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Jaws

Jaws

Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) is a significant cultural landmark in the Hollywood cinema of the late twentieth-century. In addition to the unprecedented box-office gross, which made it the first film in history to top $100 million on its initial release, it established its relatively unknown 27-year-old director as a powerful creative force. Spielberg went on to achieve major financial and critical success in the "new Hollywood" with a string of memorable films that confirmed him as Hollywood's pre-eminent storyteller. This supreme gift was unveiled in Jaws, a fundamentally very simple tale that seamlessly combined elements from the action adventure, thriller, and horror genres. Exciting, engrossing, and scary, Jaws is also, in the final analysis, fun, as were the then fashionable "disaster" movies such as The Towering Inferno (1974), which it far outstripped in providing well-characterized protagonists in a setting designed to strike a chord with Americans of all ages.

One of the earliest examples of the now familiar Hollywood staple, the "summer blockbuster," Jaws was released to an eager public in June of 1975. The film's plot centered on a series of fatal shark attacks at the beaches of a New England resort town, and the efforts of an ill-matched trio of men to kill the 25-foot great white shark responsible for the deaths. Promoted through a massive advertising campaign and given unprecedentedly widespread distribution by Universal studios, Jaws lived up to the expectation it generated. With its rousing adventure and horror elements and its crowd-pleasing finale, it became a worldwide phenomenon, and for at least one summer made millions of people very nervous about swimming in the ocean.

If the success of the film was nothing short of remarkable, the novel upon which it was based had proved a commercial phenomenon in its own right. In January 1973, author Peter Benchley submitted to the New York publishing house of Doubleday the final draft of a novel inspired by his memory of a monstrous great white shark caught off the coast of Montauk in 1964. In a documentary accompanying the laser-disc release of the film, Benchley recalls how several titles (such as "Stillness in the Water" for example) were considered and rejected for the novel before the simple, visceral Jaws was chosen. Very quickly, Bantam paid for paperback rights to the novel, and Hollywood producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck bought not only the film rights, but also the services of author Benchley for a first-draft screenplay. This early interest in the novel, combined with book-club deals and an aggressive promotional strategy by Doubleday and Bantam, ensured the novel's climb to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, where it stayed for months.

Benchley's book is divided into three sections. The first opens with a nighttime shark attack upon a skinny-dipping young woman, whose mutilated body is discovered on the Amity town beach the next morning, leading the chief of police to urge the mayor to close the beaches for a few days. The request is refused, and the shark strikes again, killing a six-year-old boy and an elderly man in two separate attacks in full view of horrified onlookers. Now forced to close the beaches, the authorities hire Ben Gardner, a local fisherman, to catch the shark, but he disappears at sea, another victim. Part one ends with the arrival of Matt Hooper, an ichthyologist there at the invitation of the editor of Amity's newspaper.

Part Two focuses on the domestic tensions between chief of police Brody and his wife Ellen, whose discontent with her marriage leads her into a brief affair with the handsome and rich Hooper. Brody suspects the affair just as his battle to keep the beaches closed during the lucrative Fourth of July weekend reaches its highest pitch, and he learns that the mayor is fighting so hard to re-open the beaches because he is in debt to the New England Mafia. Brody reluctantly opens the beaches again, the shark almost kills a teenage boy, and the town hires another shark fisherman named Quint to tackle the problem. Out of duty and a sense of guilt, Brody accompanies Quint and Hooper on Quint's boat, the Orca, to search for the man-eating fish.

The shark hunt occupies the final third of the novel. Blue-collar fisherman Quint takes an immediate dislike to the collegial Hooper, and the hostility between Hooper and Quint and Hooper and Brody acts as a human counterpoint to the ensuing struggle between man and fish. The shark proves to be larger and fiercer than anticipated, and Quint's repeated failure to harpoon their quarry compels Hooper to descend beneath the surface, in a shark cage, in an effort to kill it. The shark tears the cage apart and devours Hooper. On the last day of the hunt, Quint manages to harpoon the shark, but the weight of the fish sinks the boat and Quint is drowned. Brody is unexpectedly saved when the shark succumbs to the harpoon wounds and dies.

The Academy Award-nominated film that grew out of this narrative kept the main characters and the basic three-act structure but radically changed the characterizations and deleted the Hooper/Ellen subplot. Also gone were the mayor's links to the Mafia, while Brody was transformed from a local man to a New York outsider, facing his first summer as police chief of Amity where, ironically, he has come in order to escape urban violence. Hooper became a much more humorous and sympathetic character, to the extent that later drafts of the script spared him from the fatal jaws of the shark. While retaining Quint as a blue-collar antagonist for the preppie Hooper, thus providing an extra focus for tension aboard the somewhat ramshackle Orca, the fisherman's mania for shark hunting was explained as a result of his having survived a shark feeding frenzy following the sinking of a cruiser during World War II. Instead of drowning as in the novel, Quint is eaten during the shark's final wild assault upon the Orca.

