Variety rates “Jaws” as one of 10 movies that was better than the book. Several lists on Goodreads also put the book Jaws in the same category, such as “The movie was better than the book” which puts Jaws one notch above The Silence of the Lambs.
So my expectations were low when I finally got a chance to read Peter Benchley’s classic. Reading it easily blew my expectations out of the water.
Like the movie, Jaws opens with a topless teenager splashing into the waves after dark. We all know what happens next. But the true horror grows after the first shark attack as we meet the men pulling the strings in Amity. They call the shots and have the power to make or break the lives of the locals. The chief of police comes under their nasty pressures to keep the beaches open. Amity is totally reliant on a very short vacationer season to sustain itself economically for the year. Brody caves, but he remains a very sympathetic character because we know he wanted to do the right thing.
The biggest difference between the book and film in terms of the plot is that Brody’s wife cheats on him with Matt Hooper. One Goodreads reviewer calls the sex “utterly pointless and adds nothing to the story,” but that comment misses the point. Brody’s wife is from “the city,” and grew up vacationing with her middle class family in Amity. The rift between “summer people” and the townees is one of the big themes in Jaws. The shark doesn’t just threaten swimmers, but it threatens the fabric of life in Amity. Hooper, the shark expert, offers the sophistication and care-free adventure that she misses as an Amity housewife. The shark forces the characters to reexamine where they are in life.
Benchley depicts the escalating threat of the shark very effectively. Each attack scene is scary and reveals something additional about the shark’s nature and the severity of the danger. The text may not have the visceral impact to scare you out of the water the same way that the movie could, and it’s true that Stephen Spielberg made a terrific movie. But that is hardly Benchley’s fault. If I had written Jaws, I would have been thrilled for a great director to turn my book into a fantastic film. And if I were Spielberg I’d count my blessings for the good fortune of starting production with such a great book.