Jaws Film Essays

"No". There's a word Steven Spielberg probably hasn't heard in a while. Back in 1974, though, it was a different story. Back in 1974, Steven Spielberg had yet to make Jaws. He'd seen the galley proofs of Peter Benchley's bestseller on producer David Brown's desk. "What's this about?" he remembers thinking, "a porno dentist?" Not quite. But although the transcript could hardly be described as high art, Spielberg was sold.

Having recently moved to Malibu, where he had taken to staring out to sea for hours at a time, the concept tapped into his psyche. As he himself says, "I read it and felt that I had been attacked. It terrified me, and I wanted to strike back." Zanuck and Brown turned him down nonetheless. Only when their first choice, Dick Richards (who had caused concern by continually referring to "the whale"), wavered did they call Spielberg back.

And although by this stage he had convinced himself the project wasn't for him, legend has it that on arriving at the producers' office to find them wearing the Jaws sweatshirts he'd had commissioned after that first fateful read (to convince them he was the man for the job) he rescinded. "We shamed him," Zanuck said, "into staying on." Whatever its genesis, Jaws was Spielberg's breakthrough. The first summer blockbuster, it was also the first to ever break the $100 million mark (worldwide it exceeded five times that) and single-handedly caused a downturn in the package holiday trade. "For years he just scared us," commented his sister Anne after an early screening. "Now he gets to scare the masses."

And didn't he just. The head popping out of the boat (re-shot from a different angle when preview audiences didn't jump enough), the moment the shark's head conies bursting through the surface, the first attack, by an unseen predator — our primal fears are tweaked incessantly. This last factor, the unseen element, is crucial. For despite a 27-year old Spielberg publicly asserting that, "I watch hundreds of old movies but I haven't learned that much from them," there was undoubtedly one lesson he took on board. And where better to study than the school of Alfred Hitchcock?

"A bomb is under the the table, and it explodes: that is surprise", the auteur famously observed. "A bomb is under the table, but it does not explode", that is suspense.

Spielberg's decision to follow suit, not unleashing his demon for over an hour — although there is the argument that endless technical difficulties with Bruce (the nickname, based on that of his attorney, he gave Robert Mattey's mechanical sharks) one, two and three contributed to the process — pays off handsomely.

Some say, however, that Jaws is essentially Duel 2. Certainly there are similarities (mirrored by Spielberg employing the same dinosaur sound effect for the deaths of truck then shark), but this later work thrives in the defter touches that pepper its perfect three-act chronology. The famous reverse zoom; Brody looking through the shark book; the confrontation between him and Mrs Kintner; the use of fences on land, in comparison with empty horizons at sea, to convey our protagonists' isolation; the use of the colour yellow (the lilo, the barrels, the torch) and the primary visual stimulus, to suggest impending danger.

If the cast also gels seamlessly, such harmony didn't come without a struggle. Zanuck wanted Charlton Heston as Brody ("What?" shrieked Spielberg. "Moses? You want Moses? Everybody'll know he'll win!") and Sterling Hayden as Quint. Spielberg's ideal for the role was Lee Marvin, and thought Jon Voight spot-on for Hooper. Benchley meanwhile (who, it has to be said, had been awkward throughout, having seen his three original drafts radically re-written), frankly, wanted shooting for his egotistical dream troika of Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.

And if the equally problematic Dreyfuss, who complained constantly that he'd, "rather watch this movie than shoot it," took some convincing, it's unthinkable that the final result — including cameos from Spielberg (the voice on Quint's radio) and Benchley (a reporter), as well as sublime turns from Gary and Hamilton in support — could have been any more masterful. Add to that the timeless script, by Howard Sackler, Carl Gottlieb and John Milius (said to be largely responsible for the Indianapolis monologue, though Shaw's input is acknowledged); John Williams' score (even though Spielberg laughed on first hearing it), and the equation is complete.

An equation all the more impressive considering that both bigger budgets and time frames were needed in the wake of a disastrous shoot, nicknamed "Flaws" by its crew, in Martha's Vineyard.

