THE NOTION THAT STEVEN SPEILBERG’S SEMINAL SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER OF THE SEVENTIES, NAMELY JAWS, IS NOT REALLY A FILM ABOUT A SHARK IS A DEBATING POINT THAT STEMS FROM THE WONDERFULLY LISTENABLE WITTERTAINMENT SHOW THAT’S HOSTED BY SIMON MAYO AND MARK KERMODE ON BBC RADIO FIVE LIVE.
I love the Wittertainment film show on BBC Radio FiveLive. I’ve been an avid listener since they first cropped up on a Friday afternoon on the ‘talkie’ station, having migrated from Radio 1. And, for many a year now, as all of us LTLs* will attest, the thematic nature of the Spielberg classic Jaws, has long been argued over.
It stems from the positing of (the good doctor) Mark Kermode, one half of the show’s dynamic duo and a film aficionado extraordinaire. His argument being that Jaws is merely the maguffin for the movie’s real theme, that being matters of Infidelity.
It’s an interesting observation, at least I think it is, and so, for want of anything better to do, and the fact that I’ve pondered uneasily over the thesis for longer than is really necessary for such an unimportant issue, I figured I’d give my own thoughts on the matter.
He’s Right – It’s Not About A Shark…However
Firstly, I think I should point out that, whilst I agree with the position that thematically the movie certainly is more than a film and indeed a book, about a shark, I do reluctantly disagree with Dr Kermode’s assertion about the overriding theme being of infidelity.
For this we should look back to the source material of the film, Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name. Now, it is certainly true that in the book infidelity is unquestionably a feature. But is it the theme of the novel?
I’d argue not.
For me, the overriding issues that rear up as themes in the story are ones of class, of economy, of political mistrust. But more importantly, the theme which arcs the story itself is that of FEAR.
The manifestation of fear, be it through relationships, change or wider societal or even global scale issues is the prevalent feature of the novel and the theme that translates most explicitly from the book to the film – at least the first two acts of the film anyway.
The shark, much like most of our storybook or filmic monsters, is a representation of the human’s natural fear of the unknown. And what better representation than a giant, razor-toothed and more importantly, real, predator of the sea, a Great White Shark?
With the presence of the shark we are introduced to the idea of an outside force that brings threat and potential doom; a predatory threat to the well-being of the community, indiscriminate about social class or the daily woes and worries of a community.
The shark is the beast in the background – portrayed as an indiscriminate killer liable to bring death, destruction and disaster upon a society already beset by problems, weighed down by class and economic issues and rife with mistrust.
As author Peter Benchley notes in his essay re-appraising his views on sharks the book was written in an era when Nixon was President, when America was not only embroiled in an unpopular war in Asia but living through times of domestic hardship, tension and mistrust. The shark is the outside force, the unknown terror that lurks in the depths, inducing levels of paranoia and fear upon a society that doesn’t need too much prompting in this department.
For Amity Island, read small-town USA – stubbornly trying to remain isolated to its own problems in the face of a wider threat that refuses to be ignored. Maybe it’s a coincidence that Amity is an island, maybe not.
Upon which we examine the issue of society and class in the story and again, how these issues are imbued with themes of fear.
It’s seen most prominently in the conflicted views of the main protagonist, Chief Brody. In the novel, Brody is a dyed-in-the-wool, local cop; a born and bred resident of Amity Island at once resentful and envious of the rich ‘outta towners’ who invade the Island in the summer season; crowding the streets and beaches, taking ownership of the holiday homes and spending the long days partying as the locals sweat and toil and try to make ends meet.
And yet, despite the resentment, Brody is also a man of duty and realism – a man who wants to serve the community properly and indeed knows only too well that without the summer influx the local businesses struggle and perhaps even perish. More than once in the novel do we hear reference to some local who’s had to spend prolonged periods on benefit.
The presence of the shark is, again, the presence of a threat that is out of their control and out of their world.
Infidelity is just another symbol of fear – not THE THEME
Symbolic of this, in my view, would in fact be that old chestnut itself – Infidelity.
The unfaithfulness of Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper is not a central theme to the story but more it is symbolic of the difference in social class that weighs heavily on the psyche of Brody and as a consequence, over the story as a whole.
