JAWS (1975, Director Steven Spielberg)

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

1970s cinema is widely regarded as one of the high points in the history of American film, largely because of the contributions of a group of new young directors who collectively came to be known as the “New Hollywood.” This movement is largely associated with landmark films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979), but it also came to include a variety of genres, including William Friedkins’s horror film The Exorcist (1973), Roman Polanski’s resurrection of the noir film with Chinatown (1974), and even science fiction, with George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). Indeed, Star Wars was the biggest commercial hit of all of these, though the second biggest box-office hit of the decade was a monster movie of sorts, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), which brought in over $471 million in worldwide box-office receipts against a production budget of a mere $7 million. Thomas Schatz notes the centrality of Jaws to the New Hollywood phenomenon:

If any single film marked the arrival of the New Hollywood, it was Jaws, the Spielberg-directed thriller that recalibrated the profit potential of the Hollywood hit, and redefined its status as a marketable commodity and cultural phenomenon as well. The film brought an emphatic end to Hollywood’s five-year recession, while ushering in an era of high-cost, high-tech, high-speed thrillers. (Schatz 17)

Jaws (the first of many major hits for Spielberg) is a more complex film than it might at first appear to be. For one thing, it rides a number of generic currents, of which the monster movie is only one. It features a monster from beneath the sea, as does Godzilla, but it’s also a thriller, a seagoing adventure, and a male-bonding buddy movie, punctuated by elements of the disaster film. Based on a 1974 novel of the same title by Peter Benchley[1] (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Jaws was burdened from the beginning with source material that featured a cast of wooden and unlikeable human characters, with the vividly depicted shark as the highlight of the novel. This dynamic could have never worked on film, of course, especially given the difficulties with representing the shark convincingly on screen with the level of pre-CGI technology available at the time. Jaws could quite easily, in fact, have been a complicated mess, especially given all the technical troubles with the giant mechanical shark constructed for the film. Instead, the film itself is in fact an extremely compact and efficient narrative machine that manages to pull all of its disparate elements together quite nicely, while producing a cast of human characters who carry the film, the menace posed by the shark serving primarily as a mechanism for focusing the human drama.

Jaws begins with a classic scene that replaces the long buildup so often found in disaster and monster movies with a crisp five minutes that gets the action underway immediately. In the opening scene, we see a nighttime gathering of young people on a beach, sharing company, beer, and weed in a spirit of high camaraderie. A young man and young woman, both blonde, all-American types, lock eyes and are immediately attracted to one another. Pheromones are in the air as she heads for the nearby water, gesturing for him to come along, with a clear suggestion of sexual promise. He stumbles belong behind her as she rushes toward the ocean, shedding clothing as she goes. But he is too inebriated to keep up and the nude woman (whose name is Chrissie, played by Susan Backlinie) dives into the water alone, while the man (Cassidy, played by Jonathan Filley) eventually collapses into semi-consciousness at the water’s edge. Chrissie gleefully swims out toward a buoy, while now-iconic views of her naked (but tactfully lit) body shot from beneath the water looking up toward the surface are accompanied by a version of John Williams’ famous menacingly pounding Jaws theme, suggesting that trouble is nigh[2]. And trouble comes quickly, as some unseen force (we know it’s a shark, of course, but the animal is not shown in this scene at all) suddenly seizes Chrissie from beneath the water. She struggles with the attacker for over half a minute, tense music playing, then is finally pulled beneath the surface once and for all.

This opening prologue then sets all the other action in motion. We cut immediately to a domestic scene in which Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), the police chief of Amity Island, awakens with wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) to start their day, the two Brody sons already outside playing. It soon becomes clear that the Brodys are relatively new to the island (which is clearly based on the well-known Massachusetts tourist colony of Martha’s Vineyard, where most of the film was shot), having moved there from New York only a few months before. Adding a quick touch of atmosphere, one of the Brody boys comes into the kitchen with blood streaming down his hand from a minor accident on the swings, though he claims to have been attacked by a vampire. Then Brody gets a call informing him of Chrissie’s disappearance, so he rushes off to work.