Zanuck and Brown's suggestion of, "We'll get a trained one!" hardly helped solve the shark issues, Gottlieb and Spielberg were nearly killed in seafaring accidents and a sinking Orca had expensive consequences, despite the director's reputed order to: "Fuck the actors! Save the sound department!" Rendering Spielberg's vow on wrapping what arguably remains his finest moment, perhaps not altogether surprising. "My next picture will be on dry land," he said solemnly. "There won't even be a bathroom scene."

Rightly lauded, Jaws has lost none of its power to terrify. A film of immense, visceral and psychological power.

  • 1

    A common truism is that the book is always better than the movie they make from it. Both Peter Benchley’s book and Steve Spielberg’s film version were enormous commercial and critical successes. Explain why Jaws is not an example of “the book was better.”

    In the novel, the conflict between man and beast that takes center stage when the trio that goes out hunting for the shark is complicated by dramatic tension of sexual complications between Brody and Hooper as a result of Hooper having an affair with the sheriff’s wife. The novel provides ample opportunity for Benchley to work this layer of conflict into the tension of the hunting trip, but the film loses absolutely nothing in terms of drama by completely jettisoning this subplot. In fact, without the intrusion of the personal conflict between Brody and Hooper, Spielberg’s direction can focus all the greater building the tension between the men and the shark.

  • 2

    Analyze how Jaws engages the theme of man against nature by showing that conflict from perspectives revealing man as both prey and predator.

    The dramatic structure of the narrative path of Jaws constructs a parallel so that the second half of the film is a kind of mirror image of the first half. The first half of the story is all about how nature is capable of terrorizing an entire section of society and reveals that man is subject to becoming the prey of the unpredictably violent randomness of the natural world. The hunting expedition undertaken by Brody, Hooper and Quint that takes up most of the second half of the movie flips that dynamic so that the shark that was formerly the predator now becomes the prey.

  • 3

    Explain how Jaws combines the literary devices of irony and setting by making the 4th of July a prominent part of the plot.

    The sequence showing how the mainlanders descend upon the island to celebrate the nation’s independence is filled with ironic commentary on how the 4th of July has devolved from a date for celebrating emancipation from oppression into just another big day for big and little businesses. The entire film is about nothing else than fighting off a relentless foreign invader to ensure freedom and liberty. Set against that metaphor is the more concrete concerns expressed by the town’s mayor about local businesses losing their vital summer revenue as the result of having to close the beaches. The irony of the struggle for survival against the shark set off against the commercial devaluation of the meaning of Independence Day is unmistakable.

  • 4

    Identify the villain in Jaws.

    At first glance, the shark seems to be the requisite villain in the thriller that is Jaws. In reality, however, the shark exhibits none of the malicious intent that is normally associated with characters delineated as villains. The shark is a brute animal acting out of pure instinct; it needs to survive, therefore it eats whatever is at hand. In contrast, the Mayor of Amity Island puts townspeople and tourists at risk by refusing to close the beaches. In his zeal to put the commercial interests of local business (or, as the Mayor views them, voters) ahead of the safety of everyone else, the only character in the entire movie who even comes close to demonstrating the kind of malice associated with villains is the Mayor.

  • 5

    Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro considered Jaws one of the best critiques of the American way of life Hollywood ever made. Explain why a communist revolutionary would view Jaws as successful Marxist propaganda.

    The summer season means one thing for many people on Amity Island, including the Mayor: profits. They stand to gain the bulk of their yearly income from the enormous influx of tourists and mainlanders who pour onto the island by the boatload. The appearance of a menacing shark—and, more importantly, the appearance of a bearded liberal scientist who recognizes the hazard the shark poses—threatens to plug up all that potential profit enjoyed by happy voters if the access to the beach is closed as the scientist recommends. The Mayor will lose his power if he fails to get re-elected and Amity’s business owners won’t vote for him if he caves into liberal pressure to shut down the beach and plug up their income stream. And so the purely animalistic shark becomes less a threat to life and limb than an economic peril to be avoided through political influence. Those least likely to suffer loss of life sell their wares to an ignorant public unwittingly risking their safety for the purpose of making sure the Mayor gets re-elected. Little wonder that the world’s longest-serving communist leader viewed Jaws so positively.

