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Jaws is a 1974 novel by Peter Benchley. It tells the story of a great white shark that preys upon a tourist resort, and the voyage of three men to kill it.

It became a best-seller, and was adapted into a film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Conception

Benchley had been thinking for years "about a story about a shark that attacks people and what would happen if it came in and wouldn't go away." Then, in 1964, he read a news story about a fisherman who caught a great white shark weighing off the beaches of Long Islandmarker. He again did not act on his idea until a discussion with his editor in 1971. Although Benchley himself cites the 1964 incident as the inspiration for his novel, some writers (including Richard Ellis, Richard Fernicola, and Michael Capuzzo) suggest that his inspiration came from Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, Coppleson's rogue shark theory, and the exploits of New York fisherman Frank Mundus.

Doubleday editor Tom Congdon had read some of Benchley's articles and invited him to lunch to discuss some ideas for books. Congdon was not impressed by Benchley's proposals for non-fiction but was interested in his idea of a novel about a great white shark terrorizing a beach resort. Congdon recalls that Benchley wrote a page in his office, "and I gave him a cheque for $1,000. On the basis of that he did me 100 pages."

Much of the work had to be rewritten as the publisher was unhappy with the initial tone. Congdon recalls that 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." Benchley worked through the winter in a room above a furnace company in Pennington, New Jerseymarker, and in the summer in a converted turkey coop in Stonington, Connecticutmarker.

After various revisions and rewrites, Benchley delivered his final draft in January 1973. According to Carl Gottlieb, who would share with Benchley the credit for the film's screenplay, Benchley had only received a $7,500 advance "for a year's work and a lifetime's preparation." This was far less than what Benchley was used to as a professional writer, and, furthermore, the advance had been paid sporadically during the writing process.

The title was not decided until shortly before the book went to print. Benchley says that he had spent months thinking of titles, many of which he calls "pretentious", such as The Stillness in the Water and Leviathan Rising. Benchley regarded other ideas, such as The Jaws of Death and The Jaws of Leviathan, as "melodramatic, weird or pretentious". According to Benchley, the novel still did not have a title until twenty minutes before production of the book. The writer discussed the problem with editor Tom Congdon at a restaurant in New Yorkmarker.

We cannot agree on a word that we like, let alone a title that we like.
In fact, the only word that even means anything, that even says anything, is "jaws".
Call the book Jaws.
He said "What does it mean?"
I said, "I don't know, but it's short; it fits on a jacket, and it may work."
He said, "Okay, we'll call the thing Jaws.


Steven Spielberg, who would direct the film adaptation, recalls that the title intrigued him when he first saw the book. He points out that the word was "not in the national consciousness at the time. It was just a word. It was kind of an unusual word." Situating the incident in the era of the explicit film Deep Throat, some retrospectives suggest that upon seeing the title Spielberg asked if the novel was about a "pornographic dentist".

Publication and film rights

Benchley says that no one, including himself, initially realized the book's potential. Tom Congdon, however, sensed that the novel had prospects and had it sent out to The Book of the Month Club, paperback houses. The Book of the Month Club made it an "A book", qualifying it for its main selection, then the Readers' Digest also selected it. The publication date was moved back to allow a carefully orchestrated release. It was released first in hardcover in February 1974, then in the book clubs, followed by a national campaign for the paperback release. Bantam bought the paperback rights for $575,000, which Benchley points out was "then an enormous sum of money".

Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, film producers at Universal Pictures, heard about the book at identical times at different locations. Brown heard about it in the fiction department of Cosmopolitan, a lifestyle magazine then edited by his wife, Helen Gurley Brown. A small card gave a detailed description of the plot, concluding with the comment "might make a good movie". The producers each read it overnight and agreed the next morning that it was "the most exciting thing that they had ever read" and that, although they were unsure how they would accomplish it, they had to produce the film. Brown says that had they read the book twice they would have never have made the film because of the difficulties in executing some of the sequences. However, he says that "we just loved the book. We thought it would make a very good movie."

According to John Baxter's biography of Spielberg, the director, Zanuck, Brown and friends bought a hundred copies of the novel each to push the book onto Californiamarker's best-seller list. Most of these copies were sent to "opinion-makers and members of the chattering class". Jaws was the state's most successful book by 7pm on the first day. However, sales were good nationwide without engineering; within weeks of release "it was climbing towards as eventual 9.5 million sales in the US alone".

Zanuck and Brown purchased the film rights to the novel for $150,000 after an auction. (Another source quotes the figure as $175,000.) Andrew Yule cites the figure as "$150,000 with escalation clauses to $250,000, plus a percentage of the profits". Although this delighted the author, who had very little money at the time, it was a low sum as the agreement occurred before the book became a surprise best seller.

Reception

Jaws was published in February 1974 and became a great success, staying on the bestseller list for some 44 weeks. It domestically sold an eventual 9.5 million copies. Benchley's 2006 obituary in The Times says that "Jaws stayed for 40 weeks in the bestseller charts of The New York Times, eventually selling 20 million copies."

Steven Spielberg has said that he initially found many of the characters unsympathetic and wanted the shark to win. Book critics such as Michael Rogers of Rolling Stone Magazine shared the sentiment but the book struck a chord with readers.

In the years following publication, Benchley began to feel responsible for the negative attitudes against sharks that he felt his novel created. He became an ardent ocean conservationist. In an article for the National Geographicmarker published in 2000, Benchley writes "considering the knowledge accumulated about sharks in the last 25 years, I couldn't possibly write Jaws today ... not in good conscience anyway. Back then, it was generally accepted that great whites were anthrophagous (they ate people) by choice. Now we know that almost every attack on a human is an accident: The shark mistakes the human for its normal prey."

References

  1. Benchley, Peter, "A Look Inside Jaws", produced by Laurent Bouzereau, available as a bonus feature on some laserdisc and DVD releases of Jaws
  2. Spielberg, Steven, "A Look Inside Jaws", produced by Laurent Bouzereau, available as a bonus feature on some laserdisc and DVD releases of Jaws
  3. Brown, David, "A Look Inside Jaws", produced by Laurent Bouzereau, available as a bonus feature on some laserdisc and DVD releases of Jaws
  4. Zanuck, Richard D., "A Look Inside Jaws", produced by Laurent Bouzereau, available as a bonus feature on some laserdisc and DVD releases of Jaws



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