Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Don't make the shark the villain


There's a film I haven't seen out at the moment, based on a book I haven't read; both are called And When Did You Last See Your Father?
For all I know, they may both be brilliant. But there's a moment in the film, and probably in the book, which, if I understand it correctly, cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
In this autobiographical story by Blake Morrison, the young author (Colin Firth) is at a literary party. The story concerns his relationship with his difficult father, played by Jim Broadbent, who for some reason is also at the party. With acute embarrassment, Jr observes Sr buttonholing Salman Rushdie at the other side of the room, and imagines what crass thing he might be saying to him. And the nightmare fantasy line he comes up with is: "So, have you read Jaws, then, Salman?"
Now, as I say, I've not seen the film, so I may have misunderstood the point of the moment. And I haven't read the book, so I can't simply dismiss that. (Though it is true that As If, another book by the same author, remains one of only two that I have disliked so much I had to actually destroy it rather than just throw it away.) But there is no point in pretending that Peter Benchley's Jaws is not a universally dismissed book, even by fans of the film, and largely, it would seem, because it was so incredibly popular.
Through most of my childhood, though alas no longer, it seemed to be the most omnipresent paperback in the world: every house had it, every jumble sale had at least three. Basil Fawlty reads it in bed. Mike Abbott, Sid's son in Bless This House, reads it at the kitchen table.
In fact, I date the end of my youth by the first time I went into a charity shop and didn't see one. (It was the Friends video of its day.)
I still read it once a year, and every year I enjoy it more. More than that, though: every year I admire it more. It is, I am certain, a terrific book. I'm tempted to call it the best book Hemingway never wrote.
It's much more rambling and contemplative than the movie, which was a deliberate exercise in streamlining and paring down the original work so that all that remained was the bare bones story of a town menaced by a giant shark and the three mismatched individuals who set out in pursuit of it. The book, by contrast, uses the shark almost as a backdrop, as counterpoint to the main body of the tale, which is a portrait of the paunchy, middle-aged and vaguely dissatisfied police chief of a seaside town who finds himself called upon to react to an inexplicable crisis and behave with honour. The book is filled with characters either written out or vastly reduced in the film, and with sub-plots and tangents.
Of the three main characters, Quint is pretty much as film fans will recognise him, but Hooper is an unprincipled, rather smug rich kid, and is killed in his shark cage, while Brody himself is a much more complicated, flawed and less instantly likeable character than Roy Scheider's version.
History has recorded it as a cheap, trashy paperback but it is anything but: it is filled with sharp, bare Hemingwayesque detail and some wonderful dialogue. Where it does not match the standard of the film - because it is not its business to - is in suspense and action. The whole second half of the film occurs in the final eighth or so of the novel, and while the initial shark attack has something of the shock of the film's, the climax is remarkable for its lack of drama and suspense. The whole business with the exploding gas tanks is not to be found here. Again, what we have is straight, clean, matter of fact; the shark dies, unspectacularly, as most things die.
What matters most are the people, and how they react under pressure. The first half, which dwells on Brody's uneasy relationship with his wife (who, crucially, is not a newcomer to the island but a rich summer vacationer who married beneath her and stayed on), with Mayor Vaughan (who here has connections to organised crime), and with Hooper (who here has an affair with Brody's wife) are not padding: they set up the web of phoney relations between the characters, dictated by wealth and status and position, which the arrival of the shark makes obsolete. The shark is merely the catalyst, a metaphor almost, symbolic of that kind of crisis which erases artificial hierarchies and restores the primacy of courage and resourcefulness. Again, all very Hemingway.
Neither is it Benchley's only significant work. Though its immediate follow-up, The Deep, was - in both film and book versions - a calculatedly commercial endeavour of little interest, his next, The Island is a really rather brilliant sociobiological meditation about a gang of seventeenth century buccaneers still living in Darwinian isolation on an island in Bermuda, the scientist who studies them and the journalist who is captured and imprisoned by them. Strangely, it made a lousy movie, partly because of the miscasting of Michael Caine in the lead, but also - despite Benchley's sole screenwriter credit - because of the stripping away of the novel's philosophical elements and the bizarre decision to make the pirates comic rather than terrifying and repulsive, as they are in the book. Again, it has a deliberately anti-climactic ending, jazzed-up only slightly in the film. It is his finest novel, better even than Jaws.
Of his later works, the gentle ecological fable The Girl of the Sea of Cortez and Beast, a return to Jaws territory with a marauding giant squid instead of a shark, are also far from negligible. Beast, incidentally, has Benchley's cleverest anti-climax, when, just as all seems lost, the squid is abruptly eaten by a whale. Needless to say, this was swapped for a big explosion when the story was filmed, most enjoyably, as a tv movie.
Admirably, Benchley used the rewards of Jaws to raise the profile of shark conservation, to which he devoted the rest of his life. In a late-nineties article, he went so far as to write:

I couldn't possibly write Jaws today. We know so much more about sharks - and, just as important, about our position as the single most careless, voracious, omnivorous destroyer of life on earth - that the notion of demonizing a fish strikes me as insane.

In accounting for the success of Jaws he was fond of quoting E. O. Wilson: "We're not just afraid of predators, we're transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters." In this light, it is clear that all of Benchley's major works are concerned with Wilsonian sociobiology, as applied to the natural world (ecology) and human psychology (Hemingwayesque existentialism).
Peter Benchley died, well before his time, of pulmonary fibrosis, in 2006. He was a fine writer whose misfortune was to have had one enormous popular success that pigeonholed him as the kind of writer he in fact never was, nor had any inclination to be. His later works are, perhaps, uneasy compromises between what he wanted to write and what publishers demanded. As a result, they fell between stools and none repeated the amazing commercial success of the first.
This may have added to the misgivings he sometimes expressed over the content of Jaws in later life. Not long before his death he said: "Any story about an animal that I would write today would have to portray the animal as the victim, not the villain."
Which, sadly, is not the kind of story they hand out million dollar advances for.

No comments: