The 1974 bestseller Jaws and the blockbuster that followed created such animosity toward sharks that the book’s author became an ardent shark advocate.
Twenty-five years after Jaws was published in early 1974, Peter Benchley said he couldn’t have written it again in good conscience. The tale of a great white shark that terrorized a town stoked unjustified fears of sharks and popularized shark hunting tournaments.
“[T]he shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain,” Benchley said. “It would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”
Peter Benchley, born on May 8, 1940 in New York City, graduated from Harvard and worked as a reporter for The Washington Post , then Newsweek. He worked for a time as a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson. In 1971, an editor at Doubleday, Tom Congdon, saw some of Benchley’s work and invited him to lunch to talk about a book.
Benchley suggested a book about pirates. Congdon said no. Benchley then suggested a story about a great white shark menacing a resort community. Congdon liked the idea and offered him a $1,000 advance for the first 100 pages.
Benchley holed up in a room above the Pennington Furnace Co., in Pennington, N.J., to write the book during the winter. He found an old turkey coop in Stonington, Conn., to work in during the summer. He didn’t just write; he looked up everything he could find about sharks.
Benchley continued to research sharks after the book’s publication. He was disturbed to learn sharks only eat people by accident when they mistake them for their normal prey.
When Benchley submitted the first 100 pages of Jaws, Congdon liked the first five. He called them ‘wonderful.’
Those first five pages went into the final version unchanged. The next 95 pages, not so much. They were funny, and Congdon didn’t think funny worked for a thriller.
OK, Call It Jaws
Benchley revised and rewrote the book. For a year’s work, he received only $7,500 in sporadic payments. He had come up with titles for the book such as Leviathan Rising and The Jaws of Death, but rejected them.
Shortly before the book went to print, Benchley told Congdon he couldn’t come up with a title. “The only word that means anything is ‘jaws’,” Benchley said. It was short, he said, and it might work.
The book sold 9.5 million copies in the U.S. alone, a surprise bestseller for 44 weeks. It eventually sold 20 million copies.
Film producer David Brown saw Doubleday’s promotion for Jaws, which suggested, ‘it might make a good movie.’
Actors joined the cast at the last minute and the script was rewritten just before shooting.
The mechanical shark, nicknamed Bruce for Spielberg’s lawyer, didn’t work in saltwater. The sound crew almost drowned. Lead actor Robert Shaw went on drinking binges and he and co-star Richard Dreyfuss developed a healthy hatred for each other.
In the end, Jaws took 159 days to shoot, three times as long as scheduled, and it cost $9 million, nearly three times as much as budgeted. Spielberg heard rumors he’d never direct another movie.
Jaws came out in June 1975 in 450 theaters, the first film so widely distributed. The strategy worked; Jaws became the highest grossing film in history until Star Wars. Some critics called it the greatest movie ever.
Though the odds of being eaten by a shark are infinitesimally small, Jaws instilled a widespread fear of the ocean. After seeing the movie, beachgoers refused to go into the water and thousands of fishermen tried to catch trophy sharks. At least one shark biologist partly blames Jaws for a precipitous decline in the shark population.
Benchley embarked on his own film career, accompanying scientists and film producers on expeditions to learn more about sharks. He became the spokesman for the Oceans program of the National Council of Environmental Defense.
In 2000, Benchley penned an op-ed in The Guardian in defense of sharks:
“When I wrote the book and film a quarter of a century ago, knowledge of sharks was in its infancy,” he wrote. “We believed that sharks actually attacked boats; we believed that they actively sought out human prey…
“Over the years, we have come to know otherwise. Over those same years, unfortunately, the demand worldwide for shark products has soared, and improved technology has given man the tools to slaughter sharks wholesale to meet that demand.
“Around the world every year, approximately a dozen people are killed by sharks, while 100m sharks are killed by man.”
Peter Benchley died on Feb. 11, 2006, of pulmonary fibrosis.
This story was updated in 2019.