Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Book Review: Jaws

After watching Jaws for what I assumed was the first time last month, I really wanted to get my hands on anything and everything related to the film. So I immediately got the original book from the library.

I've heard a lot about the book from various sources. Articles have frequently detailed the man subplots of the book that didn't make it to the screen. But the most intruiging thing for me was the idea that the two executives that optioned the book both read it in one night. Later one of them pointed out that if they had read it twice they never would have bothered because they would have realized how hard a book it would be to adapt.

I wanted to know what kind of book would capture a producer like that, and if it really was obvious how difficult it was going to be. It took me two nights to finish it, but it really is an amazingly fast read. But I have to admit there was at least one large chunk that I just skipped (I'll get to that later).

Parts of the book are really compelling. Anything from the point of view of the shark is interesting, and really works. The character of Harry Meadows, the newspaper editor, is all but erased in the film version but is a main character in the book. He's interesting, and I liked having his point of view. He's a character that actually exists between the two extremes of wanting to close the beaches, and wanting to save the town at all costs.

Other parts are really dated, and in a way that makes it kind of hard to get through some sections. It's not even just the science that's presented, much of which has been proven wrong since the book's release, but the way the characters deal with race is especially bothersome. And while homosexuality is actually a topic in the book (to my surprise) it's treated in a way that comes across very poorly, it feels a bit exploitative, like Benchley was striving very hard to be a pulp novel and so he had to include some "deviance" in it. The scattered mentions of marijuana use come across the same way. Like it was to try to make things "edgy" instead of important to anything at all in the plot.

The class distinctions between the "summer people" and the natives of Amity actually are the thing the book does best, and even that isn't perfect. It gets to feel a lot like telling and not showing half the time. Everybody talks all the time about the differences, but the only places where it really comes out and shows are my least favorite sections because they're the ones that make Brody look terrible and make his wife Ellen in to the least sympathetic character I've read in a long time.

SPOILER ALERT: I'll be revealing plot points about the book in the next few paragraphs, but I think they're bad plot points and I knew them going in and it didn't completely ruin the book so I don't think it's a huge deal.

A lot has been said about two subplots in the book that aren't in the film. First, that the mayor of the town is actually in debt to the mob and that's why he wants to keep the town open. I could have done without it, but only because half the time the set up for the revelation is very clunky. Brody walks around all the time asking everybody "Who are the mayor's partners? Do you know who the mayor's partners are? I'm beginning to wonder about the mayor's partners." It lacks subtlety but it's still a good motivation.

Meanwhile, Ellen Brody is actually a "summer person" who married an islander. So she spends the entire book being depressed that she's no longer rich, frivolous, and popular. She married Brody with full knowledge of what she'd be giving up and yet she keeps spending all of his money on useless stuff like expensive wine glasses and clothes, or trying to convince him that their sons need to take tennis lessons so that they can have "opportunities" which is code for "hang out with rich people."

She's so obsessed with regaining her place in the upper class that she runs off to a hotel with Hooper, the ichthyologist that came to town to help them figure out their shark problem. The portion of the book that is about her affair is the one I skipped most of because it's TERRIBLE. I cannot stress enough how weird and out of place this entire section is. It goes back to the pulp novel aspirations, pulp novels have kinky sex in them and so Ellen and Hooper go off to a restaurant where they talk about rape fantasies and orgies, then they go off to have sex themselves. And Ellen's description of their one-time affair is actually pretty disturbing and makes you wonder what in the world Hooper is even supposed to be about. It muddled both of their characters so much that I'd rather neither existed. And by extension, it messed with Brody to the point where I no longer cared about him anymore because the man with the righteous need to protect the citizens, even at the cost of his own job, became somebody that just constantly got defensive about not being rich and suspicious of Hooper.

All I can say is thank goodness the movie had the sense to drop both bits and actually make them sympathetic, because I was definitely cheering for the shark when Hooper went into the shark cage. I only regret that Ellen couldn't have joined him.

Anyway, all of that being said, I still think the book is worth a read if you liked the film. But you have to recognize when it was written and what kind of book it really is. If you go in expecting it to be like the film, you'll be disappointed. If you go in expecting a late 70's paperback novel, then you'll get what you paid for and then some.