I have a deep affinity for a lot of different types of storytelling. I am a teacher of literature, so I appreciate the classics. I have a bit more of an affinity for American literature, but I can still appreciate other bits of writing from around the world. I admit I have my biases as well, as I would rather willingly burn my hand on a hibachi grill than read something by the Bronte sisters. This wide-ranging appreciation for stories reaches beyond literature as well. I didn’t pop out of the womb with an appreciation for the written word, after all. My love of stories is tied to the world of literature and the world of film in equal measure, but certain pieces of cinema have influenced me more than others and my enthusiasm for certain genres and films waxes and wanes depending on my place in life at the time I am introduced to them. For example, my appreciation for the guerrilla craft of fellow Texan Robert Rodriguez has been steadily reduced over the years while my love for his cohort Quentin Tarantino has only grown as I have come to better understand the love letters he is composing with each of his new films.
But there is one thing that hasn’t changed from the moment I first saw it until today, and that is my absolute undying love for Steven Spielberg’s classic fin-flick Jaws. I remember being enamored with this film from a very early age. I can say I was a fan of the movie at least from the time I was six years old because I remember watching a copy of the film my father had taped off of HBO and hearing somewhere that Jurassic Park, a film which would become my new obsession from ages 7-10 and intermittently beyond that was made my the same guy.
I remember being so taken by Jaws that I sought out and enjoyed the sequels as well. Looking back on them now, I know that they are, for the most part, absolute garbage. But to a young kid discovering the world of movies and figuring out on his own what was entertaining, they were immune to criticism. I didn’t realize how stupid the idea of a shark following a family from New England to Jamaica out of some sort of internalized need for revenge actually sounded. I just thought the scene where the shark chewed his way through a small one-man submersible and then chased the fleeing scientist through the ruins of a sunken ship was awesome.
As the years went on and I transitioned from being transfixed by stories to wanting to tell them myself, I began to become more critically minded. I started asking questions like “why do I enjoy this film so much?”, “What works so well about this scene?”, “What does this movie do differently?” and so on and so forth. With most movies I found myself discovering that the construction was somehow lacking, either in the script or the directing or the acting. Some element about whatever I was watching didn’t seem to measure up in the end. But not with Jaws.
I don’t think there are many films more perfectly constructed than Jaws. I know that the seventies produced a myriad of films that redefined how movies were made, but I don’t think any of them truly have had the lasting effect on the way we tell stories or the way we consume them the way that Jaws has. The film was adapted from the book by Peter Benchley (which I of course have read and will get into a little later on), the rights to which were purchased by producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown prior even to the novel’s release. This would happen again to another Spielberg production, Jurassic Park. The film is a landmark in the world of Hollywood for ushering in the idea of the summer blockbuster and a testament to the fact that, at one time, the blockbuster could be handled with deft artistry and a commitment to quality storytelling.
Had the film been a straight adaptation of Benchley’s novel, I would probably not be singing its praises here. A Rolling Stone review of the book said that “None of the humans are particularly likable or interesting” and that the author likely viewed the shark as his favorite character. The film adaptation does not garner this complaint from me, or anyone truly, as the character work on display in the film is one of the many elements that make it so endlessly re-watchable. Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody is a deeply written character, flawed and human, but infinitely likable in his own blue-collar way and we want, as an audience, to see him overcome his fears and anxieties to conquer the shark at the end of the day. Richard Dreyfuss puts in a turn as Matt Hooper that salvages the character from the relentlessly unlikable portrayal of the character from the original novel and turns him into one of the more charming, affable supporting characters in the history of cinema. He becomes a prototype for characters cut from the same cloth that will crop up in the stories that swim in the wake of this film for decades to come. And of course we have Quint, the archetypal grizzled and determined fisherman who is done in by his own hubris in a manner that hearkens back to Melville’s Captain Ahab.
The characters in the film are the base of a pyramid filled with reasons why this movie works so well. If we didn’t want to see them succeed the rest of the story would fall apart entirely. It is part of why the novel failed to interest me in the same way the movie did. The film also wisely structures the story in a way that keeps our heroes on their voyage, isolated for the entirety of their quest once they set out on the Orca, as opposed to the daily sojourns portrayed within the pages of the novel.
As we move up the pyramid, other craft elements of the piece begin to become more clear. The writing and the portrayal of these characters is top notch but the construction of the narrative is also key. It is well documented that Spielberg’s decision to keep the shark largely unseen until late in the film was the work of happenstance and bad luck when trying to get the animatronic rig to function, but that setback also allowed the film to breathe and build upon itself in a way that other films do not get. How many people have tried to ape the success of Jaws but failed to hit the same bar? The numbers are too high to calculate. But looking at films that try to play the same game, it is clear that they don’t have the same melding of actor-to-character-to-script magic that came together with Jaws. Spielberg may have been a young director but he made very deliberate choices that hold the film together and make it special. From his insistence on shooting in open water to the dedication of ensuring that while they were shooting there was not a single other boat in sight to portray the sense of isolation that was encroaching on his characters, Spielberg showed himself to be a director with clear vision from very early on, even if he did seem like a madman to most.
Jaws is celebrating its forty year anniversary this week and in those forty years, it has not diminished in any way. Modern special effects work cannot replicate what Spielberg and company achieved when constructing “Bruce,” their shark puppet that for so long was the standard bearer in practical effects. No modern blockbuster has the same level of expert craft and dedication to being so intricately put together as Jaws. In 2015, the blockbuster has become a dumb cacophony of chaos while Jaws stands as a slow burn that leads to the explosion of a powder keg. The payoff in Jaws feels all the more special because it is earned, thoroughly.
I have discussed Jaws at length many, many times in the time since I realized I wanted to be a storyteller, whether it was when I still aspired to be a screenwriter/filmmaker or even now as a novelist. Jaws is so perfectly constructed that I hold it as the high water mark that I one day wish I could hit. It is the perfect mesh of visceral entertainment and craftmanship. I do not believe for a moment that I would understand or appreciate storytelling on the level I do today if I weren’t introduced to Jaws at such an early age. I knew I was seeing something special and it took me years to try to deconstruct why.
I can’t think of another single film that has influenced me more. I truly doubt that another will be made in my lifetime.