35 years ago, on June 20th, 1975, Jaws was released. It had an effect in the cinema that few movies before (or since) have achieved. Jaws was an amazing film for the time, and managed to combine suspense and humour, and to terrify audiences. An entire generation of people never thought about sharks the same way again.
Considering Jaws’ anniversary this month, I find myself thinking about where the movie came from, and what it’s legacy has been.
Background: Real Life
When you say Jaws, most people automatically think of the classic film directed by Steven Spielberg. However, the Jaws story began long before it hit the big screen. In fact, it began with a real person: Frank Mundus. Mundus described himself as, “the pioneer of sport fishing for sharks.” (1) He was a real fisherman who began shark fishing. He caught many sharks during his career, including a Great White Shark that weighed 4.5 tons! His biggest catches were during the 60’s, although Mundus fished (and sharked) for decades. Mundus died in 2008 firmly convinced that he was the inspiration for the Jaws’ character Quint. (2)
In 1964, Benchley read about Mundus catching a great white shark (although Benchley only referred to him as “a fisherman” rather than by name, it seems clear that it was, in fact, Mundus). (3) [Benchley did go out on Mundus’s boat with him. (2) ] This news story about the capture of a Great White off of the New England coastline prompted Benchley to start thinking about sharks, and he began writing the story that grew into the novel Jaws.(4)
Benchley’s first novel, Jaws, was published in 1974. (5) It became a best-seller.
Jaws: The Movie
Director Steven Spielberg saw the silver-screen potential of the novel Jaws. The screenplay was co-written by Peter Benchley (author of the novel of Jaws) and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb. (6)Jaws was a huge box office blockbuster. It made more money than any other film would until the release of Star Wars. (7). It was not only hugely popular, it received a lot of critical acclaim as well. Jaws won three Oscars, and revolutionized film.
Jaws: The Audience & Movie Goers
There had been some great suspenseful films before Jaws (notably Alfred Hitchcock’s films of the 50’s and 60’s). There was nothing quite like Jaws though. I remember the first time that I watched Jaws, on a summer night, with my dad and siblings. Even though my sisters and I made fun of the movie (mostly because my dad kept saying how great it was), we were riveted. Yes, the effects seem laughable now, but they were great for the time.
Jaws is a great piece of cinema because of its use of anticipation. Rather than just showing us the big scary shark to begin with, it builds up our unease by just giving glimpses and evidence. Everyone can understand fear of the unknown, the fear of what we can’t see. Spielberg used this masterfully in Jaws. (For examples of how this has influenced what we watch, just look at The X-Files. That show was creepy because it never really showed the aliens and you never really knew what was true. Most movies that just show the scary things cease to be scary.)
For movie-goers in the 70’s, Jaws was the kind of movie that was delightfully scary. It made a whole generation of people wary of sharks, and still makes people think twice when going to the beach.
Jaws: Legacy in Film
Jaws has become iconic. People still hum the Jaws music to indicate a scary situation or something menacing. Movies like Shark Tale pay pretty obvious tribute (or, you could say, spoof). The style of filming has influenced countless later films as well.
A less obvious legacy of Jaws is still very forceful. Jaws brought in a new era of movie marketing. Critic Stephen Farber described it as an “aggressive media blitz.” (8) It was one of the first films to advertise on TV, and it opened at far more cinemas than was normal at the time. The success of this movie was partially due to new, more widespread marketing that still influences marketing strategies today. If Jaws had been a flop, perhaps Hollywood would be using different marketing strategies.
(1) The Home Page of Frank Mundus
(2) “Frank Mundus: shark fisherman”, September 17, 2008, Times Online
(3) “Exclusive Interview [with Peter Benchley]”, Peter Benchley
(4) “Peter Benchley”, February 14, 2006, The Times
(6) “Jaws “, Internet Movie Database
(7) “Jaws“, Tim Dirks, AMC filmsite
(8) “Open Wide: Jaws and the Summer Blockbuster”, James Surowiecki, PennTags