All of these changes were beneficial to the screenplay, giving it a more straightforward line and lending it veracity. Spielberg and Benchley reportedly argued over many of the changes, including Spielberg's suggested new ending. Spielberg wanted a much more cathartic resolution and came up with the idea that one of Hooper's oxygen cylinders should explode in the shark's mouth. Benchley scoffed at the idea, insisting that no one would believe it. Spielberg's vision prevailed, and the author subsequently admitted that the filmmaker was right. Aside from Benchley, and Spielberg himself, screenwriters John Milius, Howard Sackler, (both uncredited) and Carl Gottlieb (credited) contributed to the script at different stages in its development and throughout the location shooting. By all accounts, the actors and/or crew improvised much of the dialogue and many of the most memorable moments, but unlike countless other films where too many cooks invariably spoil the broth, Jaws finally achieved a convincing coherency of plot and character.

Production difficulties were foreshadowed by the early script problems and initial casting choices that fell through before the three crucial leading roles went to Roy Scheider (Brody), Robert Shaw (Quint) and Richard Dreyfuss (Hooper), all three of whom turned in convincing and compelling performances. After an extensive scouting expedition, production designer Joe Alves selected Martha's Vineyard as the location for the fictional Amity and Robert Mattey built three full-size mechanical sharks at a cost of $150,000 each. The producers hoped that the mechanical sharks, when inter-cut with second-unit footage of real great white sharks shot off the coast of Australia by famed underwater team Ron and Valerie Taylor, would prove convincing enough to scare audiences, which they triumphantly did. During the production, however, the mechanical sharks caused much anguish (one sank during a test, and the complex hydraulic system exploded during another test run). The recalcitrance of the models prevented Spielberg from showing them on screen as completely as he had intended, and may actually have helped the film's suspense by keeping the killer shark's appearances brief and startling. Other troubles, such as changing weather conditions, shifting ocean currents, and labor disputes were serious impediments, and worried studio executives even considered abandoning the production. All of these combined difficulties extended the original 52-day shooting schedule into over 150 days, and the $3.5 million initial budget quickly ballooned into $12 million.

In the end, what saved Jaws from anticipated disaster was the brilliance of Spielberg's unifying vision, which somehow managed to impose order on the chaotic shoot, John Williams' Oscar-winning score with its now famous four-note motif for the shark scenes, and the director's close collaboration with film editor Verna Fields. In post-production, the two managed the near impossible by matching several scenes that had been shot months apart in completely different weather and ocean conditions. Fields won the editing Oscar, yet screenings of the rough cut had brought a lukewarm response from studio executives. Finally, in March of 1975, a sneak preview for the public was scheduled in Dallas. By all accounts, the audience loved the film, screaming loudest when the shark surprises Brody as he ladles chum off the stern of the Orca. Eager to get one more terrified shriek out of future audiences, Spielberg re-shot the scene where Hooper discovers the body of fisherman Ben Gardner in a swimming pool, and the film was ready for more sneak previews and exhibitor screenings. Stars Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss were mobbed as heroes after one New York preview and favorable word of mouth spread rapidly. By the time Jaws was released to 490 theaters in June, the stage was set for it to become the most financially successful motion picture of all time until the summer of 1977, when George Lucas's Star Wars broke its record. Nearly every summer since 1975 has seen the major Hollywood studios competing to gross as many hundreds of millions of dollars as possible. Though many films have since surpassed Jaws ' box-office success and three inferior sequels have somewhat diluted the impact of the original, the movie about a man-eating shark is often praised (or blamed) as the beginning of a Hollywood revival. By 1999, it was still holding its own in Hollywood history as the eleventh highest grossing film of the twentieth century.

—Philip Simpson

Further Reading:

Benchley, Peter. Jaws. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1974.

Blake, Edith. On Location on Martha's Vineyard: The Making of the Movie Jaws. New York, Ballantine, 1975.

Brode, Douglas. The Films of Steven Spielberg. New York, Citadel Press, 1995.

Gottlieb, Carl. The Jaws Log. New York, Dell, 1975.

Mott, Donald R., and Cheryl McAllister Saunders. Steven Spielberg. Boston, Twayne, 1986.

Taylor, Philip M. Steven Spielberg: The Man, His Movies, and Their Meaning. New York, Continuum, 1992.

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