Added 18 March 2009.

Peter Benchley

Sharks, squid and sea stories

Peter Benchley (1940-2006) was a US journalist, speechwriter, freelance writer and most famously novelist.

Benchley will most likely always be remembered for Jaws, the surprise 1974 bestseller that spawned a bestselling film which provided Steven Spielberg with a big break and other directors with a succession of sequels, each less critically acclaimed than the last. The novel itself takes some of its general ideas from Moby Dick (a man's obsession with a sea creature, the subtlety of the beast, etc) and is loosely based on real historical shark attacks of 1916 in North America. However this is not to say that the book is simply derivative or a formulaic horror. Firstly, Benchley knew the sea or at least could write about it with an air of authority. Secondly, the three main protagonists are all interesting in their own right: Brody, the middle aged police chief whose wife is having a midlife crisis and who dislikes sailing even without sharks; Quint, the obsessional fisherman who starts as a contractor and ends up in a screaming and fatal confrontation with his prey; and lastly the shark itself, apparently emotionless and machine-like in its actions, scanning for prey and attacking and killing without animosity, but later proving surprisingly cunning and hitting back at its hunters.

The film sanitised certain aspects of the book, a tendency I find in Spielberg's earlier films, although the director was not shy of portraying some of the gore or giving a few shock moments, such as a severed head in the water. Nevertheless the shark attacks in the book, like the dinosaur attacks in Jurassic Park, are fairly graphic in their description of the damage the bite of a Great White can inflict. The film's real sanitisation comes however with the omission of the brief motel fling between the marine biologist Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss in the film) and Elaine Brody, who is feeling dissatisfied with life and cut off from the sparkling world she grew up in. Although Hooper is a willing partner, Mrs Brody makes the initial moves, first having a dinner party with him as one of the guests and then meeting him for lunch in an elaborate charade of deceit. Brody, who is suspicious of Hooper, almost comes to blows with him on the shark hunt with Quint after the two exchange angry words. In another major difference from the film, Hooper meets sudden death in the shark cage with no time to escape, and Brody is confronted by the sight of the shark breaching with the dead man's body in its jaws before it dives again and his own uncertain feelings about Hooper's death. Another toning down was the case of the town mayor, Larry Vaughan. In the film the mayor's motives appear to be vague, but in the book it transpires that murky financial dealings with a Mafia source have placed him in a desperate position.

The choice of Robert Shaw to play Quint in the film was fairly inspired, although in the book Quint is bald rather than white-haired. The character of Quint may have been loosely based on the real-life fisherman Frank Mundus who died in 2008 (a useful obituary can be read in the Economist). Quint's transition from hard-nosed business-fisherman to a man engaged in a vendetta is one of the interesting aspects of the novel. Thus, on his trip out with Hooper and Brody, the following conversation:

"That's all there is. You've just got to outguess 'em. It's no trick. They're stupid as sin."

Shortly afterwards, after the shark has knocked Quint over and taken the porpoise off the hook:

Hoping to be contradicted, Brody said "That sure does seem to be a smart fish."

"Smart or not, I wouldn't know," said Quint. "But he's doing things I've never seen a fish do before." And in the same paragraph he announces that he is "going to get that f***er".

After Hooper's death, when Brody doubts that he can raise any more money to pay Quint to kill the shark, the fisherman tells him to keep the money:

Quint said to Brody, "I am going to kill that fish. Come if you want. Stay home if you want. But I am going to kill that fish."

As Quint spoke, Brody looked into his eyes. They seemed as dark and bottomless as the eye of the fish.

On the final day, as they start to engage the fearsome shark:

Brody saw fever in Quint's face - a heat that lit up his dark eyes, an intensity that drew his lips back from his teeth in a crooked smile, an anticipation that strummed the sinews in his neck and whitened his knuckles.

But as the shark fights back, including an attempt to chew the bottom of the boat:

For the first time, Brody saw a frown of disquiet on Quint's face. It was not fear, nor true alarm, but rather a look of uneasy concern - as if, in a game, the rules had been changed without warning, or the stakes raised. Seeing the change in Quint's mood, Brody was afraid.

Quint still believes he can tow the harpooned and wounded fish until it dies, until the awful moment when the line goes slack and he realises that the shark is going to come up, and for the first time Brody sees fear in the fisherman's face. In one of the most gripping passages of nature attacking man, the shark breaches and temporarily blocks out the light with its massive body before crashing down on the boat, pushing the stern under the surface.

In the end the shark does not bite through Quint as in the film but rather drags him to death by drowning as his leg is tangled up in the line and the shark dives. The stricken boat goes down as well, leaving Brody alone in the water to face the mauled but still dangerous shark before it too succumbs to its wounds, and the end of the book sees the bodies of shark and fisherman hanging in the depths on the line while Brody begins the long swim to shore.

Benchley's next book, The Deep, was a story of diving and drugs set in Bermuda and was moderately successful, being made into a film. Of his subsequent novels for the next ten years or so - The Island, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, Q Clearance, and Rummies - only The Girl of the Sea of Cortez received critical acclaim, although The Island was filmed with Michael Caine and David Warner. Benchley reemerged in 1991 when Beast hit the bookshelves. Beast was in some ways a rerun of Jaws but with the monster a giant squid instead of a shark. It was however sufficiently different to make for interesting reading. The main character is Whip Darling, a beleaguered fisherman in Bermuda who is finding it hard to make a living. This is in common with the other fisherman of the area, some of whom are resorting to illegal traps to boost their income. Unbeknown to man, overfishing and illegal fishing has so depleted the available food for marine life in the area that firstly there are few fish left to prey on baby squid, and secondly the fully grown squid are finding it harder to find enough to eat, with the result that other prey sources are sought out. This might sound laughably B-movie, and in fact the film, starring CSI's William Petersen, was rather ropey, with good-looking teenage girls, love interest and some dicey special effects. But the book was serious enough, with its descriptions of the sea, fishing and diving, and an apparently reasonably accurate portrayal of how a giant squid might behave given such circumstances.

This however raises one aspect of Peter Benchley's books: the science. This is not to dismiss Benchley as a charlatan, since science is an ever evolving field and much of what he wrote appears to have been based on what was commonly believed at the time. Nevertheless some of what he wrote about both sharks and squid has since been proven questionable or simply wrong. This appears to be more so in the case of the squid, since recent studies appear to show that although rather frightening to the human eye, normally squid on the surface are in fact either dying or in danger of death since they are by nature deep water creatures, where the cold provides more oxygen to them. Thus the surface encounters of the human protagonists with the creature in Beast are rather improbable, although convincingly portrayed. To be fair to Benchley, much still remains unknown about these fascinating creatures: the Colossal Squid of the southern hemisphere was only discovered within the past few years, and only in the 21st century has a giant squid been filmed in life.

Benchley's last major novel, The White Shark, was not another shark story but a sea story with a difference in that the "monster" was a human experiment conducted by Nazi scientists and apparently awakened. If one suspends disbelief then the novel is still a good read.

Benchley himself became somewhat remorseful in later life about mankind's general treatment of sharks and feared that Jaws might have contributed towards this, so attempted to redress the balance by producing non-fiction works on sharks and the sea and marine ecology in general, as well as leaving a posthumous legacy in the Peter Benchley Shark Conservation Award. Today Jaws remains in print with a thirtieth anniversary edition and regular reshowings on television, while happily our awareness of the real state of the world's sharks, including the dangerous but iconic Great White, has been somewhat increased.

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