Creating a Genre: 'Jaws' and the Modern Blockbuster
On June 20th 1975, Universal Pictures released Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, and the entire world went mad. Not only did it become the highest-grossing film of all time, but it’s credited with the inception of the modern-day summer blockbuster. Tentpole releases that derive from action/adventure, high-concept narratives aimed at a broad demographic are the biggest productions in the world every summer. None of them would have existed without Jaws.
Adapted from the 1974 novel by Peter Benchley, Jaws tells the story of a small beachside resort town (Amity) which becomes terrorised by a 25ft great white shark during their annual season of financial prosperity. New police chief Martin Brody (Roy Schneider), marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and an eccentric shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) then go after the beast in a timeless tale of man vs. nature. If you’ve not seen it you’re at least aware of it; the film and its iconic score from John Williams have become mainstays in the cultural zeitgeist since its release. But how did a throwaway first novel become adapted to a film that sparked a whole new genre? Well I’m glad you asked faceless being who keeps whispering questions in my ear at night whilst I’m trying to sleep!
Part 1: The First Part (Production & Rundown)
After hearing about a fisherman from Montauk catching a great white shark weighing 4,550 pounds in 1964, freelance writer Peter Benchley decided to white his first novel about sharks – a subject he had been keen on for a while. The novel was hastily written and began to generate media interest after being advertised by various book clubs and media outlets across America. As is the norm, studio producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown quickly caught on to the buzz surrounding the book and purchased the rights to the manuscript for a then-record $175,000. They both had devoured the novel in a single evening and believed it would make a great motion picture.
“had we read [the novel] twice, in my opinion, we never would have made Jaws. Because anybody with a modicum of production knowledge would know there was no way to get a shark to leap on the stern of a small boat and swallow a man – how were we gonna do this? Were we gonna do it in animation? Who’s gonna do this? We never thought about it. We just loved the book. We thought it’d make a very good movie.”
- David Brown, Producer
It’s true. Action sequences involving a creature like this had never been attempted seriously before. Visual effects and animation would rob the rest of the narrative of its serious themes and adult relationships - but it was a case of diving in at the deep end. 26-year-old Steven Spielberg had just finished directing his first theatrical film The Sugarland Express (wow that’s existential crisis-inducing) and managed to grab a copy of the then-unpublished novel and became hooked. He likened the film to his previous work on Duel, in which a mostly unseen truck target unsuspecting everymen, and was excited to emulate that sense of tension of fear on a larger scale. What followed was over 150 days of shooting to tight deadlines, terrible conditions and a robot shark that didn’t work ninety percent of the time – but you already know all of that stuff. It’s part of the mystique and reputation surrounding the film.
Of course, there were hurdles. The producers and Spielberg wanted to focus all their energy on the man vs. shark angle to keep Jaws a ‘straight-line adventure movie’. Benchley however was happy with the attention his work was getting, and gleefully took their comments on board as he got to work on the first draft of the screenplay. The novel itself dwells more on the antagonistic nature of its three-leads in a way that could even border on unlikable. Brody’s alcoholism and downbeat manner lead his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) to begin an affair with marine biologist Hooper in a substantial subplot that creates a game of one-upmanship between the two. This is completely absent within the film in order to focus on other theatrical elements. In fact, Hooper’s character is persistently portrayed as an arrogant snob that exists solely to poke and prod at the fault in Brody’s marriage to the point where his death within the shark cage (yes, in the novel he dies too) almost offers a sense of catharsis.
