Monday, June 8, 2015

A Reel 40: JAWS - Part 2: Why It Worked



This month marks the 40th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS. Widely regarded as one of the best films of all time, Reel Speak will celebrate this game-changing film with a blog each week for the month of June. Part One (HERE) explored the beginnings, this week’s blog explores Why It Worked. 



“This shark, swallow ya whole…”

By the time Steven Spielberg’s new film JAWS had finished its theatrical run in 1975, history had been made; the film had broken box office records on its way to becoming the highest grossing of all time, awards and nominations were on the way, and the names Spielberg and John Williams were now on the radar of every movie buff in the world. All this success was a miracle considering the choppy waters the film had to navigate during production; between a mechanical shark that wouldn’t work, harsh weather conditions while shooting at sea, seasick crew members and cast members, and a schedule and budget that went way over the initial projections. Somehow it all came together in the end, but how did such a troubled start finish so strong? 

The answer is not a simple one, but can be traced back to the very beginning…which was Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel of the same name. JAWS the movie ultimately was a story about a killer shark which terrorized a resort town and the efforts of the town’s police chief, Martin Brody, to end the bloodshed. Benchley’s novel as written was a dense thriller which included many sub-plots including the mob’s involvement with the town and a love affair between Brody’s wife and his eventual shark-hunting colleague, Matt Hooper. The first step to making JAWS an digestible dish was to trim away the fat and to just deal with a lean cut of an A to Z adventure story. Down to the depths went the sub-plots of the mob and the love affair, which just left us with the shark and the people trying to end the shark. The trimming was effective on film, and perhaps left JAWS as the prime example of what can happen when filmmakers are brave enough to make changes from the book to the screen. 

The structure of JAWS gave audiences something to latch onto. The main character of Brody, played by Roy Scheider, was a police officer but was presented as an every-day man faced with a frightening task. Brody had real fears (he was afraid of the water), and was a grounded family-man…and this gave audiences a true and likeable hero to root for. The early goings of the film were a straight-up horror film, as audiences jumped out of their seats with popcorn flying as the shark, only hinted at with John Williams’ primal music cues, spilled blood and unleashed terror in an environment that people most associate with happiness; the beach. It was not quite based on a true story, but it was something that could easily happen at any time…which made the film all the more terrifying. As great as the horror elements were, the film would shift into another gear in the third act, when the main characters, Brody, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and shark-hunter Sam Quint (Robert Shaw) head out to sea to hunt down the shark. At this point the film shifts from straight-up horror to an adventure at sea, very much akin to MOBY DICK or something out of a Greek myth. The scares still came, but this time they came in a whimsical environment of rolling seas, harpoon guns, sea stories and songs, and a larger-than-life-looking boat which had such personality it was basically a character in the film. 

And character was where JAWS really brought home the big fish. The three men alone at sea hunting the shark; Brody, Hooper, and Quint…were on a common mission but had differences which gave Spielberg, his writers, and his actors great material to play with. Contrasting characters makes for great drama, storytelling, and character development…and the differences between the three made JAWS function incredibly well and was also fun to watch. Brody was a lawman who was afraid of the water, Hooper was an educated oceanographer who loved sharks, and Quint was a bloodthirsty shark hunter who wanted them all dead. Nothing about the three characters was alike, other than the final mission. 

All these elements, along with Spielberg’s exquisite eye for framing a shot, John Williams’ simple yet effective score, and the masterful editing by Verna Fields…came together beautifully much like a thousand pieces and parts all coming together to create a well-running race engine. Audiences reacted with their wallets and their screams, and critics reacted with showers of five-star reviews. JAWS worked because of great efforts from all involved, but also because it invoked classic storytelling in character and form…along with a finale not afraid to go for arm-raising cheers. JAWS was a triumph then and is a triumph now with a lasting legacy moving forward. 

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Read Part 3: The Legacy HERE




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