February 1974: “Jaws” the Novel is Published

Before “Jaws” the movie was released in June of 1975 and subsequently traumatized an entire generation away from going into the ocean past their waist (this author included); there was “Jaws” the novel published by Peter Benchley in February of 1974.

Novel cover, 1974

The novel was an instant success, and we all remember why– the fear created by the story sinks deliciously into your soul and really never leaves you.  New York Times literature editor, Andrew C.J. Bergman wrote on February 3, 1974, “The shark’s shredding provides the novel’s supports; the story is strung between them.”

Book publisher, Doubleday, originally commissioned the novel in 1971 with a $7,500 advance to Benchley, who was a journalist and former speech writer for Lyndon B. Johnson, and the hardcover version spent 44 weeks on the bestseller list.

Of course Stephen Spielberg then procured the movie rights to the novel and in the summer of 1974, sent a draft of a script to Carl Gottlieb, a writer and story editor for the popular TV show, “The Odd Couple.”

My favorite line from the “Jaws” movie is “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Apparently, this line was not in the book or the original script– it was added in by Gottlieb, who had several different characters try to say it before Martin Brody, uttered it after seeing the size and scope of “Jaws” for the first time. And it was perfect and went on to become one of the top quoted movie lines of all time.  

Sheriff Martin Brody played by Roy Scheider

New York Times editor, Bergman summed up the back half of the “Jaws” novel cleverly when he wrote, “In desperation, Brody turns to a forbidding fisherman named Quint…Then the hunt is on; the horror is finally expunged; and, buckets of chum later, Brody is alone returned to tell them.”

The story originated from Benchley’s interest in sharks and a 1964 newspaper article about a fisherman catching a great white shark off the waters of Montauk, New York that weighed in at over 4,500 pounds.  According to Wikipedia, he was also partly inspired by the Jersey Shore Shark Attacks of 1916 where five people had been attacked in July. Four of the victims died and one was severely injured.

The book had tremendous popular appeal, which only increased after the release of the movie, and received mixed reviews from literary critics.  According to Wikipedia, some reviewers felt the shark was the only really interesting character in the book.  But Benchley didn’t have Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss to help bring those amazing characters to life yet.

Many have panned both the novel and the movie since their respective releases for instilling fear and dread into so many towards sharks.  It’s a fair complaint and intellectually I understand that sharks are likely not out to get me, but even still, I will never be able to swim freely in the ocean without hearing the music and fearing for my life and Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg are pretty much to blame.

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