Saturday, February 08, 2014

When Folks Weren't Afraid to Go in the Water

I remember when "Jaws" was the hottest bestseller I had ever seen — in the spring of 1974.

Everywhere one looked, a copy of the book could be seen — even in my small Arkansas hometown. I know there were bestsellers that swept over the landscape before, but I had never noticed one. Of course, I was a boy at the time. I didn't have much firsthand knowledge stored away in my mental files.

I have seen similar phenomena since, but I still don't think I have seen anything truly comparable to "Jaws."

It was first published in February of 1974; the movie rights were purchased before that happened so there was a lot of anticipation long before the book hit the shelves. It was on the hardback bestseller list for nearly a year.

The next year, everyone in my school seemed to be reading the paperback. Teachers tried for awhile to conceal their fascination with the book, but their cover was blown. Too many copies of "Jaws" had been spotted clumsily hidden in desks and purses, under jackets, even in the teachers' cars in the parking lot.

Students carried copies with their textbooks, and I was no exception. It was a real page turner, and I raced through it. I looked forward to the movie, which was scheduled to be released that summer. The movie is remembered now as the original summer blockbuster — although I never understood why savvy marketers never figured out before that summer was a great time to tap into the youth market.

There were several differences between the book and the movie. Most of those differences were minor, I suppose, although I thought there was one aspect of the novel — an affair between Sheriff Brody's wife and the young shark enthusiast, Matt Hooper — that was significant. There was no such affair in the movie, which changed a lot of other things about the story.

In the book, the sheriff suspected the affair and the thought gnawed at him even though he could not prove it. He bickered with Hooper when they were on the boat that went out in search of the shark. Frankly, when I read the book, I felt more empathy for the shark than I felt for the humans in the story.

The shark in the book finally died of injuries it had sustained in its battles with Brody, Hooper and the captain of the boat, Quint. It wasn't blown up in the Hollywoodesque way that Roy Scheider accomplished it in the movie.

In the novel, Hooper didn't survive his underwater encounter with the shark the way he did in the movie. It was Brody who made his way back to shore alone.

I don't remember people being hesitant to go in the water at the beach in the summer of '74. I remember when my family went to the beach in the summer of '74 and we all went in the water, but I do remember that anxiety in '75. Maybe I just imagined it based on media reports I read or saw. Isn't it funny how the visual influences us?