Monday, February 02, 2004

The book that spawned a monster

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Online entertainment staff

It is 30 years since Peter Benchley's tale of a menacing Great White shark was published. BBC News Online looks at the book's legacy.
If anything helped to make a modern villain of sharks - and especially the Great White - it was Peter Benchley's debut novel Jaws.

In 1974 Benchley struck a chord with the story of a resort town menaced by a giant shark - a terror older than man himself.

The book starts with a Great White shark lurking off the eastern resort town of Amity, which kills a girl taking a midnight swim.

Her remains are found by local police chief Martin Brody , who believes the killer is now lurking offshore, but the local mayor, afraid a summer shark scare will bankrupt the town, refuses to close the beaches.

The book came, the author said, from a simple newspaper story.

'Moral crisis'

"In 1964 I saw a small item in the New York Daily News about a fisherman who caught a 4,550lb Great White off the beaches of Long Island," Benchley told BBC Radio 4's Front Row programme.

"And I thought right then 'What if one of these things came round and wouldn't go away?"

Thomas Congdon, an editor at publishers Doubleday in the US, had read some of Benchley's articles. In 1971 he took the 31-year-old writer to lunch to see if the journalist had any book ideas.

None of Benchley's ideas were suitable for a book, the now-retired Mr Congdon told BBC News Online.

"So at the end of the lunch meeting, for something to say over coffee, I asked him if he had an idea for a novel, half-hoping he'd say no. 'Yes,' he said, 'I want to tell the story of a Great White shark that marauds the beaches of a resort town and provokes a moral crisis."

Mr Congdon was certainly interested. "He did a page in my office, and I gave him a cheque for $1,000," he said. "On the basis of that he did me 100 pages.

"The first five pages were just wonderful. They just went in to the eventual book without any changes. The other 95 pages though were on the wrong track. They were humorous. And humour isn't the proper vehicle for a great thriller."

One suggestion for the book's title was The Stillness in the Water - not, Mr Congdon said, a name that rolled off the tongue.

When the book finally got its toothy title it became one of the publishing sensations of US book history, rivalling Herman Melville's other tale of great white denizen of the deep, Moby Dick.

Compared to Steven Spielberg's resulting film, the book had a darker underlying theme. Matt Hooper, the marine biologist brought in to fight the shark, has an affair with Brody's wife Ellen.

Mayor Vaughan's insistence on keeping the beaches open, meanwhile, may have something to do with the fact he owes money to the mafia.

Spielberg has admitted that when he first read the book he found most of the characters unlikeable, and wanted the shark to win.

On publication Jaws was certainly popular - it had already been well-received in book clubs. It stayed on the bestseller list for 44 weeks, according to Carl Gottlieb's The Jaws Log.

Change of heart

By the time summer arrived, Jaws had become a genuine phenomenon.

Sunbathers leafed through the book lying yards away from the sea - the very environment that hid Benchley's finned killer.

Jaws spawned a wave of copycat novels with mutant rats and crabs or rabid dogs as the nemesis - one of the 1970s less enduring literary trends.

Still, Mr Congdon is still happy to praise it. "It's a good novel - it's not great literature and it's not Moby Dick, but it's a well-written book."

The book - great literature or not - did spawn Steven Spielberg's 1975 film version, which arguably kick-started blockbuster movie-making.

Another legacy of Jaws is less trivial. Benchley began to feel guilty about how his novel had turned sharks into villains, and had a very public change of heart: he is now an ardent ocean conservationist - saving sharks is at the top of his agenda.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2004/02/01 12:59:08 GMT


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