In a bit of dramatic irony, viewers are at this point a step ahead of Brody, but it doesn’t take long for one of his men to find what is left of Chrissie’s mutilated body on the beach, being devoured by crabs. It’s a horrific scene, but one that makes an important point: there are forces in nature that are simply going to do what they do, without regard for human niceties. The local medical inspector quickly diagnoses the cause of death as a shark attack, causing Brody to order the beaches closed to prevent further attacks. Amity is a peaceful community, and Brody’s work there normally involves Mayberryesque small problems. There is clearly a sense that he almost welcomes the opportunity to deal with something serious, or at least interesting.

The problem is that he will have to deal with much more than a shark. As he begins to mobilize his forces to get the beaches closed, he immediately encounters the interference of Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who has already gotten to the medical examiner and convinced him to retract his original diagnosis and to suggest that Chrissie might have been killed in some sort of “boating accident.” The attack, as it turns out, has occurred just before the Fourth of July tourist influx that is crucial to the economy of the small island. As a result, local businesses, with Vaughn in their pocket, want to keep the existence of the shark a secret so as not to scare off tourists. The suggestion that they value money over people can be taken as a strong criticism, though it is also the case that the people of the island really need the money. At the same time, they will always need tourist money, and few of them seem to have the foresight to recognize that a spree of killings by a shark off their beach might depress the tourist trade for years to come.

So the beaches open for a massive influx of Independence Day tourists, leading to one of the film’s most renowned set pieces. With the waters off the beach teeming with people, a shark fin suddenly appears in the water. The bathers frantically scramble for the beach, tripping over one another and even intentionally capsizing one another in what surely serves an (overly obvious, overly contrived) allegory of the competitive ethos of capitalism. It seems certain that someone is going to become shark food, but then we discover that the shark is a hoax, two kids playing a prank. Then, just as the film’s audience expels a collective sigh of relief, it is revealed that the real shark has entered the nearby estuary, where the Brody kids (and some others) are playing for “safety.” The shark does dismember a boater (no big deal—we don’t know the man well, but the kids all survive, though we get a bonus tease in which it momentarily appears that the Brodys’ elder son Michael (Chris Rebello) might have been killed as well. Brody now insists that Vaughn take the shark seriously, Vaughn responds to Brody’s note of accusation by reminding him, irrelevantly, that his kids were also on that beach, as if that makes it all okay.

Quirke sees this whole sequence as Spielberg’s “wonderful joke against all the disaster movie clichés he’s been toying with,” the ultimate effect of which (in a logic with which I am not sure I agree) is to cast humans in an even more negative light and make us, at least to some extent, sympathize with the shark in this moment, thereby inoculating us against rooting for it later (53). In any case, Jaws plays with our emotions in some complicated ways, and the dynamic of sympathies in Jaws is far more complex than a simple polar opposition between corrupt humans and the shark or between the self-interested Vaughn and the well-meaning Brody. Vaughn, after all, is little more than a mouthpiece for the local businesses whose highly seasonable income would be so endangered by closing the beach at the height of tourist season. And Brody is joined, among the shark hunters, by the salty old seaman Quint (played—or, actually, overplayed, with a twinkle in his eye—by Robert Shaw) and the nerdy oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the two of whom have their own interpersonal dynamic. Indeed, a key source of energy in the film resides in the essentially class-based tensions between Quint and Hooper, with the seaman clearly resenting the oceanographer in what appears to be a classic case of working-class anti-intellectualism, except with a certain sense of humor. In addition, Quint’s hostility is also fueled by the fact that Hooper happens to come from a wealthy family. For both reasons, Quint suspects that Hooper will just get in the way when they go after the shark, on the assumption that both rich people and educated people are useless in a situation that requires quick physical action. Hooper gets in a few blows of his own, though, as when he complains that he doesn’t need Quint’s “working-class hero crap” or when he mocks Quint’s distinctive way of speaking by suggesting that the seaman is trying to talk like a pirate.

