After 40 years, “Jaws” still has bite
Question: What do you get when you take a best selling novel, a young director named Spielberg, and a Great White shark?
Answer: The birth of the summer blockbuster movie.
It all started in 1964 when freelance writer Peter Benchley read an article in the New York Daily News about a Long Island fisherman who caught a 4,550 pound Great White shark. Benchley had an “aha” moment, and asked himself the question: What if a Great White shark came around, terrorized a town and wouldn’t go away?
Flashback to the early 1970s. Benchley had a book deal with Doubleday Books to write a book, early titles of which included Stillness in the Water and Leviathon Rising. Other potential titles were The Jaws of Death and The Jaws of Leviathan but these were also ruled out. After a conversation with his editor Tom Congdon, Benchley titled the book Jaws.
According to Benchley, it “was short and fit on the cover of a book jacket.”
The novel was first released in February 1974 and was an immediate best seller. As evidenced to this day by the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series, if a novel is successful, Hollywood will come calling.
After reading the novel, Universal Films producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown agreed it would make an exciting feature film and acquired the film rights. Now all that was needed was the right director.
After two attempts to make the film with different directors, Zanuck and Brown decided to hire relative unknown Steven Spielberg, then 28, to direct Jaws. Spielberg had only one film to his credit at the time, 1974’s The Sugarland Express.
In Douglas Brode’s book The Films of Steven Spielberg, Spielberg is quoted as saying he wanted to stick with the novel’s basic concept, that of a shark terrorizing the local town of Amity, and the efforts of police chief Martin Brody, marine biologist Matt Hooper, and local professional shark hunter Quint to catch and kill the shark.
To achieve this end, Spielberg had to eliminate many of the subplots of Benchley’s novel, including one in which Hooper and Brody’s wife, Helen, have an affair. Other subplots that landed on the cutting room floor were ties between Mayor Vaughn and the Mafia and the death of Hooper in the jaws of the Great White shark.
Spielberg cast actors Roy Scheider as Brody, Robert Shaw as Quint, and Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper. Author Benchley appeared in a cameo as a television reporter.
With the three leading roles cast, filming beginning in Martha’s Vineyard. The question that emerged was how to film a movie about a killer shark without showing at least a part of the shark. To answer this inquiry, Spielberg is quoted as saying he asked himself what would Alfred Hitchcock do?
“Imagining a Hitchcock movie, instead of a Godzilla movie,” Spielberg stated in the documentary Jaws The Inside Story, “I suddenly got the idea that we could make a lot of hay out of the horizon line, and not being able to see your feet, not being able to see anything below the waistline, when you’re treading water… it’s what we don’t see that is truly frightening.”
By not showing the shark onscreen as often as he appeared in the novel, the film was somehow more suspenseful and scary.
“That invited the audience to come to the movie, bringing their collective imaginations, Spielberg stated in Jaws The Inside Story, “Their imaginations helped me make the movie a success.”
After a successful early test screening, Universal Studios head Lew Wasserman made a unique decision. Originally, the film was to be shown in roughly 1,000 theaters. Wasserman cut that number to 490, stating he wanted lines around the box office.
His prediction came true, and Jaws was the top film of 1975. Jaws also held the title of top grossing film of all time until May 1977 when it was toppled by the success of Star Wars.
Prior to that time, the summer blockbuster as we know it today didn’t exist. However, due largely in part to the success of Jaws and Star Wars, it’s now a common phenomenon.
Two years after Jaws, Spielberg teamed up again with Richard Dreyfuss for the 1977 box office smash Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A film close to Spielberg’s heart, he originally wanted to make it back in 1974.
At the time, he was advised if he made a film as successful as Jaws, he’d have enough clout in Hollywood to make any film he wanted. So, we can thank the success of Jaws for his subsequent films, including Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Art, E.T., and Jurassic Park.
Jaws spawned three sequels, none of which broke the box office record of the original. As of this writing, no other sequels or reboots have been announced but, given the climate in Hollywood lately, you never know what lurks beyond the horizon.
Story by Chuck Brutz for Pennsylvania Bridges