When channel surfing, Jaws is one of those movies that always knocks me off my surfboard. No matter how far into the movie it is, I’ll stop and watch it to the end. I can’t say how many times I’ve seen Jaws, but I’d venture to guess that I’ve seen it more than any other film. To me, it’s a perfect film of which I never tire. I suppose I feel a sort of kinship to the film, its principal photography having started on the month I was born in 1974. Also, the movie was mostly filmed in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, not far from where I lived. I’m told that months after I was born, as a swaddled infant, I accompanied my parents on a trip to Martha’s Vineyard. As we arrived on the ferry, my parents spotted movie crews, filming the incoming ferry. I feel like this family myth is the wishful thinking of my father who would love to believe that we the somehow made it into the final cut of the film, if only as background extras. Knowing my father, it is more likely that the “film crew” they spotted was a tourist with a Polaroid Instamatic camera. Who knows?
Day trips to Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod were fairly common when I was very young. Inevitably, we’d stop in at the gift shops to browse the vast selection of souvenirs, beach towels, suntan lotions, inflatable flotation apparatuses, miniature lobster traps, and assorted knickknacks made of driftwood, shells, and googly eyes. I’d gravitate toward the toy bins on the lower shelves which were filled with colorful toy lobsters, octopi, crabs, and sharks; the latter, an effort to capitalize on the success of Jaws no doubt. One of my favorite and oldest surviving toys is a rubber great white shark from one such trip. Jaws had very little toy merchandising for children (probably because it was mostly terrifying), so it served as my unofficial1 Jaws action figure, battered and scarred from countless trips to the beach and bathtub frenzies.
I don’t recall the first time that I saw Jaws. It’s just always been a part of my consciousness. I remember looking at my father’s paperback of Peter Benchly’s original novel, and being mesmerized by Roger Kastel’s menacing painting. Its neighbor on the bookshelf was a copy of Shark Attack by H. David Baldridge, which featured true life accounts of shark attacks on man, including photos of survivors with fresh bite marks. Jaws and its resulting shark craze instilled me with a healthy fear of the water and an admiration and respect for sharks. I’ve not been able to swim in the ocean (or a pond for that matter) without imagining John Williams’ relentless theme, while ever vigilant of a dorsal fin slicing though surface of the water. Granted, Jaws had a similar effect on the rest of the human population. For me, It didn’t help that my father was fond of telling me of the time that sharks were once spotted close to shore at one of our local beaches, he recounted rowboats full of men armed with shotguns to clear the waters of any threats. This scene, uncannily like one from the film, might just be another one of my father’s mythologies.
I’ve seen Jaws in its variety of formats from the “edited for television” broadcasts, the uncut cable and VHS viewings that followed, to the more recent DVD releases with accompanying making of documentaries as well as a big-screen viewing at a local cinema. Loving the movie as I do, I thought it appropriate that I read the source material, so I set out to read Peter Benchley’s novel. As is always the case, the movie does stray from the book. In the book, the town of Amity is in Long Island, New York and not New England as suggested in the film. Even though I now live closer to Long Island than Martha’s Vineyard, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed by this detail. I enjoyed the stronger focus on the town politics and the townie vs. tourist struggle, which made the beach closure a greater threat. Also, the reader experiences more of a shark’s eye view than is offered in the film. This combined with characters that are less likable than their film counterparts, had me sympathizing with the shark a bit more than I had in the movie. Ultimately, I enjoyed the book. Like the film, persistent heroes face unyielding circumstances, echoing Melville’s Moby-Dick and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, two favorites of mine. Still, I feel the film tells the story better than the book. Perhaps I’d feel differently had I read the book first. Nonetheless, the film has a more hopeful tone that has kept me watching for over thirty years.
What speaks to me about Jaws is the resolve of its three protagonists faced with an equally unrelenting antagonist. The four character archetypes create a perfect dynamic. At times, I feel like I can relate to all four: Quint the obsessive sea captain, Hooper the curious scientist, Brody the common man who finds courage when backed into a corner, and the shark that is vilified simply for being a shark. The making of the film itself is a story of tenacity. It faced technical obstacles of continually malfunctioning mechanical sharks, went over budget and over deadline to an unparalleled degree. Still, the film persisted with a determined Steven Spielberg at the helm, like Ahab chasing his white whale. This troubled production forced adjustments that have resulted in the success of Jaws transcending horror, thriller, drama or any attempted categorization. Today, Jaws is often regarded as one of the greatest films of all time by critics, filmmakers and audiences alike.
My Jaws obsession doesn’t seem to be waning. Like Quint, I recently set out on a hunt for a great white shark of my own in the way of the 1975 Game of Jaws by made by Ideal. My hunt was successful, and I was able to catch my shark without going over budget with the production. Now I can satisfying and carefully pick ingested items out of the shark potentially spilling the Kintner boy out all over the dock (ages 5 and up).
This week being Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, it’s likely that I’ll stumble upon plenty of shark-centric programming, all of which likely exists as a result of the film. Certainly, competing channels will be airing Jaws in observance of the week-long holiday. For that, I’m thrilled. Luckily, my wife shares in my love of, if not obsession with, Jaws. So much so, that we decided to name our cat Quint. As it happens, the cat is a little bit crazy, and very persistent. He lives up to his namesake. We’re very proud.