Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Reel & Read: Jaws!

Our book today is Peter Benchley's mega-bestselling 1974 novel Jaws, which was subsequently made into an obscure art-house film some of you may have seen. That film caused three horrible things to happen (well, four if you count prompting millions of people to go sit in dark movie theaters instead of taking a walk in Central Park): it made every single person in the Western world permanently terrified of swimming - or even wading past knee-deep - in the ocean, any ocean; it declared an open season on the killing of sharks which hasn't lessened in fervor in the last forty years, even though most species of large shark are now all but extinct; and it took a wrecking-ball to the writing career of its author, who was capable of good work and might have been capable of great work (his father and grandfather certainly were) but who instead will be known forever only as "the author of Jaws." Those are three heavy indictments to lay at the feet of a movie, but despite its gazillion readers, the book is largely innocent.

I'm turning my attention to the book today even though I wrote about it only (!) two or so years ago here. The reason? Why, because my "Reel & Read" partner in crime, Mr. Anderson, has decided to take time out from his wall-to-wall schedule reviewing new-release movies in order to take in Steven Spielberg's super-hit again, and I really don't need much excuse to revisit this novel.

Last time, as some you may recall, I brought up the parts of Benchley's novel that were not only effective but essentially impossible to capture on film. In retrospect this seems to me a snotty and short-sighted assertion: of course virtually anything that can be conveyed in prose can be conveyed on film, if the film-maker has some talent and puts his mind to it. Re-reading Jaws for this post, I could easily picture all of it being filmed - but the book is in so many ways so different from the Spielberg movie that I found myself imagining the unimaginable: a "Jaws" remake directed by somebody else. That somebody else might decide to stick closer to the actual plot of the novel, in which there's a lot more subtlety and land-based goings-on than makes it to the screen.

I read the novel before I saw the movie (I remember its original, dorky cover), and re-reading it has reminded me of all those goings-on. In the novel, ichthyologist Matt Hooper is still the idealistic nature-lover who can blurt out things like "Sharks have everything a scientist dreams of. They're beautiful - God, now beautiful they are! They're as graceful as any bird. They're as mysterious as any animal on earth" (apparently, Benchley's Hooper isn't much of a reader, or he'd know not ever to say such things in a book ... it's just bound to, er, bite you) - but he's also a stuck-up little prick quite a lot of the time, one who happily goes along when a distraught Ellen Brody awkwardly approaches him about having an affair. She and Hooper meet at a restaurant safely up the coast from Amity, the Long Island beach town where Ellen's husband is chief of police, and the scene that follows, in which they fantasize aloud about what they'd like to do to each other, certainly wouldn't be impossible to film - but it would sure as hell be impossible for Spielberg to film. I doubt he could even understand the words on the page.

Benchley is expertly parsimonious with words, when he's narrating such hard-edged, adult scenes. There's one excrutiating sequence where Ellen throws a small dinner party and Chief Brody, broiling with resentments he can only half-name, proceeds to get very nearly drunk enough to torpedo the whole evening. Benchley keeps the narrative focus tightly on Brody, and yet there's no sympathy in the action at all ... the reader hears all of Brody's internal complaints and justifications and yet is never moved to empathy, is horrified the whole time by how he's behaving. It's expertly done: it's a shame so many readers probably missed it while thumbing forward looking for the next shark-attack scene.

Naturally, this being a work of prose not film, there's a good deal more straightforward exposition than any action-movie could support - including a scientific digression (by Hooper, of course) that might ring some bells for modern readers:
Look, the Latin name for this fish is Carcharodon carcharias, okay? The closest ancestor we can find for it is something called Carcharodon megalodon, a fish that existed maybe thirty or forty thousand years ago. We have fossil teeth from megalodon. They're six inches long. That would put the fish at between eighty and a hundred feet. And the teeth are exactly like the teeth you see in great whites today. What I'm getting at is, suppose the two fish are really one species. What's to say megalodon is really extinct? Why should it be? Not lack of food. If there's enough down there to support whales, there's enough to support sharks that big. Just because we've never seen a hundred-foot white doesn't mean they couldn't exist. All their food would be way down in the deep. A dead one wouldn't float to shore, because they don't have flotation bladders. Can you imagine what a hundred-foot white would look like? Can you imagine what it could do, what kind of power it would have?"

Fortunately, thanks to later masterpieces, readers in 2011 need not wonder about such things (although they might wonder how such a careful researcher as Benchley could get his archeological time-tables so scrunched up) - nor, indeed, does the book itself ponder on them for any length of time. Instead, it unfurls its various plot-lines with careful skill, including one plot-line that owes everything to what a certain wind-bag once described as the anxiety of influence. In the book, it turns out that Larry Vaughan, Amity's mayor, has a clear-cut motive for insisting that Chief Brody open the town's beaches even though two people have died, and his motive is cinematic: he's in debt up to his eyeballs to ... the Mafia!

That would be more or less the same Mafia that starred in the book-world's previous mega-bestseller, Mario Puzo's The Godfather from 1969. That novel had done the ultimate magic trick in the publishing world: it had become its own currency, an immediate part of every single Western individual's functioning cerebellum. Long before the Harry Potter books or The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it had become a cultural phenomenon - and that phenomenon was quadrupled by the 1972 movie. Peter Benchley would have been something more than human if he hadn't hoped, at least in some part of his heart, that someday he could write a book that would do the same thing.

He did exactly that. He squeezed the not-so-innocent town of Amity between a feckless mayor who needs to keep the beaches open if he's ever going to repay his mobster 'partners' and a remorseless predator prowling beyond the surf. And it's not just Larry Vaughan: most of the characters here (with the notable exception of Quint, who's every bit as ridiculous a figure in the novel as in the movie, but who's at least graced in the movie by an indelible performance by Robert Shaw) are caught between the lone shark and the loan shark, and none more than Ellen Brody, who belatedly comes to regret her fling with Matt Hooper:
As she pondered what Vaughan had said, she began to recognize the richness of her life: a relationship with Brody was more rewarding than any Larry Vaughan would ever experience; an amalgam of minor trials and tiny triumphs that, together, added up to something akin to joy. And as her recognition grew, so did her regret that it had taken her so long to see the waste of time and emotion in trying to cling to her past. Suddenly she felt fear - fear that she was growing up too late, that something might happen to Brody before she could savor her awareness.

Nothing happens to Brody, of course - unlike in the movie, he's the sole survivor of the Orca, who returns alone to tell the tale. Benchley's book outsold Puzo's by two or three to one, and then a few years later the movie made from that book out-grossed the movie made from Puzo's by more than twice as much (although, again, you'll have to check with Mr. Anderson to see how it holds up after all these years). And most importantly, Puzo's novel reads like it was written in fifteen minutes by a megalomaniac 15-year-old, whereas Peter Benchley - may he rest in the deep - wrote a really good book, an almost perfect intelligent summer-read, provided you're not on a raft at sea.


Mr. Anderson said...

Oh my... can you imagine a film remake of Jaws? One casting decision BEGS to be made: Jeff Bridges as Quint! He took on Rooster Cogburn and won; let him have another silver screen legend to chew on.

JC said...

I don't know anyone else whose blog posts incorporate their own elevator pitches ("caught between the lone shark and the loan shark"). But what? No switcheroo duce with out-grossed and grossed out?