February 2019 marks 45 years since the publication of Leviathan Rising, a hit book about a rogue killer shark. Well, that was almost its title – along with Stillness in the Water and The Jaws of Death – but we know it as simply, Jaws.
A title that it is said that made Spielberg think it was about a pornographic dentist, but it was only decided as the books title just 20 minutes before the book went into production. Jaws the film, and the legendary filming circumstances, have for many eclipsed those beginnings of the book, but the book was the first chapter of the unrelenting success of Jaws and - despite script rewrites and sharks not working - one thing is for sure, we still needed that Benchley prose, title and idea in the first place. That is Jaws, without the book, we have nothing. A perfect eating machine of a book? It’s perhaps more famous for the differences between the book and the film, the mafia subplot, Ellen Brody and Hooper having an affair, Hooper falling prey to the shark, no Indianapolis speech. But that’s a whole different blog post and not what this one is about.
Well, as a book it certainly did fantastic business. Benchley would have been the first to say that it wasn’t the greatest book ever written, so would many critics, but it wasn’t trying to be. It was of course a juggernaut on the senses. A publishing sensation? Definitely, even if the hardback edition was kept off the top spot by rabbits, in the form of Watership Down
However, with three and a half million paperback copies shifted from shelves by early summer 1975 it was certainly a publication sensation, it would go onto sell over 20 million copies in paperback alone. Not a bad record for this – or any other – vicinity.
Benchley, a former Washington Post reporter and TV news correspondent – no wonder his Jaws cameo as a TV reporter was pitch perfect - and speech writer for the 36th American President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Benchley was also a keen amateur sailor and scuba diver. The politics, the adventure, all those strands were already in his hands ready to mould into the shark attack terror that hits Amity Island that we know and love.
He delivered a four page outline to the publishers Doubleday in June 1971 and the first four chapters the following April, with the book released in hardback in 1974. That book had a stark, simple black and white cover of a shark and Chrissie; it almost looks like a prototype. It’s not THE shark we know and love though, that would come with the paperback edition with the cover designed by Roger Kastel. That now familiar cover would go onto adorn the iconic film poster and several thousand sleepless nights.
Universal paid Benchley $175,000 (that’s over $893,000 in 2019 terms) for the movie rights, which also included the gig of a first draft screenplay, hence the shared credit with Carl Gottlieb. And so began the quest to bring the beast of a monster book to the big screen, the rest as they say is history. Even if it wasn’t exactly plain sailing.
If you have only seen Jaws the film then you need to experience the book, it is a huge part of the Jaws DNA. It’s as different to the film as it is familiar - both are different beasts and mediums should be enjoyed as such. It also makes you realise how the combination of the creative team behind the film and its series of unfortunate events whilst filming created the perfect storm that gave us the classic film we all know and love today. Somehow reading the book makes you appreciate and love Jaws the film even more, if that’s even possible.
Different, but the same. Both are very much their own entities, just inhabiting different timelines that’s all. You can enjoy each on their own merits. Jaws is a journey of four distinct parts, one of the book, two of the production, three the film itself and four, its enduring legacy. To fully appreciate it you need the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.