Other subplots and characters like newspaper editor Ben Meadows (co-writer Carl Gottlieb) were side-lined for time, and the mayor’s ties to offshore businesses and mafia work were simplified to greed and consumerism. He keeps the beaches open and promotes swimming in the sea to attract more tourists during Amity’s economical time of need. Whilst Quint’s character remains essentially the same in both portrayals, his death scene in the novel mimics Moby Dick in that he is dragged underwater by an entangled harpoon he’s sunk into the shark in a cruel twist of irony. It feels weird to think that Jaws came very close to become a classical piece of work that relies on reference, and Spielberg’s rewrite of Benchley’s first script even introduced Quint by having him laugh erratically whilst watching John Huston’s Moby Dick – so hard in fact, that he’d make the rest of the audience leave. All of these changes don’t change the central concept but make the novel itself an interesting read in comparison. What’s really interesting though, is looking at how these changes helped tailor the film to the biggest audience possible…
Part 2: The Sequel to the First Part (If you build hype, they will come)
With hindsight it’s hard to think of Jaws as a summer blockbuster. I mean, it has no visual effects or ‘trendy’ A-list stars. It’s a solo experience (well, until the inevitable sequels) and works best as a self-contained story. But back upon its release in 1975 the very concept of ‘blockbuster’ was more about hysteria and hype than anything else. By the time of the film’s release, the novel had already enjoyed huge success as a summer-read and was still recent enough to be fresh in the minds of a potential audience. So after a few select festival screenings Spielberg, Benchley, Zanuck and Brown toured eleven cities across America with their film two weeks before general release (it should be said that home-release didn’t exist for films at this point, if you ever wanted to see Jaws you were going to have to see it on the big screen, VHS wouldn’t arrive until the end of the decade).
Robert Shaw hopped from chat show to chat show advertising the film, and Time magazine even featured ‘Bruce’ the shark on its front cover to help advertise two specials on the ABC network. Universal publicity director Clark Ramsey said at the time it was “the largest expenditure on advertising of a release in the history of the company.” This confidence in the project had come from overwhelmingly positive test screenings. Audience members were giggling and jumping out of their seats at all the right moments – it was an event movie that was going to thrive on word-of-mouth. It just needed those initial butts in seats.
The estimated $8 million dollar film was the subject of dozens of primetime air slots during sports events, and hundreds of print ads ranging from billboards to newspapers. It opened in over 400 theatres and very quickly surpassed $100 million domestically within the very same month, becoming the first film to do so. That was it. There was no going back now. Other studios took note of all the money Universal were raking in, but it wasn’t until 1977 and George Lucas’ Star Wars’ success that they realised this tactic of heavy promotion resulted in an inflated profit through the summer months. It made sense. Kids were off-school and family entertainment was very fast becoming screen-based (whether Jaws was actually fit for family consumption was another story – more on that later), it was a huge untapped market that the film industry had never fully taken advantage of.
Of course it helped that they had a solid iconic image in the form of Roger Kastel’s poster, a modified version of the one he crafted for the novel’s cover (he also ended up doing the theatrical poster for The Empire Strikes Back). As the film continued to dominate the box office, a specific team was put together as Universal in order to continue marketing Jaws – a ‘marketing team’ if you will. They capitalised on the success by updating print advertisements that featured the shark swallowing the box-office grosses of its competitors. Everything from The Exorcist to Gone with the Wind was gobbled up.
Jaws is now synonymous with the demonising of sharks and turning them into an all-time movie monster, but it’s interesting to see how this was by design. Other films have tried to emulate its success with other animals from Piranha to Arachnophobia to even Anaconda, but none have been quite so successful. Actor and co-writer of the screenplay Carl Gottlieb said that with the film they wanted to “do to the ocean what [Alfred Hitchcock’s] Psycho did to showers”. And they did. It didn’t matter that the shark itself was barely seen in the film (and when it was it was…rough), Spielberg’s natural talent for suspense made swimming dangerous. The film successfully piggybacked off of an inherent human fear. Whether it was ethical or not, it worked better than they could have imagined.
Part 3: The Part that Makes it a Trilogy (Parental Guidance & Blockbusters in wider context)
Enough about the financial side of things. No matter how successful Jaws was it wouldn’t have stayed in the public consciousness if it wasn’t good. There’s a reason Steven Spielberg became a household name. Yes, the producers alongside him wanted to streamline many of the subplots and character backstories for the film adaptation, but there’s a difference between streamlining them and removing them altogether. In the novel, Brody is a native of Amity whereas he’s changed to a recent addition in the film. His alcoholism and internal guilt over deaths that he tried to stop are hinted at through actions rather than lengthy sequences of prose. Schneider’s barely ever without a drink in his hand. His paranoia of the ocean is clearly conveyed by his inability to enter it. Chief Brody is a three-dimensional character rather than an archetypal protagonist.
