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Based on the book of the same name by the late Peter Benchley, Jaws hardly needs an introduction. The tale of a massive, predatory Great White shark feeding off the shores of Amity Island (a fictional New England resort town) is considered to be the first true summer blockbuster, having influence on film even now, almost 40 years later. The deep, irrational fears this clever monster in the dark movie conjures has kept audiences of all ages fascinated for decades, inspiring countless imitations and generating a now classic approach to how best the formula works.
The film is of course most memorable for its shark, but what really makes it great, and why it remains better than anything that others have tried to copy, is its characters. Chief Brody (Roy Schieder) is the everyman who carries the viewer through the experience, being our voice and the mechanism for how we discover and overcome. Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is the young oceanographer, who teaches us about the animal and makes grandiose, but accurate warnings, and Quint (Robert Shaw), the ruffled shark hunter who has spent more years at sea than on land and knows what it takes to lure and destroy the creature, or so he thinks.
Relying on mystery and ambiguity, the shark is famously unseen for most of the film, allowing director Stephen Spielberg (along with the iconic John Williams score) to tap into our primal fears and allow our imaginations to do most of the heavy lifting, leaving us terrified long after the movie is over. That is the real power of Jaws and the reason it is so beloved. It is not about the gore and jump scares that so many films of this genre milk. It is about the sense of vulnerability, the dread of what’s just beyond the unseen, and knowledge that there are things in nature we simply cannot control.
The film (and book) begins with tragedy, as such stories should. On a lonely stretch of beach in the middle of the night, a group of young people enjoy some music and drink around a large, popping fire. Two of them separate from the rest, a lovely, lithe young woman and a handsome, but drunken boy, who stumbles a bit as he tries to keep up with her. As she hurries across the dunes toward the sea, she strips away layers until she is nude, a slim silhouette in the pre-dawn sky. Her enchanted pursuer collapses from inebriation, struggling to remove his clothes before eventually passing out in a happy stupor. Chrissie Watkins, however, makes it to the water. She is clearly at home here, taking to the light waves with an experienced swimmer’s grace.
Of course, she is soon pulled under and bit by the fish. Then she is thrashed about and finally disappears. Her struggle is agonizing to watch simply because we cannot see her attacker even though we know what is there. That is the really source of terror. We are projecting in our own minds what is happening beneath the waves. But, for anyone who saw the film’s theatrical poster before seeing the movie, they might already have had a little inspiration for their imaginations:
The poster was a based on the jacket for Benchley’s book, though aside from a design standpoint, departs significantly in production. The hardcover illustration was created by Paul Bacon, who was a prolific artist of the last century. When the book went to paperback, the publishers wanted something new, and the task fell upon Roger Kastel, a talented artist who would go to even bigger fame with The Empire Strikes Back poster. He was told to read the book and find something inside interesting for the cover. Of course, there is nothing more powerful than the beginning featuring a skinny-dipping young woman swimming near a hungry shark, and so Kastel reworked the Bacon illustration (leading to publisher court battles but wins for both artists). This eventually became the film poster as well. The two pieces of art convey the same message but one’s reaction to them are surely different. Take a look:
What immediately stands out are teeth, or depending on which one you are looking at, a lack thereof. The “shark” on Bacon’s cover is decidedly more tame, even playful compared with the film poster counterpart. It could be suggested it is rising up simply to tickle the unsuspecting swimmer. But what makes the book cover a bit more intriguing than the movie one sheet is the use of black, which isn’t limited to the water, it engulfs everything, most notably, the swimmer. This taps into that fear of the unknown quality mentioned earlier, the Freudian “Id” is you will. The woman is in a place she doesn’t belong and she is about to pay for it. The night time feel is also more inline with the setting of the scene, which takes place in the dead of night. Note too the fish hook “J” in both titles (the blood red “Jaws” was not painted by the Kastel but added by an unknown copy artist who certainly knew what he or she was doing).
For the film poster, Kastel emphasized everything to accommodate the very reason people were coming to the movie. A beastly shark. Far more anatomically correct, this shark has vivid motion with streams of bubbles whisping away as it shoots for the surface and its target. Its mouth is an abyss of empty-black, a chasm where there is no return; a toothy pit of nightmares. Look more carefully at the girl. She is naked in the paperback and poster unlike the hardcover where she is wearing a one-piece bathing suit. This change is very important. Naked means not only is she without clothes, she is also defenseless and entirely exposed. For most, this is our most uncomfortable state. Add the fear of being devoured and this becomes a potent image of terror. It is raw, limbic horror. Interestingly, the nude girl has changed over the years, as sensibilities (censor-bilities?) shift. In fact, the original paperback cover was banned in some parts of the United States due to the clearly (well, almost clearly) visible nude breasts of the swimmer. As new iterations of the book and film have been released, so has the girl, slowly fading into a fog of sea foam. Even her hair changed color!
But there is a classical beauty to the figure, at least the original. Her right arm and wrist extend far up and away from her shoulder, unnaturally but elegantly, like a statue from ancient times. She is moving left to right with eyes closed, calm and serene. Taken by itself, it’s a lovely, thought-provoking image. Of course, the shark changes that. While mentioned, it is far more anatomically correct, but there are some liberties Kastel has taken, especially with the teeth, which are elongated and almost sheen with a metallic, dagger-like quality, which may stem from Benchley’s description:
“Like a locomotive with a mouth full of butcher knives.”
So, does the poster duplicate or properly represent the scene or is it a gross exaggeration that misleads the audience. First, we never see the shark when Chrissie is attacked, and for good reason. It is left for us to decide just exactly what has its teeth in her. In fact, in the entirely of the film, the shark is never seen in the position posited by the poster. There is a naked girl though. The image is meant as a metaphor more than it is an actual depiction. We are a fragile creature with great accomplishments but there are terrifying unknowns and incredible dangers lurking beyond our comfort zone. The girl is all of humanity, a species of fantastic beauty and skill venturing into the great wild universe. The shark is fear incarnate. Benchley said that he regretted writing the novel, it being a work of fiction that created a fervor of hatred for a species that is nothing how they are portrayed in the story or in the film. And though that sentiment has some legitimacy, what really terrifies people is not so much the shark but the monster in the dark we all hide within us. The shark is just a shape it occupies. Movies, like all forms of art from the first night someone grunted a scary story to another in a cave to the slickest Hollywood horror film in theaters, allow us to experience in safety those monsters and be scared with joy in the process. That is the real legacy of Jaws. As a poster, it’s pure marketing genius. What do you think?
Some interesting behind the scenes: Chrissie in the movie is played by former actress and stuntwoman Susan Backlinie who specialized in water stunts. Her scene took three days to shoot and required her to wear a special pair of shorts with cable hooks that allowed stunt coordinators on shore to tug and pull her as if being dragged by the shark. Meanwhile, divers beneath her pulled her under. Thank you, Ms Backlinie. Thank you.