Throughout the early parts of the novel we are given hints towards Brody’s insecurities about his marriage to Ellen; about the differences between islander (him) and the summer crowd (Ellen) Hooper’s arrival and subsequent relationship with Ellen is a manifestation of that fear, Hooper being of her social circle.
In the novel, this infidelity is the manifestation of Brody’s inner fears and the threat to his well-being, in much the same way that the shark is the fearful symbol of a wider threat.
That Hooper ultimately dies in the story, at the hands (or rather, teeth) of the shark is a moral genre convention – he’s getting his comeuppance for his indiscretion – but also a symbol that class and wealth isn’t immune to wider causes of harm or destruction alluding once again back to the indiscriminate threat and sense of fear that over-arches the plot.
It is interesting here that the film chooses to deviate on this plot line and indeed theme. It certainly puts to rest the notion that the film version is anything to do with infidelity at all.
It cannot be for the simple reason that Spielberg removed it entirely from the movie. Without knowing the motives for amendments to characterisation and storylines from book to movie, the one thing that is abundantly clear is that the changes work.
Quite simply, this is because thematically Spielberg is faithful to the pulse of the novel.
The shark in the movie is still a symbol of fear and more specifically, the fear of the unknown. However, whereas in the novel the shark is written throughout in the manner one might afford scenes of a serial killer – the dispassionate, cold-eyed monster, in the film Spielberg is playful with this notion – a trick that serves to keep the tension high and the audience fluctuating between genuine fright and relieving laughter.
If it is still an examination of the fear of the unknown then it is not necessarily because the shark is the villain of the piece.
As an audience we are always invited to simultaneously fear the threat of the shark whilst marvel in its majesty – John Williams famous score may send you into a frozen state of terror with its der-dum beat when the threat is unseen, but take a wider shot of the shark as it cuts through the ocean and the music is all the more rousing and resplendent.
Fear may be present but Spielberg chooses to infuse that with a naturalistic wonder – a trait he’d return to with Jurassic Park.
In this change from the novel we see a change in character traits in our main protagonists. Hooper, the representation of the societal threat to Brody’s marriage and livelihood in the novel, in the film is a likeable, if a little arrogant, shark-expert who becomes an ally to Brody in his battle with the powers-that-be, namely the Mayor.
The class war stays in the film on a thematic level but it plays out between Hooper and Quint on the boat in Act 3. Our sympathies are deliberately divided between the two as we see the film examine the relationship and bonding between the three protagonists.
And, as the rest of the world (Amity) melts away we’re left with a simple battle of wits and will in a watery wilderness – one in which the sensible option would have been to get a bigger boat.
Again I feel there’s something interesting thematically going on with the moving of the action away from the island.
In both the novel and the film taking to the waters takes on a symbolic nature (as well as the more practical one that, in order to catch a shark, the sea is really the best place to get it).
The set-up has played heavily on the issues of the islanders – whether it’s Brody’s insecurities and marital problems of the novel or the economic driven stupidity of the mayor in the film. That ultimately these are left behind to me suggests a symbol that, ultimately, these things, to paraphrase Rick Blaine, don’t matter a hill of beans. The film is particularly explicit in this – Spielberg makes no disguise of the mistrust in those who put money or self-interest ahead of people in his movies – the faceless Government bodies in ET, the men who store away the Ark in Raiders, the lawyer in Jurassic Park to name but a few.
In Jaws, the mayor is given his fight and brought down from his perch before he is discarded from the story, the director preferring to strip everything else away and concentrate entirely on the very basic human aspect of the men at sea with the shark.
For me, Jaws remains one of the scariest, most fun and brilliantly made of films that encapsulate everything the cinema should be.
The reality of course, is that the film really IS about a shark and that my deep suspicion is that the writers and filmmakers did not go into great levels of theorising when conjuring it all up.
Nevertheless, given the era, the basic moods, undercurrents and themes that were floating about the ether when it was published, there can be no doubt that this all finds its way symbolically into the fabric of the story. It’s therefore a great testament to those involved that not only does such a simple story work on such a level but also that it stands up to scrutiny and positive appraisal nearly four decades on and, as with Inception and the Dark Knight of recent years, demonstrates that it is entirely possible to create a huge, thrill packed summer blockbuster, without having to forego intelligence and thought.