Wednesday, January 12, 2011

FACE OFF: Page to Screen – JAWS

Original dust jacket cover.
Feb. 1974
The old saying, “The book is always better than the movie,” has very few restrictions, or challenges to its truth and merit. There are some cases where the film is better than the book, and even others where the adaptation is an accurate representation of the source material. But every so often the adaptation, when compared to the original work, seems to have come straight out of left field. One would be surprised to find out that the film JAWS (1975) is as different as night and day when compared to the blockbuster novel of the same name.

Written by Peter Benchley, and published just a year before the film was released, the novel was a success all on its own. Based on that success, Benchley was commissioned to write the adaptation of his work. After three drafts he became fed up with the Hollywood rigmarole and turned the rewrite duties over to Carl Gottlieb, who appears in the film as Meadows, the newspaper editor. The two of them shared screenwriting credit, but Howard Sackler (JAWS 2) and John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Conan the Barbarian) both contributed uncredited rewrites through principal photography. Stripped of all of its subplots and flawed characters, the film focused on the story's essence – the shark.

Being a novel, it is dependent on the reader how fast they move through the material, but that in turn is based on how enticing the writing is and if it delivers or exceeds their expectations. In regards to a film, you know the events of the story are happening in a certain amount of time. Adaptation is a filtering process, as much as it is an editing/pacing process. As it relates to JAWS, there was the added challenge of redefining the characters and the motivation for their actions. Every story starts with the characters, they are the ones who tell the story, without them to have the experience there would be no story. They are the ones we identify with and follow through the pages to the journey’s end. The more deceitful a character is, the more opposing actions they will engage in, which in turn will require more development to define the dynamics of the character.

In the novel many of the characters aren’t as defined as they become on the screen. In addition to that they are more beastly themselves, lacking integrity, sympathy, and morals. The thing that draws a straight line between the book and film, on which most of the other diversions are based, is the affair that Ellen Brody has with Matt Hooper, smack in the middle of the novel. This causes a rift of trust not only for the reader and these characters, but also within their relationships in the book. Instead of the camaraderie that Brody and Hooper share in the film, their relationship in the book is bitter to begin with and gradually turns sour as suspicions of Ellen’s infidelity rise. The tension between Brody and Hooper is so great that they even get into a physical altercation before one of their fishing expeditions. In a story about a killer shark terrorizing a New England beach community there simply isn’t enough screen time to justify the selfish motivations of adultery. By removing that one subplot in the novel from the film it completely redefined the characters, allowing the shark to remain in the center of the story, acting as their collective motivation.

On a whole, while the writing is clear, and graphic, the development of the characters seems to be lacking in many cases. The character of Hooper, in the novel, comes off as a hot shit, young, rich boy trying to buy his way into adventure. A sharp contrast to the disciplined oceanographer portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss in the film. It is this difference in their characters that changes the fate of Hooper from a grizzly death in the book, first being killed by the shark while in his observation cage, and then getting shot in the neck by Brody as he tries to kill the shark, to surviving with Brody at the end of the film.

"I value my neck a lot more than
three thousand bucks, Chief."
Quint is another one who is more clearly defined on screen, making him more relatable and compassionate, in his own way. You may not like him, or be like him, but you sure as shit know somebody like him. He is one of the most believable characters ever portrayed on screen. Robert Shaw’s ability to embody the character of Quint and bring his own insights to the surface of the character added a tremendous amount of depth that is somewhat vacant in the text. His function in the novel is almost to stir up tension and make light of the situations. His eccentric actions that didn’t make it into the film include gutting a blue shark to induce a feeding frenzy and using the head of a dolphin as bait. It isn’t until Hooper dies that he gets passionate about his task. In a single, sweeping monologue, that isn’t present in the book, Robert Shaw tells us all we need to know about the character of Quint and clearly defines his actions, motivations, and flaws.

In the end the shark is harpooned to death and Quint, clumsily, gets tangled in the ropes and pulled down to his death as the shark sinks into the ocean depths. There is an anti-climactic sense of closure that while it is more realistic than the ending of the film, it is not as satisfying to an audience that has invested and endured so much with these characters. 

"This shark, swallow you whole." - Quint
JAWS and its translation from page to screen is a unique situation. Usually, if the book is successful, and the film doesn’t adhere to the source material it will fail, not surpass expectations. More often than that, if a film isn’t loyally represented in film, one could turn to the pages for insights and answers. That is not the case with JAWS. As a book, the story stands on its own and, expectations from the film aside, it does deliver an intriguing story about man versus beast. One could read into it parallels between the relationship of Brody and the shark, and Brody and Hooper, exploring the duality of man as both predator and prey, but that would be entirely subjective. As a film, whose function is to entertain, JAWS delivers not only a compelling story, but also one brought to life and told with realistic characters. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this story does is swim, and exist, and makes millions of dollars. 

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