There’s countless discussions and arguments over the thematic elements of the film too. Ranging from the class divide (Brody is the middle class, Quint working class and Hooper upper class), to comments on diversity (there’s no minorities and women are kept to the side lines – though this was present in the novel as its portrayal of women was very of its time) and even the breakdown of americana as the shark terrorises the freedom of Amity. Hell, Spielberg even made sure that the whole film was designed without the use of the colour red – except to signify the dangerous actions of the shark (aside from the red wine, but that leans into Brody’s character). There’s an element of finely tuned visual and sub textual storytelling at play here in a film that was mass-marketed as ‘the killer shark film’.
Jaws was heavily sold on the pleasure of cinema. By that I mean the shock and excitement of the promised shark attacks and the fear that the use of POV and Williams’ score created. This promise of pure spectacle wasn’t a lie but was just an added bonus to a film with layers (like an onion). But this promise of spectacle is what many took from its success. Jaws didn’t create the blockbuster because of its quality, it created blockbusters because it showed audiences the type of excitement, they couldn’t get anywhere else. Blockbusters now are defined by their enlarged budget and flashy visual effects. Although it’s easy to pick on, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies build their stories from the action sequences up. The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is partly due to the company’s ability to divert audience’s excitement for set-pieces into excitement for characters and pieces of intellectual property.
It’s true that Spielberg edited Jaws’ source material at points to craft these levels of engineered excitement. For example, the climax has Brody blowing the fucking shark up by shooting a gas canister that’s lodged in its mouth rather than having it just suffocate after being dragged to the surface. This was a carefully made decision he spoke to Peter Benchley about, and when Benchley argued that the very notion of the shark exploding was ridiculous Spielberg convinced him by offering up the inherent rules of storytelling – if you establish the laws of the world and provide the audience with the necessary information, you can tell them anything. Over the course of two hours Spielberg introduces the shark and shows a handful of grisly murders (including a child and a dog – big no-no), escalates the three protagonists’ situation and pushes them to their utmost breaking point. We’re clearly shown and told that Hooper’s gas canisters will explode upon impact, and as the shark literally splits the boat in two Brody is forced to go for a drastic action. In context the shark blowing up doesn’t feel farfetched because it’s earnt, and that’s another thing that many modern blockbusters don’t do.
The term ‘blockbuster’ merely accommodates films destined for mass appeal with merchandise and advertising. Until very recently, the only way to ensure this kind of success was to attain a PG (later PG-13/12A) rating, allowing for the largest possible audience reach. In 1975 Jaws managed to get away with a PG rating (with a warning that it ‘might not be suitable for pre-teenagers/may be too intense for younger children’) by shaving off a few seconds of a severed leg falling to the ocean floor. This is a film which also features a severed head jumpscare (brilliantly timed thanks to some post-production work/reshoots by Spielberg himself), the death of a child and casual bad language. Now, I’m the last person who thinks family films shouldn’t take risks and be scary, if anything I think Jaws is a brilliant family film because of this very reason. It doesn’t resort to any of these tactics to just playfully poke at a censorship board. It doesn’t use any more or less violence than it needs to in order to illustrate its point.
There’s a scene Spielberg wrote and inserted into the film where two fishermen are attempting to catch the shark with a roast ham on a pier, only for the shark to snatch the ham away and bring half the pier with it. What follows is a great set-piece that works as an edge-of-your-seat moment without even glimpsing the shark, as the pier then turns around and begins to make its way to the water-logged fisherman. It’s a tactic the film uses later on too after Bruce is attached to the floats in order to prevent it diving down. David Brown said they were able to convince the censorship board to award them a PG because imitation wasn’t a concern if the perpetrator of the violence was a shark. Nobody was going to imitate a shark attack and because it was a natural cause of violence is was seen as less offensive. It’s funny because even the now-iconic sequence of Brody watching over the dozens of swimmers as he glimpses potential fins protruding from the water is scarier than most R-rated horror films. Of course, the film faced some backlash. Many audience members were reported fainting and experiencing night-terrors due to certain sequences, but this only bolstered the word-of-mouth. You had to see this film to see what all the fuss was about, and kids on the playground could gloat that they survived Jaws without looking away like a coward. It was a badge of honour that, again, is often lacking in many of today’s blockbusters.
