Even as a child, I never thought of Jaws as a horror film, but rather a drama. That's not to say that I didn't find it terrifying the first time I watched it (even in its edited-for-television version that was much less bloody and left out a couple of severed limbs). It's just that horror films lose their edge after their original viewing. Audiences know when the scares are coming, and in a genre reliant on catching you off guard, such movies have trouble living up to their original screenings. Jaws, on the other hand, is like a fine wine (or Clint Eastwood's directing). It improves with age.
I would dare say that most of the film's true appreciators — those who recognize it as an undisputed classic and have never ever asked a question like, "Remind me how the shark comes back to life for Jaws 2?" —would probably agree with me on it being a drama, even if they've never put much thought into the distinction.
The star of the film, after all, is not the shark. As great as Bruce was in his cinematic debut, sending chills up our spines to the backdrop of one of film-history's most iconic original scores, the characters were the stars.
The dynamic among Brody, Hooper, and Quint (portrayed masterfully by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss,and Robert Shaw) is nothing short of brilliant. Each character is remarkably honest and nuanced with separate motivations. And although they are very different from each other (which makes their chemistry all the more interesting), the audience can relate to all of them on a personal level.
Chief Martin Brody embodies our sense of responsibility and concern for the safety of those who rely on us. He shares our fears, recognizes his own weaknesses, and is to some extent a reluctant hero. Like many of us, he's not entirely comfortable in his own skin. But despite his vulnerabilities, he's a man of principles and conviction who elicits admiration — the sort of person we all aspire to be.
Matt Hooper is the explorer in all of us — a passionate, impulsive, and tenacious individual who, in a sense, sees the world through the eyes of a child (albeit a very smart child). He's confident and like many of us, not terribly receptive to criticism. He, after all, knows best — just as we do in our work environment, when it feels as though we're the only person in the organization who knows what in the hell they're doing.
Quint may be the most uncouth character of the bunch, but he is by no means unrelatable. He draws from the inner-libertarian that resides (at least a little bit) in all of us, exhibiting our rugged individualism, resistance to authority, and the cynicism we harbor toward society's detrimental norms. When we go on a hike or walk through a park on a sunny day, and we notice everyone around us with their heads buried in a smartphone, the sneer etched across our faces is us channeling Quint.
We even identify with Mayor Larry Vaughn (more closely than most of us would probably like to admit). No, I'm not talking about his fashion sense, thank goodness. I'm referring to how he embodies our natural inclination to gloss over and even dismiss inconvenient truths that stand in the way of getting the things we want. If you've ever made a big purchase with your Christmas bonus, without first verifying the amount or even that you'll be getting a bonus, you've pulled a Larry Vaughn.
As a novelist who is working on his fourth book, I'm often told by readers that they appreciate my characters for their realism, and that those characters don't fall into the molds of typical fictional figures. I always enjoy hearing that, because it's very much by design: from the abrasive security-guard protagonist who struggles with alcohol and a fiery temperament, to the reclusive survivalist whose pent up guilt won't let him escape his past. I believe that the key to any good dramatic story is nuanced and diverse characters, and writers like me couldn't have asked for a better blueprint for how to get it right than the movie Jaws.
This timeless work of art from Steven Spielberg, Peter Benchley, a great cast, and everyone else involved in the film is a true inspiration. It's a treasure that I can't help but watch whenever I stumble across it while channel-surfing, or when my local independent theater shows it annually on Fourth of July weekend (attending that screening has become a family tradition).
No mere horror film (no matter how scary) could ever hook me in the way Jaws has, even if it were to use three barrels.
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