It’s not about the Shark
‘Here’s to swimmin‘ with bow legged women!’
In a proverbial sense of the word, Jaws is very much about a shark. Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece in Hitchcockian suspense is a piece of celluloid that, not only kicked off the summer blockbuster but also continued to terrify, traumatise and help to signify an entire generation. The bold four letters and iconic image of the poster alone conjures an immediate, almost primordial reaction and has enabled the iconography of such a film to transcend age, language and cultural background to build on its lauded, legendary universal appeal. And, let’s not forget John Williams’ iconic soundtrack; the shark’s signature akin to Prokofiev’s wolf – a deep, instinctive sound that plods and thumps along until it reaches its frenzy; conditioning the audience all the more.
Yet, Jaws isn’t really about a shark at all and the basis of this can be seen in Peter Benchley’s original novel. In his attempt to paint more soap operatic elements, Benchley peppered his plot with a rather cheap attempt to emulate a slice of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as Mayor Larry Vaughn’s mafia connections are exposed amongst shady political undertones and conflict of class. The result tends to deliver some uncomfortable racial tension and misogynistic undertones – the later of which culminates in an unforgettable moment where Lorraine Brody’s affair with Hooper resembles something closer to J.G. Ballard’s Crash. For all it’s pulpy foibles, Benchley made every effort to craft his work into a piece of literature that had much more going on ‘beneath the surface’ as many of the characters were, seemingly, caught in the jaws of their own flaws; eaten away from inside rather than devoured so figuratively by a lone predator. The shark is therefore background noise and in stripping away these elements, screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb helped to refine a story that was built around three very distinct male characters and, most importantly; witnessing what happens when a Great White shark terrorizes a small community.
With the shark centre stage to the story, Spielberg very much set out to make a film about a shark by dropping the broader sweeps and literary vices that could have sunk the whole film. Yet, it wasn’t his original intention to be so sparing with the shark’s screen time and, due to the unreliable nature of the animatronics and brutal nature of the sea, Spielberg was forced to be creative with the camera. Saving the film through a more submersed and therefore psychological experience of treading water, the final result took on the uncomfortable feeling of being placed within the belly of the beast as the camera becomes more than our eyes and aids in the horrific moments during the first act where the shark attacks.
As Chief Martin Brody (Roy Schneider) tackles his fear of the water. We all pretty much experience what he is going through; a man who has brought his family to a small island, trapped and left to flounder somewhat as he attempts to persuade the local Mayor to close the beaches. Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the smart, Oceanographer highlights further how dangerous it is through his knowledge of the Great White; while shark fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw) scratches his nails down the chalkboard and introduces himself in legendary fashion. As the second act of the film unfolds the story becomes more of an adventure tale of three men on a boat, boasting scars while Shaw, in all his method, delivers the unforgettable Indianapolis speech that grips you as much as the shark takes hold of its victims.
Spielberg always intended Jaws to be about a shark and would never argue otherwise. But as any classic film gains weight and veritable credence it is only by dissecting the very nature of the animal within to understand fully what else it may represent. It is through analysis that separates the average cinema goer to the cineliterate – those who wish to be merely entertained other than those who seek more of a reward. Of course, Jaws is hardly Eisenstein, but without a doubt just as important in what it achieved – a film that was set up to fail at each hurdle; over schedule, over budget – an ambitious effort that forced a revolutionary young film maker to bend the rules and think very much on his feet whenever he was able to reach dry land.
When I was a kid, it was always about the shark. I can recall the first time it was on television – one of three traumatising incidences in film at a young age; this one up there with my hero, Lee Majors being eaten alive by Piranha in Killer Fish. This was another aquatic incident involving creatures of the deep that not only cemented my life-long obsession in film but also an interest in sharks, so much so I was labelled ‘Shark boy’ at school. My thirst for writing resulted in a highly pretentious rip-off at the age of eleven in my attempt to write a novel called, (wince) There’s Blood in the Water – ironically not that far off what the original novel, Jaws was going to be called. There lies the genius, you see – where writing is, more than often, about the distillation of the material where the story holds the depth; the title has to summarise what the story is about. The title ‘Jaws’ is suggestive (jaws of what?) – it doesn’t tell you anything unless you understand its context, which is often one of the golden rules you learn within the craft to elevate your work beyond naivety and emulating your favourite stories. Because this story is so universal and embedded within popular culture it can be very difficult to separate one’s self from the concept, which proves its power all the more.
Jaws is many things – a thriller, a horror an adventure tale, a masterclass in screenwriting, direction, editing, set design, production, acting and marketing that helped Hollywood keep its head well above the waterline. Jaws was a phenomenon that paved the way to a galaxy far, far away…showing that even a fake looking shark has more legs than any CGI monster.