In terms of the treatment of class within the film, it is tempting to note that the middle-class town leaders are forced to turn to the working-class Quint to bail them out when things get rough, so he does function to some extent as an emblem of working-class practical know-how. But Quint is mostly just a crusty individual who shows the value of individual expertise and courage, even if he does get some help from Brody and from Hooper (who is the real expert here). Quint is also a businessman himself, really more petit bourgeois than working class. The upper-class Hooper, meanwhile, is really more a figure of scientific expertise than of wealth and power, further complicating any attempt to read the dynamics of the film in terms of class.

In the climactic sequence of the film, Quint, Hooper, and Brody go out on Quint’s boat, the Orca, in search of the shark, which none of them have yet seen and which all of them seem to have underestimated. Thus, when Brody gets the film’s first good look at the shark (two-thirds of the way through the film), he is shocked at the size of the creature, leading him to advise Quint, in the film’s most widely remembered line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Despite this warning, Quint seems unfazed, even after he sees the shark himself. He then bonds with Hooper as the two men drink together while they compare the scars they have received from various mishaps at sea over the years. If nothing else, that Hooper can match scars with Quint indicates that the oceanographer might be a bit tougher and more experienced than Quint had assumed.

A view of the elusive shark.

Then, all three men, however different their backgrounds, end up bonding, drinking and singing together as they deliver a rousing rendition of the 1925 British drinking song “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” It’s a classic example of male camaraderie and might be considered the film’s central utopian moment, though it also calls attention to just how male-dominated this film really is, with no women on the boat, with no female characters playing a crucial role in the plot, except perhaps for the unfortunate Chrissie[3]. It should be noted that the film does not specify the gender of the shark, though the source novel does clearly indicate that the shark is male. Of course, the shark’s gender really doesn’t really matter to the literal plot of the film, even if it might affect allegorical or symbolic readings of the meaning of the shark.

The three amigos.

In any case, this potentially utopian moment of cross-class bonding is quickly interrupted when the shark attacks the boat, beginning to dismantle it. Brody was clearly right about needing a bigger boat. With the situation rapidly worsening, Brody attempts to call the Coast Guard for help, but Quint, formerly a largely comic character, suddenly goes all-out psycho and smashes the radio. Going in one fell swoop from Popeye to Ahab, Quint wants to take on the shark himself—and the narrative logic of the film subsequently almost demands that he be killed in the effort, though Brody and Hooper will survive, making their way back to the beach after Brody (seemingly the least well-equipped of the three for the effort) destroys the shark by blowing it to smithereens via the unlikely, but very Hollywood, expedient of first jamming a compressed-air tank in its mouth, then firing a rifle at the tank as it protrudes, stogie-like, out one side of the shark’s maw, finally hitting the tank and causing the fatal explosion.

The demise of Quint.

The elements of Jaws that make it a monster movie and a seagoing adventure thus come to a relatively simple and predictable conclusion. Indeed, Jaws is a pretty simple and straightforward narrative in this sense, one that is special primarily because it is so well constructed, with all elements—plot, character, cinematography, music, even humor—combining to produce a highly effective entertainment spectacle. The film is thus the first major demonstration of the ability of director Spielberg to produce such spectacles. Even more importantly, Jaws initiated a major new trend in Hollywood marketing, becoming the first summer blockbuster movie and establishing many of the conventions that would govern the production of such films going forward.

