A common truism is that the book is always better than the movie they make from it. Both Peter Benchley’s book and Steve Spielberg’s film version were enormous commercial and critical successes. Explain why Jaws is not an example of “the book was better.”
In the novel, the conflict between man and beast that takes center stage when the trio that goes out hunting for the shark is complicated by dramatic tension of sexual complications between Brody and Hooper as a result of Hooper having an affair with the sheriff’s wife. The novel provides ample opportunity for Benchley to work this layer of conflict into the tension of the hunting trip, but the film loses absolutely nothing in terms of drama by completely jettisoning this subplot. In fact, without the intrusion of the personal conflict between Brody and Hooper, Spielberg’s direction can focus all the greater building the tension between the men and the shark.
Analyze how Jaws engages the theme of man against nature by showing that conflict from perspectives revealing man as both prey and predator.
The dramatic structure of the narrative path of Jaws constructs a parallel so that the second half of the film is a kind of mirror image of the first half. The first half of the story is all about how nature is capable of terrorizing an entire section of society and reveals that man is subject to becoming the prey of the unpredictably violent randomness of the natural world. The hunting expedition undertaken by Brody, Hooper and Quint that takes up most of the second half of the movie flips that dynamic so that the shark that was formerly the predator now becomes the prey.
Explain how Jaws combines the literary devices of irony and setting by making the 4th of July a prominent part of the plot.
The sequence showing how the mainlanders descend upon the island to celebrate the nation’s independence is filled with ironic commentary on how the 4th of July has devolved from a date for celebrating emancipation from oppression into just another big day for big and little businesses. The entire film is about nothing else than fighting off a relentless foreign invader to ensure freedom and liberty. Set against that metaphor is the more concrete concerns expressed by the town’s mayor about local businesses losing their vital summer revenue as the result of having to close the beaches. The irony of the struggle for survival against the shark set off against the commercial devaluation of the meaning of Independence Day is unmistakable.
Identify the villain in Jaws.
At first glance, the shark seems to be the requisite villain in the thriller that is Jaws. In reality, however, the shark exhibits none of the malicious intent that is normally associated with characters delineated as villains. The shark is a brute animal acting out of pure instinct; it needs to survive, therefore it eats whatever is at hand. In contrast, the Mayor of Amity Island puts townspeople and tourists at risk by refusing to close the beaches. In his zeal to put the commercial interests of local business (or, as the Mayor views them, voters) ahead of the safety of everyone else, the only character in the entire movie who even comes close to demonstrating the kind of malice associated with villains is the Mayor.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro considered Jaws one of the best critiques of the American way of life Hollywood ever made. Explain why a communist revolutionary would view Jaws as successful Marxist propaganda.
The summer season means one thing for many people on Amity Island, including the Mayor: profits. They stand to gain the bulk of their yearly income from the enormous influx of tourists and mainlanders who pour onto the island by the boatload. The appearance of a menacing shark—and, more importantly, the appearance of a bearded liberal scientist who recognizes the hazard the shark poses—threatens to plug up all that potential profit enjoyed by happy voters if the access to the beach is closed as the scientist recommends. The Mayor will lose his power if he fails to get re-elected and Amity’s business owners won’t vote for him if he caves into liberal pressure to shut down the beach and plug up their income stream. And so the purely animalistic shark becomes less a threat to life and limb than an economic peril to be avoided through political influence. Those least likely to suffer loss of life sell their wares to an ignorant public unwittingly risking their safety for the purpose of making sure the Mayor gets re-elected. Little wonder that the world’s longest-serving communist leader viewed Jaws so positively.
Explore the effects of seeing the physical shark so infrequently on the film's emotional progress, cinematography, and ability to elicit fear.
It's no secret that Jaws' ability to build tension and scare its audience so successfully comes from very rarely showing the thing they so fear. In fact, it serves multiple purposes: first, it heightens tension faster than it can release it. With so much consequence and so little culprit onscreen, the audience ends up chomping at the bit (excuse the pun) to see the beast that they've already formed an image of in their minds. From a cinematographic standpoint, it lead to the film's shots that feature the shark's point of view. Where showing an actual shark swimming in the water would have been very straightforward, showing only what the shark is seeing and playing John William's ominous score underneath yields the same result of telling the audience that the shark is present, while still not directly showing it to them, such that their minds continue to run wild with the possibilities of the beast's horrific true appearance and abilities.
Explore the characters of Hooper and Quint as they relate to one another.
Quint and Hooper act as foil characters for one another, locking horns continuously aboard the Orca. Quint is the old and old-fashioned islander, gruff, grizzled and dirty, while Hooper is the young, uptight rich boy with “city hands.” The two fight and mock each other constantly. At the same time, however, their differences often complement one another: Quint’s methods of attaching barrels to the shark work wonders for helping them track it, and Hooper’s cage and poison needle are an excellent potential way of killing it in the water. That both their actions had merit and aided in bringing down the shark serves the larger message that no man is an island in this story.
Discuss Brody's character development over the course of the film.
Chief Brody is new to town, afraid of water, and knows little about sharks. He wants to make a difference in Amity, but for much of the film, and indeed the majority of the hunt aboard the Orca, he seems entirely helpless, at the mercy of the shark’s almost taunting attacks or Quint and Hooper’s far superior maritime knowledge. His iconic line, “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” even separates him from Quint with the way he avoids using the pronoun “we” (the way people so often misquote it). The film’s climax therefore features the completion of a journey for him: the fact that the end of the shark battle features him alone, out on the water with nothing but a rifle and a prayer, demonstrates how he’s finally taken control of his ability to make a difference, faced his fears, and shed his helplessness for power and victory.
Explore the cinematographic elements of the beach scene that features Alex Kintner's death.
This scene is a particularly well-crafted feature in Jaws. The majority of it takes place from Brody’s perspective, featuring views of the swimmers in the water strictly from the beach, which various people obscure by trying to talk to him. The passerby create natural wipes that transition from one cut to the next, showing first the swimmers, then Brody’s anxious face, then back to the swimmers again. Placing these interrupting people in the way of both our and Brody’s view of the water helps us to feel his frustration and nervousness.
The dog’s death in this scene is a particularly good example of how simply Spielberg can convey things without showing them. Up until he disappears, the dog is only featured playing fetch, and therefore he and the stick are a pair as far the viewer is concerned—where there is a stick, there should be a dog fetching the stick. But when we hear the dog’s owner calling out to him with no reply, and when we see the stick floating on its own, unretrieved, the pairing is severed, and we understand at once that the dog is gone without needing to see the shark actually kill it.
Discuss the influential role of John William's iconic theme music on the film. What effect does it have on both the story and the viewer?
It’s perhaps fitting that Jaws opens with what is arguably the most iconic theme music of any film in history: the eerie, suspenseful theme in which two alternating notes crescendo and quicken builds anticipation before there is even anything to fear. Composer John Williams has said that this ominous music was meant to represent the shark as an "unstoppable force" of "mindless and instinctive attacks.” The music is not only a great emotional manipulator in its ability to elicit terror from an unsuspecting audience, but also an amazing symbol for the shark itself, who appears physically so infrequently and is often represented by the resumption of the music only. Indeed, not once during the attack on Chrissie do we actually see any piece of the shark, and yet the combination of her terrified thrashing and the unsettling music is enough to convey the attack without any appearance by the attacker. Her death teaches the audience from the get-go that the suspenseful music will unequivocally mean “shark” for the rest of the film, regardless any other indication of its presence.