  • 6

    Explore the effects of seeing the physical shark so infrequently on the film's emotional progress, cinematography, and ability to elicit fear.

    It's no secret that Jaws' ability to build tension and scare its audience so successfully comes from very rarely showing the thing they so fear. In fact, it serves multiple purposes: first, it heightens tension faster than it can release it. With so much consequence and so little culprit onscreen, the audience ends up chomping at the bit (excuse the pun) to see the beast that they've already formed an image of in their minds. From a cinematographic standpoint, it lead to the film's shots that feature the shark's point of view. Where showing an actual shark swimming in the water would have been very straightforward, showing only what the shark is seeing and playing John William's ominous score underneath yields the same result of telling the audience that the shark is present, while still not directly showing it to them, such that their minds continue to run wild with the possibilities of the beast's horrific true appearance and abilities.

  • 7

    Explore the characters of Hooper and Quint as they relate to one another.

    Quint and Hooper act as foil characters for one another, locking horns continuously aboard the Orca. Quint is the old and old-fashioned islander, gruff, grizzled and dirty, while Hooper is the young, uptight rich boy with “city hands.” The two fight and mock each other constantly. At the same time, however, their differences often complement one another: Quint’s methods of attaching barrels to the shark work wonders for helping them track it, and Hooper’s cage and poison needle are an excellent potential way of killing it in the water. That both their actions had merit and aided in bringing down the shark serves the larger message that no man is an island in this story.

  • 8

    Discuss Brody's character development over the course of the film.

    Chief Brody is new to town, afraid of water, and knows little about sharks. He wants to make a difference in Amity, but for much of the film, and indeed the majority of the hunt aboard the Orca, he seems entirely helpless, at the mercy of the shark’s almost taunting attacks or Quint and Hooper’s far superior maritime knowledge. His iconic line, “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” even separates him from Quint with the way he avoids using the pronoun “we” (the way people so often misquote it). The film’s climax therefore features the completion of a journey for him: the fact that the end of the shark battle features him alone, out on the water with nothing but a rifle and a prayer, demonstrates how he’s finally taken control of his ability to make a difference, faced his fears, and shed his helplessness for power and victory.

  • 9

    Explore the cinematographic elements of the beach scene that features Alex Kintner's death.

    This scene is a particularly well-crafted feature in Jaws. The majority of it takes place from Brody’s perspective, featuring views of the swimmers in the water strictly from the beach, which various people obscure by trying to talk to him. The passerby create natural wipes that transition from one cut to the next, showing first the swimmers, then Brody’s anxious face, then back to the swimmers again. Placing these interrupting people in the way of both our and Brody’s view of the water helps us to feel his frustration and nervousness.

    The dog’s death in this scene is a particularly good example of how simply Spielberg can convey things without showing them. Up until he disappears, the dog is only featured playing fetch, and therefore he and the stick are a pair as far the viewer is concerned—where there is a stick, there should be a dog fetching the stick. But when we hear the dog’s owner calling out to him with no reply, and when we see the stick floating on its own, unretrieved, the pairing is severed, and we understand at once that the dog is gone without needing to see the shark actually kill it.

  • 10

    Discuss the influential role of John William's iconic theme music on the film. What effect does it have on both the story and the viewer?

    It’s perhaps fitting that Jaws opens with what is arguably the most iconic theme music of any film in history: the eerie, suspenseful theme in which two alternating notes crescendo and quicken builds anticipation before there is even anything to fear. Composer John Williams has said that this ominous music was meant to represent the shark as an "unstoppable force" of "mindless and instinctive attacks.” The music is not only a great emotional manipulator in its ability to elicit terror from an unsuspecting audience, but also an amazing symbol for the shark itself, who appears physically so infrequently and is often represented by the resumption of the music only. Indeed, not once during the attack on Chrissie do we actually see any piece of the shark, and yet the combination of her terrified thrashing and the unsettling music is enough to convey the attack without any appearance by the attacker. Her death teaches the audience from the get-go that the suspenseful music will unequivocally mean “shark” for the rest of the film, regardless any other indication of its presence.

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