For many people, the 1975 film Jaws from Steven Spielberg stands as one of the best “blockbusters” ever made. With such a large cultural influence, it is sometimes easy to forget that, one year before the shark took to the screen, Jaws was published as a novel from then struggling author, Peter Benchley. While the success of the novel came as a complete surprise, the success of film should not. Through a mix of fate and decision, Jaws is one of the smartest adaptations of book-to-film.
The setting is one of the more immediate changes. In the novel, Amity is a town on the coast of Long Island. In the film, the setting has been moved north to near Cape Cod. Amity also became an island, leaving the safety of the shore.
This change increased the threat of the shark through simple logic. What is scarier than something in front of you: something all around you. That said, this alteration actually caused a far greater effect than just making it harder to ignore the shark. The film may no longer take place in New York… but the protagonist, police chief Martin Brody, is still from there.
Both the film and the novel depict struggles of outsiders vs. insiders. The the novel, chief Brody is a definite insider with the town. He has lived his whole life in Amity, has long-lasting friendships with the other major town officials, and shares the town’s homegrown views. This, along with other factors, lead Brody to natural conflict with Matt Hooper – a marine biologist brought in to help deal with the shark. Hooper, in the novel, is the sole outsider, and Brody sees him as a threat to his authority (both professional and domestic).
In the film, Brody and his family have recently moved to Amity. While he is still the police chief, he doesn’t operate with the security of a native. As the threat develops, the town officials treat him as a problem – a foreign official who does not understand the delicate economic balance of the town. Hooper’s arrival becomes not an intrusion but an alliance, as Brody finally has another authority figure to reinforce his views.
Quint, the shark fisherman finally enlisted to kill the beast, was also transformed into an outsider for the movie. In the novel, not much is made of Quint’s backstory. He is a shark fisherman (doesn’t hate sharks, doesn’t love them) who earns a living on the ocean. In the film, Quint is expanded into a world traveler – someone who has been from Amity to Boston to deep in the Pacific. His only home appears to be his boat, the Orca.
By focusing more on an outsider perspective, Spielberg made it easier for the audience to get behind Brody. We’re introduced to the response of Amity Island to a shark attack in much the same way he is. When he, Hooper, or Quint express disbelief at the obtuse nature exhibited by the Amity Island mayor and other elected officials – they are expressing emotions shared by the viewing audience. This endears them and helps make each more relatable.
The novel can be seen as a native saving his home from an invader. The film is three outsiders saving a town from itself.
While we’re talking about characters, let’s expound upon them – much in the same way that the film adaptation did. When picturing Jaws‘ more iconic scenes, this one may come to mind:
This hilarious – chilling – then hilarious again sequence is not to be found within the pages of the novel. As stated before, the book’s Quint merely makes a living off of sharks, albeit one that he takes seriously. This story renders a motivation before lacking to Quint, one that parallels him to Ahab of Moby Dick fame.
Brody’s fear of water is also brought more into focus in the film’s script. This time, however, both were already present in the novel. The fear of water, however, never feels fully utilized on the page. Perhaps Benchley felt he had other, more important details to harp on. Roy Scheider‘s performance definitely helped sell the phobia in every scene that the ocean was involved in.
Trimming the Fat
In editing, there is a process called “trimming the fat,” or removing the superfluous from the plot. I believe Stephen King once said that a good second draft was 85% of the first draft. This is definitely one school of thought to be sure, although valid arguments can be made against it being the right one.
I would argue that the film adaptation of Jaws knew exactly what was better left on the cutting room floor. For instance, the Amity mayor of the book was found to have mafia connections, which drove his reluctance to close the beaches. The mafia had invested in the town, and the shark effect on the economy was not profitable.
While this provided a level of intrigue, it could ultimately be seen as distracting from the novel’s main pull. It was also a little coincidental that the mafia picked the same year to heavily invest as a great white shark picked to stalk the beaches.
It also added very little to the mayor’s motivation. Bottom line: he wants to keep the beaches open to protect the town’s economy – whether it has mafia interest or not.
The film also removed Harry Meadows, editor-in-chief of the local Amity paper. I believe that he might have a cameo in the movie, but in the book – he is Brody’s chief ally. He is the confident that Brody turns to when he needs another human being. With Brody being transformed into an outsider, his relationship with Meadows no longer made sense.
While the vast majority of changes were positive in Jaws’ evolution from the book to the screen, one character definitely became less interesting. In the novel, Ellen Brody struggles with her identity as a wife. In the movie, well, she’s just supportive. Is she more likable in the film: yes. Is she as fully developed of a character: definitely not.
That said, Jaws is an example of adaptation done right. Those looking to switch mediums should pay attention to the changes it made. There was truly genius at work here.