The 1975 Steven Spielberg movie Jaws has become a classic over the years, but it has several notable differences from the book it’s based on. The novel, written by Peter Benchley, was released in 1974. It tells the story of a great white shark that terrorizes a small resort town during the summer—and the three men who attempt to kill it. The novel was an instant success upon its release, with film producers purchasing the rights before it was even published.
The three main characters in both the book and movie are police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and shark hunter Captain Quint (Robert Shaw). The main side characters in the story are Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) and Brody’s wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary). Like the book, the movie adaptation was a huge hit, and went on to win three Academy Awards—Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score, and Best Sound. It was also nominated for Best Picture, but lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Among other accolades received by the 1975 shark movie was a Grammy Award for John Williams’s score and a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music.
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Though the Jaws movie clearly became an instant classic, it did omit virtually all of the subplots present in its source material. Instead of telling some of the side stories Benchley included in the novel—an affair and a mob story among them—the book focuses almost solely on the three main characters and their quest to hunt the great white shark. The movie also changed some smaller details, like aspects of certain characters and the fact that the men stay out at sea for days on end, rather than coming home each night as they do in the book. Plus, the ending is entirely different; in fact, Benchley took issue with this and got thrown off set for arguing with Spielberg about his changes.
In the book version of Jaws, Brody is described as a tough character who used to live in New York City. He even becomes violent during altercations with other characters. In the movie, he’s a native to the fictional summer resort town of Amity on Long Island, New York. He has a more subtle, gentle presence in the movie—he’s not just a sheriff who gets things done, he’s a caring dad and doting husband. He’s also portrayed as fearful and cautious as he sets out to sea with Hooper and Quint.
Mayor’s Mob Ties
In the movie, Mayor Vaughn acts foolishly, opening up the beaches to the public despite the presence of a great white shark in the waters. Viewers grow infuriated with his insistence on keeping the beaches open to make money from locals and tourists—why would he risk it? It’s clear that the mayor simply wants the town make money, and doesn’t want local businesses and hotels to suffer.
The book makes the reasoning behind his decisions more clear—he’s tied to the mob. Local newspaper editor Harry Meadows is the one who discovers that Vaughn has connections to the Mafia. It turns out that the Mafia is pressuring the mayor to keep the beaches open, so that the value of Amity’s real estate, in which the Mafia has invested a great deal of money, remains protected.
The relevance of this supporting character in the book is significantly diminished in the screen version. Harry Meadows is the editor of a local newspaper. Indeed, he discovers the mayor’s ties to the mob, but he does more than that—Meadows helps hush up an initial shark attack so as not to incite panic. Later, he takes part in recruiting Hooper to help kill the shark. In the movie, though, Meadows (played by Jaws screenplay writer Carl Gottlieb) has a much lesser role.
A big subplot of the book that doesn’t show up on screen is Ellen Brody’s affair with Hooper. In the book, he is the younger brother of a man she once dated. Ellen plans a dinner party for him, and later meets him at a motel. What’s more, Brody grows suspicious of an affair, and even tries to strangle Hooper out of anger. In the movie, Ellen and Hooper don’t interact much, aside from one night when he shows up at the Brody household with a bottle of wine and crashes their dinner.
Over the years, Jaws fans and critics have remarked that omitting this romantic storyline was the right call by Spielberg. The subplot doesn’t ultimately add much to the book, especially because Ellen and Hooper’s affair isn’t too exciting. Lorraine Gary, who portrayed Ellen in the movie, was supposedly frustrated this storyline was cut, as it shortened her screen time. Notably, Ellen definitely had much more of a character arc in the book; not only does she engage in an affair, but she ponders about her happiness and her marriage to Brody.
The Added Slap
In some cases, the movie adaptation of Jaws added in some moments that didn’t occur in the novel to add some drama and excitement for viewers. In the movie, there’s a now-famous scene where Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro)—whose son was attacked and killed by a shark—gives Brody a slap across the face, angry at him for not properly protecting Amity. It’s a shocking moment that makes viewers gasp, but it doesn’t happen in the book. In the book, Mrs. Kintner simply speaks to Brody about the attack rather than hitting him.
The Added Speech
Another change the 1975 shark movie made was an addition to the story. Missing from Benchley’s book is Quint’s Indianapolis speech. This scene in the movie has become famous; it’s a classic moment when Quint slowly and drunkenly tells the haunting story of surviving the USS Indianapolis. The story, in brief, is that in July 1945, the USS Indianapolis sank after getting hit by a torpedo. Hundreds went down with the ship, and the remaining men floated in the open ocean for days, facing dehydration, saltwater poising, and shark attacks.
It’s not completely certain who wrote Quint’s famous speech in Jaws, but screenwriters Howard Sackler and Carl Gottlieb and Spielberg’s friend, John Milius, have been credited for creating it over the years. When actor Robert Shaw was given the speech, he added a couple of his own changes before giving the iconic performance.
The ending of the Jaws movie has literally gone down in cinematic history. The shark attacks the boat and, as it sinks, Hooper puts on scuba gear and enters the water, with the intent to inject the shark with a lethal substance. The shark breaks open the cage and Hooper darts to the ocean floor, hiding behind a rock. Meanwhile, the shark attacks the boat again, devouring Quint. Alone, Brody shoves a pressurized scuba tank into the shark’s mouth, climbs up the crow’s nest, and shoots the tank. The shark explodes, Hooper surfaces, and the two of them begin to swim back to Amity.
Things are completely different in the book. For one, Hooper dies. When the marine biologist goes down into the waters inside a shark cage, the great white breaks through the cage. Hooper never gets away to hide, though. Nearly instantly, the shark attacks and kills Hooper. Also in the book, Brody isn’t the one to kill the creature. Instead, Quint kills the beast. He shoots multiple harpoons into the great white shark and it dies as it swims toward Brody.
In the Jaws book, Quint still dies, but it’s a very different death than the one that happens in the film. In the book, Quint’s ankle gets caught up in the rope that’s attached to a harpoon, which is attached to the dead great white shark. Quint gets pulled deep into the water, leaving Brody completely alone. Some say this ending was the better one, because it left Brody to suffer his worst fear. But, at the theaters, audiences surely rejoiced when Hooper popped back onto the screen.
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About The Author
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Jessica Beebe is a New York-based writer and editor.