as his monster. “For them, being driven to extinction by man, a relative newcomer, would be more than an ecological tragedy; it would be a moral parody.”
The problem was that Benchley’s portrayal of his own monster was surprisingly effective. In the novel, the shark is usually referred to simply as “the fish”, which makes it sound even more sinister. Elsewhere he calls it “the beast, the monster, the nightmare.” The eyes are “black and abysmal.” His mouth is “a dim, dark cavern guarded by huge triangular teeth” that opens “into a floppy, savage grin.”
Here’s how Benchley describes the apprehensive moments before the shark’s first fatal attack: “The fish smelled her now, and the vibrations, erratic and high-pitched, indicated distress. Its dorsal fin broke through the water, and its tail, flailing from side to side, sliced through the crystalline surface with a hiss.
At one point, the city’s police chief, Martin Brody, says, “It’s like there’s a maniac on the loose, killing people whenever he wants to.”
In essence, Benchley’s monstrous shark could be a metaphor for any deadly threat: a plague, a serial killer, a ghost, an invading army. This story of a monstrous shark threatening a financially disadvantaged seaside resort called Amity has taken on multiple meanings since the novel and film were released.
Many have seen him as a 20th century Moby Dick, or an aquatic version of King Kong or Godzilla. His small-town politics were compared by some to the real-life Watergate scandal that rocked the American establishment earlier in the same decade. While others felt that it represented the evils of communism.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro, for his part, suggested that it was a critique of capitalism. “That was an interesting take,” says Wendy. In her introduction to the new Folio Society issue, the author’s widow compares the ruthless shark to the global Covid pandemic.
“In recent years, the deadly monster facing society was not a killer shark, but the ever-changing Covid-19 virus,” he writes. “Random response to the pandemic and downplaying its lethality (particularly in the US) led to many comparisons to Jaws.”
She draws parallels between the main characters in Jaws and the politicians who oversaw pandemic policy in the United States. And she compares Larry Vaughn, the mayor of the city of Amity, to Donald Trump.
Vaughn desperately wanted to keep Amity’s beaches open, despite the danger, for economic reasons, just as the US President has urged society and businesses to reopen during the pandemic.
Wendy compares the Amity police chief, who insists on closing the beaches, to America’s top medical expert during the pandemic, Anthony Fauci, who was much more cautious than Trump. “President Trump was in denial,” she adds. “It was a disaster for the country. Thank God we had Fauci and other people.
“Some of the survival mechanisms were exactly the same as the Jaws characters: the mayor who wanted to keep the beaches open and refused to acknowledge the
danger. The other people who understood and did not go near the water.”
After the huge success of Jaws, Peter and Wendy campaigned endlessly to protect ocean wildlife. Along with a conservation group called WildAid, they supported a very successful campaign to persuade people in East Asia to stop eating shark fin soup.
Wendy now lives in Washington DC, with her second husband, businessman John Jeppson, where she continues to support ocean conservation. The money she still makes from the Jaws book and movie helps finance her various campaigns.
“I bless the book, Peter, and the movie every day because I get to support conservation issues with those royalties,” she says. She highlights overfishing as one of the biggest threats to the world’s oceans.
“You have these huge trawlers that wipe out huge populations of fish and completely destroy the ocean floor by digging it up. [with trawling nets] and capturing all living things. It’s tragic.”
She also champions the many protected ocean areas around the planet.
“They are one of the best marine conservation tools for saving marine habitats, restoring fisheries, and helping marine wildlife recover and thrive,” he adds. At the age of 81, she’s not averse to doing a little scuba diving on her own. Her last diving trip was to Indonesia, just before the pandemic.
In 2023 he hopes to visit the Caribbean to study sharks in their habitat by tagging them. Almost half a century has passed since her husband’s novel was first published. Is it possible that the most famous shark story of hers ever written still matters another 50 years later?
“Who knows? Maybe Jaws will still be read to somehow help people understand the importance of the ocean and learn more about it,” he says. “That would be the most anyone could hope for.”
- The Folio Society edition of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws, presented by Wendy Benchley and illustrated by Hokyoung Kim, is available exclusively at foliosociety.com
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