You can see the spring in the step of Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider). His swagger and swaying arms show the adrenalin kicking in. His fear is present, but he is overcome by excitement. Finally, a break from the mundane action of kids karate-chopping picket fences, he had a real danger to deal with. A shark attack. Jaws is an adaptation of the Peter Benchley book of the same name, but it may as well be its own, unique project. Director Steven Spielberg removes much of the slower, padded plot devices from the 70s novella, instead opting for a simpler, punchier narrative that puts Brody, Quint (Robert Shaw) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) together as they take down a beastly shark plaguing the oceans of Amity.
Spielberg guts the work of Benchley’s novel, and rightly so. In just two hours he creates a story greater than that of the written text that preceded it, and with more detail too. Or at least, more relevant detail. Highlighting stronger messages than the book could ever manage, Jaws presents characters struggling with their dwindling days inside a dying town. That surge of exhilaration Brody feels at the beginning of the film is not because he enjoys the thrill of the hunt, but because he, along with the Mayor and the other characters around him, realise that this is a way of delaying the inevitable that much longer. Sharks chomping on chumps in the water will not prevent those bold enough to swim in the infested waters, it is a lack of resources within the town that damage their battle. But the stalwart efforts of a maddened and enraged community come together, to pin the financial and social failings on a monster of the sea.
Jaws does well to showcase a tremendously close-knit community. A tiny island town where the residents know of everyone, and everyone looks out for one another. It is an artificial concern, self-interest is at the core of wretched individuals who don’t mind sacrificing a few to the deep so long as they are financially emboldened throughout the harsh, empty winters. Scheider is the embodiment of this, he portrays Brody as someone far, far different to the brutish, Amity-born man found in the book. Fresh off the beat in New York City, Brody is still acclimatising to island life. His inability to face his fear of swimming is still fresh in the mind of Spielberg’s script, but it is a fleeting line used a handful of times to heighten the tension. Shaw steals the show as Quint, who still has the sharp edge, but seems mellow and talkative. Dreyfuss too makes for a strong appearance, and together this trio of characters are perfect.
Parrying the witticisms and pooling together the layers of teamwork found throughout, the leading crowd found in Jaws are just as important as the beast itself. A creature that does not appear until well into the running time, yet grips both character and audience with such immediate, encroaching fear. Jaws is a certifiable classic, absolutely, but it is the utilisation of strong narrative threads and what this great white represents that strikes those notes of fear. John Williams pounds those pangs of fear, too, for his famed score for this brings the piece together, the bow around a neatly wrapped present. Jaws is filled with excellent performances, stronger metaphors than Benchley offered in his book, and a sign that Spielberg was on the rise and rise everyone knew he’d be capable of.