Jaws does, though, contain other dimensions, including a number of political ones. For example, focusing on the key sequence in the film in which Quint relates his harrowing experience aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the American ship that delivered crucial components of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in World War II, Sebastian Croft argues that this passage provides a clear link between Jaws (and its 1970s context) and the legacy of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima:

Jaws encapsulates the confidence crisis of 1970s America by questioning the immoral sacrifice of American servicemen abroad. In doing so, the film serves as one of the seventies’ most significant socio-cultural landmarks where important issues of national identity, morality and historical representation are negotiated. (96)

In particular, Quint relates the fact that the Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine after delivering the bomb components that would later rain apocalyptic terror upon Hiroshima. Then, struggling to survive in the flotsam and jetsam left by the sinking, the surviving crew members were attacked by sharks. According to Quint’s narrative, delivered to Brody and Hooper aboard the Orca, “eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest.” In point of fact, historians estimate that fewer than 150 of the sailors from the Indianapolis were actually killed by sharks, but that would still make it the deadliest shark attack in history, which is probably the main reason why it was included in the film (even though it was not included in the original novel).

Croft, however, argues that Quint’s story, by providing a link between Hiroshima and Amity Island, tends to make the shark of Jaws a figure of retribution against America for the massive slaughter that was Hiroshima, just as the sharks that attacked the survivors of the Indianapolis could be seen as enacting revenge (in advance, given that the bombing had not yet occurred) for the role of the Indianapolis in the bombing. According to Croft, when Brody dispatches the shark in Jaws, he thus also sinks the legacy of American guilt over Hiroshima, a guilt that had been made worse by the various crises (especially the Watergate political scandal and the ignominious outcome of the American misadventure in Vietnam) that struck America in the first half of the 1970s. For Croft, then, the immense popularity of Jaws can at least partly explained by the patriotic relief provided by this restoration of America to its traditional place of honor among nations, something that he sees as directly associated with the setting of Jaws during the July 4th holiday season. Thus, for Croft, “the overall cultural significance and appeal of Jaws derived from its ability to simultaneously prey upon and allay growing fears that America had become an increasingly vulnerable and deserving target for nuclear retribution by the mid-1970s” (96).

 Andrew Britton, cited by Croft, is even more enthusiastic in his vision of the restorative power of Jaws, noted the immense sense of victory and vindication that American audiences seemed to experience at the moment when the shark is annihilated. For Britton, the film at this moment becomes

a communal exorcism, a ceremony for the restoration of ideological confidence. The film is inconceivable without an enormous audience, without that exhilarating, jubilant explosion of cheers and hosannas which greet the annihilation of the shark, and which transforms the cinema, momentarily, into a temple. (237)

Such readings do, indeed, provide at least a partial explanation for the popularity of Jaws with American audiences in 1975, given that the film appeared at a moment (somewhat like our own moment in 2020, except that it was still safe to go to theaters) when Americans were desperate for something good to happen.

On the other hand, it is also the case that Jaws, on its initial release, became a huge hit in the U.S. largely due to the simple fact that Universal Pictures mounted an unprecedented advertising and marketing campaign, so that one need not necessary seek complicated sociopsychological explanations. Moreover, also thanks at least partly to a massive international promotional campaign, Jaws took in nearly 45% of its box-office receipts outside the U.S. and Canada. Indeed, it became the highest grossing film of all time outside the United States to that point, edging out The Exorcist. So the film clearly appealed to audiences in ways that had little to do with the specifics of American history. And, of course, reading the shark in Jaws as an agent of vengeance on the U.S. for the atomic bombing of Japan has the additional shortcoming that it simply doesn’t really make much sense to see the shark in this way, despite the Fourth of July setting of the film.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Jaws invites readings of the shark as having meanings that go far beyond the literal. After all, the shark itself is possibly the least interesting “character” in the film, which might explain why this doesn’t really seem as much like a monster movie as it might. The shark is also an unusual monster in that it has no supernatural intonations and has not been produced by any sort of manmade mishap. He’s just surprisingly big. And he’s a shark. He’s not really evil; he’s just being a shark, though he does seem surprisingly dedicated to destroying the Orca and its crew. In this sense, it is worth noting that the initial release of Jaws literally led to a sort of backlash against sharks as numerous individuals, now thinking of sharks as vicious and heartless killers, took to the waters as shark hunters, leading to a decimation of the population of sharks along the East coast of the United States. According to Mary Colwell, citing the research of biologist Julia Baum, “between 1986 and 2000, in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, there was a population decline of 89% in hammerhead sharks, 79% in great white sharks and 65% in tiger sharks.” Colwell further notes, though, that these attacks on sharks were unjustified. Sharks are not the natural enemies of humans and do not seek out humans as victims; almost all shark attacks on humans occur because the sharks mistake the humans for their normal fishy prey. She then cites Peter Benchley himself as saying that he would never had written his novel if he had known that he was misrepresenting sharks in a way that would lead to their mass slaughter.

