I have always been thrilled by the idea that Hollywood actually takes the characters, plots, and memorable scenes from classic novels and treasures from contemporary authors, and makes them into movies. I can’t even imagine how amazing it would be to see your story, your words, heart, and soul transformed into a motion picture. Well-known actors would give your made-up cast hands and feet. Beautiful outdoor settings in places like Africa, London, or the Arctic would breathe reality into the homes and cities of your fantasies. Elaborate movie sets would depict what you’ve only seen in your mind. It’s incredible.
But movies are not books, and a lot of times things get lost, cut, rearranged, and transformed on their journey from the page to the screen. Some of these changes are intentional, and some happen by accident. Sometimes the well-meaning producers and screenplay writers want to follow the book. They want to project the same passion and essence into their real-life actors as the real-life characters portrayed in the book. But sometimes, this just doesn’t work. Characters you love and know inside and out, come off on screen as just. . . bad. The famous library scene that is your favorite from the novel, looks flat and ugly – the lamps are wrong, the chairs are mismatched and the oil paintings of the four infamous pirates that are such a big deal in the book, aren’t even there. The way you always pictured the loud-mouthed mother, now in the movie version, she seems to hold no power. The pet parrot that never shut-up in the book – never mentioned. And the English cousin who wants to be a chef, but has lost all his tastebuds, and whom you’ve secretly grown very fond of, is now given one scene in the movie, with no speaking parts.
It’s disappointing when things go down this road. However, when Hollywood gets it right, seeing your favorite characters manifest in live-action can be a great experience. This blog post, however, isn’t really about either of those scenarios. No, this time around I wasn’t captivated by my literary heroes being portrayed by my favorite actors or let down by a classic being torn to shreds by producers trying to give a new age twist to something that shouldn’t be messed with. No, this blog post is about Jaws.
You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all seen the movie, or, if you haven’t, you need to go watch the entire canon right now. If you have seen it, then you know we’re talking about a shark. The Shark. Jaws. The big, bad Great White that terrorizes a small tourist community, and it’s up to the highly respected Chief Brody (played by Roy Scheider) the scientific Matt Hooper (a very young Richard Dreyfuss) and the crazy local fisherman (Robert Shaw) to solve the problem. Lots of people die, and iconic moments and quotes live in the back of our brains every time we see the ocean, or hear of a shark attack. I’ve been watching Jaws and its subsequent sequels since I was eight.
So now, at the seasoned age of 35, I decided it was finally time to read the book. Yes, Jaws was a novel before it was a movie classic. Peter Benchley wrote this fantastic tale back in 1974 and he also wrote the introduction to the revised version that you would buy today, say, for your Kindle. That’s the version I have, and even though I’m not a fan of introductions or prefaces, I read this one – and I’m very glad I did. Benchley made it a point to stress that what was in the book you were about to read, didn’t all make it into the movie. Most specifically, he pointed out how the producers of Jaws made it clear and simple that the movie would be cutting all the romance and mafia from the story.
I had the same reaction you probably are. What? There’s no romance or mafia in Jaws. Oh….yes there is. And it’s odd. It’s been a truly unique experience to read about characters I’ve only known from the movie, in this new light – in the light they were originally constructed. Ellen – the wife of Chief Brody – takes on an entire new being in the book. Or, it’s probably more accurate to say that she lost her being in the movie. Matt Hooper, know for being Brody’s second in command when they go on the hunt for Jaws, and for being the voice of science and fact throughout the movie, has a lot of different shades in Benchley’s original story. Romance, sex, affairs, and yes, there’s even mafia involved in the quiet beachfront town, and it’s baffling. I find my jaw dropping and my mind refusing to believe some of what I’m reading. This isn’t how Jaws goes. But yes, yes it is. This is how the real story goes. I’m only 62% (thank you Kindle for being exact) through the novel, but it’s been a roller coaster ride. It’s been more politics and drama than I ever would have imagined in a story about a shark.
In the movie, the first half-hour or so deals with the town and Brody’s personal life, while the rest of the film takes you out on the sea, hunting the shark. In the novel, well, let’s just say that I’m 62% in, and they haven’t even met Quint yet. There’s not even talk of hunting down Jaws yet. I keep asking myself, “When are they going to go after the shark?”
But I’m not hating. Not at all. Despite it’s magnified differences between the movie I’ve grown up obsessed with, I’ve really enjoyed the novel so far. I’ve enjoyed the marriage issues, and the city politics that have everyone running scared. It’s interesting, and shows a deeper side to a town and characters that I thought were very cut and dry.
The lesson here: Fascination doesn’t have to be kept in a box. Jaws enchanted me when it was all about the shark, and now it’s enchanting me all over again when the shark is taking a backseat to the complex human condition. It’s kind of like falling in love all over again.