“The book was better” isn’t always true

Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water....One of the most unforgettable movies ever was Jaws, the 1975 summer blockbuster about a great white shark that decided to use the beaches of Amity Island as a buffet. Naturally, I just had to go pick up a copy of the newly released version of that movie on Blu-Ray, which has cleaned up and clarified the film we have been watching on late night for so long that it has almost lost its power. I have to say, watching that new version was almost like seeing it for the first time in the theater. My wife actually (literally) jumped out of her chair when Ben Gardner’s head popped out of the hole in the bottom of his boat.

Steven Spielberg based his thriller on a novel by Peter Benchley, and Benchley worked on the script with Spielberg’s writers. Jaws is one example of how the movie is better than the book; in fact, it is a decided improvement over the novel which at the time I sort of passed over because, quite frankly, it struck me as tawdry, trashy pulp fiction. Spielberg saw the possibilities beneath the muck, and turned the story into one that still causes the hair on your arms to tingle.

In the novel, Benchley spent too much time delving into the neuroses of his characters, and their sexual longings and peccadilloes. The affair between oceanographer Matt Hooper and Ellen Brodie added nothing to the story, except provide requisite sexual romps that publishers prized in the sex-obsessed seventies. Mayor Vaughn was as slimy in the book as he was in the movie, but he also was in league with the Mafia. Mafia hoods had invested in Amity real estate and closing the beaches would have endangered their investment. Just to spice things up, Vaughn also had a thing for Ellen Brodie. That woman was as slippery as the shark.

Robert Shaw as Captain Quint in "Jaws."

Robert Shaw gave a brilliant performance as the crusty Captain Quint, an Ahab-like character with demons, in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Image: Photobucket.

As for Quint, Benchley clearly saw him as a modern day Captain Ahab. At first, the old fisherman was in int for the money but then became obsessed with the fish. His obsession eventually led to his death, and his death occurred in the same way Ahab’s did: caught in a rope, dragged to the bottom, and then resurfacing on the huge fish like some harbinger of hell.

Spielberg’s script honed this somewhat confused tale down to a work of art, clean, crisp, and streamlined. He completely threw out the sexual longings of the characters; jettisoned the Mafia link, leaving Vaughn just a self-aggrandizing political hack who tried to please everybody (something we can easily identify with). Hooper is not a skirt chaser, but a shark chaser who develops a bond with Chief Brodie that precluded his dalliance with Ellen. And Quint? Well, the allusion to Captain Ahab is still unmistakeable. However, his manner of death is more grisly and the ending is doubly impressive because it is Chief Brodie who brings down the shark, having once and for all overcome a lifelong terror of being in the water.

But one of the most unforgettable scenes in Spielberg’s film is the soliloquy that Quint delivers on the boat while the three men are drinking and relaxing about his experience on the U.S.S. Indianapolis, and in the water surrounded by sharks after the boat was hit by Japanese torpedoes. It is one of the most powerful film moments I have experienced. It turned Benchley’s muddled effort at storytelling into a product of genius.

So, if you ever wondered how the movie compared with the book, and feel the urge to pick up Benchley’s novel, by all means check it out. However, I think you will see that Spielberg made the story into something far superior.

Incidentally, another instance of the movie surpassing the novel is Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. The novel was–unlike Jaws–quite a good book, but the script for the 1972 blockbuster took the novel, shaved off it’s excesses (like the focus on Johnny Fontaine and his Hollywood antics), and created a work of art which I, personally, consider one of the finest films ever made.

Now for some instances of where the book is better than the movie. No one has ever made a movie version of Wuthering Heights that is as good as Emily Bronte’s novel. Likewise, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has never successfully been translated to celluloid. (Incidentally, new movie versions of both of these novels are shortly coming out.)

But the all-time worst attempt to translate a film from novel to the big screen that I can remember was Catch 22, based on Joseph Heller’s best seller. The 1970 film version turned a work of genius into a superficial, tawdry piece of seventies pandering.

Heller’s Catch 22 does bring us full circle, because in 1973 a pilot episode for a TV series based on Catch 22 was released starring Richard Dreyfuss, Jaws’ Matt Hooper, in the Yossarian role. It apparently went nowhere. That was a good thing. Catch 22 should be remembered for its own peculiar genius, not for the chop job that Hollywood script writers did on it.

So, if you liked the book, you may not like the movie. And vice versa. But being familiar with both makes the overall appreciation of whatever is positive about the story that much more deeply understandable. And that’s a good thing!

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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