The story of Jaws is the story of Peter Benchley. Mr. Benchley recalls in his memoir, Shark Life: True Stories About Sharks & the Sea how, when he was young, he often encountered sharks while fishing with his father and developed a fascination with them.
1964: Montauk fisherman Frank Mundus famously caught a great white shark weighing in at 4,550 pounds. Peter Benchley was twenty-four at this time.
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1971: According to BBC News, Peter Benchley was a struggling freelance journalist, who was married with children. One day he met with publishing house editors via his literary agent. Doubleday editor Thomas Congdon dismissed Benchley’s non-fiction and asked Benchley if he had any ideas for fiction. “I want to tell the story of a great white shark that marauds the beaches of a resort town and provokes a moral crisis,” Benchley said, and Mr. Congdon’s interest was peeked.
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“The first five pages were just wonderful,” Mr. Congdon recalls, but the rest – not so much. Mr Congdon asked for rewrites, disliking the comedic tone the novel was taking. Then he disliked certainly scenes, arcs, even disliking Benchley’s title, Stillness in the Water.
On the Jaws: 30th Anniversary Edition DVD, Mr. Benchley recalls in the behind-the-scenes how, “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.”
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It did. And with an ear in the publishing business, film producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown read the novel before it was even published. They bought the film rights and got Steven Spielberg on board, who had directed Duel, about a couple trying to get away from a monstrous semi-truck driven by an unseen individual, and was fresh off 1974’s crime drama Sugarland Express.
The novel came out the same year its film adaption was in pre-production. While John Baxter, in his biography of Steven Speilberg, claims that the novel’s entry on California best-seller list was the result of Spielberg and the producers buying hundreds of copies of the novel to send to the press, the novel did exceptionally well in other parts of the country. It was a New York Times bestseller for forty-four weeks, second only to Watership Down.
By the time Jaws was released in theaters, the novel had sold 5.5 million copies domestically.
However, changes were made. The film put more focus on the shark and the three protagonists – Brody, Hooper, Quint – and completely omitted many of the novel’s minor subplots.
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1982: Peter Benchley published The Girl of the Sea of Cortez about man’s complicated relationship with the sea.
2002: Benchley published Shark Trouble. At that point, he had become an activist on behalf of the sharks and, according to CBS, had made numerous educational documentaries on the species and written articles for publications like National Geographic.
2006: Peter Benchley told The Royal Gazette that “the shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim, for, world-wide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”
Later that same year Peter Benchley passed away.
2008: Frank Mundus, the inspiration behind Jaws passed away. Despite starting out as a shark hunter, he too later became a shark conservationist.
2010: An article on LiveScience.com states: “Now, thirty-five years later… shark numbers worldwide have been decimated due partly to the frightening and false ideas the film helped spread about them.” Despite both its inspiration and creators becoming avid ocean conversationalists, LiveScience notes that “in the waters off the U.S. eastern seaboard, populations of many species of sharks have dropped by 50 percent and some have fallen by as much as 90 percent. The movie helped initiate that decline by making it sexy to go catch sharks.”
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