There’s a level of artistry in Jaws that exists to tell a complete story. Hell, there’s a three-page monologue expertly performed by Robert Shaw that explains his impulsive hatred of sharks told in stoic silence as he announces he was aboard the USS Indianapolis, delivering the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 when his submarine was hit and the crew were launched into shark-infested waters. It’s a haunting sequence that reminds you now just how slow Jaws is. The last hour is mostly just three men out at sea bickering whilst occasionally glimpsing a shark. Those moments are few and far between in today’s blockbusters; many are too scared to risk moments of true pathos or silence for fear of boring their audience, yet Jaws doesn’t have that worry because it’s won you over by then.
Conclusion: The Part where all the other Parts Come Together
There are two different sides to Jaws. One is a character-based film with exciting sequences made by a master storyteller perfecting their craft, the other is a brand created by executives in order to popularise certain aspects of a film. Blockbusters are all about popularity and in that sense, they were inspired by the latter. This is the first summer without an extensive catalogue of blockbusters and, as we approach the 45th anniversary of the film that started it off it’s interesting to see such heavy promotion take a break. Maybe that’s a cynical way of looking at things, but there it is.
It’s as if studios asked the general public about their favourite parts of Jaws – and only managed to find people who said things like ‘the shark attacks’ or ‘the explosion bit’. The negative connotation of all blockbusters comes from the misshapen belief that this is what makes a good film. Therefore we’re given two hours of CGI-laden battles and admittedly well-choregraphed and enthralling spectacle…and nothing else. They become cinema-narratively dissonant. The amazing action and presentation just doesn’t serve the story (if there is any) at all. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all love to switch our brains off and enjoy trashy fun every now and then (I do actually enjoy the first two Transformers films) but we’re now to the point where Marvel’s output is being hailed as the second coming purely because it actually has a story. Audiences need to remember that we can have both. We can be greedy.
Think of Christopher Nolan’s output, Spielberg’s own output, Edge of Tomorrow or even something that should have been just a simple cash-in like The Lego Movie. These massive films represent a clear continuation of Jaws’ example of filmmaking. They’re not necessarily ‘high art’ (though it’s debatable depending on which you’re talking about) but then ‘high art’ doesn’t appeal to a large audience. Narratively ambitious films that were advertised under the disguise of a blockbuster like Blade Runner 2049 often fail to make a splash at the box-office because they’re deemed less accessible. But it’s because of Jaws that we’re able to have the choice. I don’t think I could think of a better starting point for the industry as a whole.
Epilogue: The Part where I Ponder about the Future
Outside of the current COVID-19/Digital Rental fiasco (I still hate it), modern blockbusters seem to be regaining their aspirations. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet will be the first tentpole release after the paramedic, and looks to offer up enough time-twists to justify its dazzling spectacle, whilst Denis Villeneuve’s big-budget Dune adaptation shows that Hollywood is still taking risks in order to let bold creative choices be made. It will almost certainly be a box-office flop, but it’s definitely a film worth seeking out.
With the rapid changes the film industry is facing, and the sheer wealth of content being released daily, it’ll be interesting to see whether the blockbuster age can survive in a uniquely digital world. It’s the rare occasion where average filmgoers and elitists are in agreement. The big screen will always be the best place for movies, and what better to see on the biggest screen possible than spectacle incarnate?
Jaws is available on all formats and is being release on 4K for the first time for its oncoming 45th Anniversary.
Thank you so much for reading. If you enjoyed this or have any writing opportunities or any questions feel free to get in contact over at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also find me on Twitter over at @ManicMorris where I mostly…well…I tweet. Not about sharks. That much. There’s some shark stuff but it’s minimal I swear.
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Use your voice and make yourself heard. Thank you.
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