In any case, the shark in Jaws does not behave the way real sharks behave, further suggesting that it can profitably be read allegorically. Probably the best way to do this is to see the shark as a representation of the revolt of nature against human domination and destruction, its attacks on humans serving as retribution for all of the violence that has been done to the natural environment through its irresponsible exploitation by humans, especially in the last couple of centuries or so of industrial capitalism[4]. In this sense, Jaws might be seen as an environmentalist film, though the resolution of the plot is problematic in this regard, as well. After all, the humans of the film defeat and destroy the shark, suggesting an unlikely victory over an avenging nature, though I suppose one could read the victory over the shark as a utopian suggestion that humans still had a chance to overcome the environmental crisis that was only, in 1975, beginning to be recognized.

Meanwhile, the overt critique in Jaws of capitalist greed (with associated governmental support) suggests that the film places the blame for our current environmental crisis on that same combination of capitalist greed and governmental malfeasance. In this sense, the victory over the shark might be taken as a suggestion that special individuals, such as the crew of the Orca, might be able to take strong action to overcome the problems caused by a floundering government. Stephen Heath places his emphasis on the critique of governmental malpractice in the film, suggesting that Jaws is, at the most fundamental level, a “Watergate film,” the machinations of Vaughn and his cronies amounting essentially to a cover-up of the kind undertaken by the Nixon White House only a few years earlier (25). Heath then goes on to emphasis the status of Jaws as a product, noting that, to understand its ideology fully, we must appreciate the ways in which that ideology operates within the film as film, and also as a commercial product of the Hollywood film industry. In this sense, of course, the film’s critique of capitalism is significantly complicated (and potentially undermined) by the fact that Jaws is itself a product of the capitalist system—and a very lucrative one, at that.

It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, that the critique of capitalist greed in Jaws is delivered with a light touch and in an almost formulaic manner, thus assuring that any political message delivered by the film will not interfere with its considerable entertainment value. Moreover, it should be noted that Spielberg does not appear to have been particularly interested in commenting on Watergate, or capitalism, or anything else political. Indeed, Quirke sees the anti-capitalist subtext of this film as more a “parody” of “the stagy over-earnestness of the political allegory,” rather than an allegory proper” (47). And Quirke has a point, though her repeated insistence that the 1970s Spielberg had no interest in politics whatsoever seems a bit of an exaggeration, given the consistent, if nonspecific, disdain for authority in Spielberg’s early films, perhaps arising more from her own seeming disdain for political commentary in films.

In any case, the political subplot of this film does seem to have come more from Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People—which deals with a cover-up by the local authorities in a resort town whose spa waters have become contaminated with bacteria—than from Watergate or any real-world 1970s events.In Jaws, the critique is delivered primarily through the way in which Mayor Vaughn and the businessmen he represents seem to value profits more than persons, even to the point of being willing to trade the lives of a few victims in order to keep the tourist dollars flowing. This critique, however, goes beyond the mayor and his cronies to suggest that this sort of venality permeates the entire society of Amity Island from top to bottom, extending outward to American society as a whole. For example, when the shark takes its second victim, young Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees), the boy’s mother offers a $3,000 bounty to anyone who can kill the shark, and the locals immediately respond by tripping over themselves in a frantic effort to collect the bounty.

Quint, experienced old salt that he is, warns the locals that this amount might be too low and that they might be underestimating the danger posed by the shark. This warning, however, falls on deaf ears, leading to a largely comic sequence in which it is quite clear to viewers that the amateur army of shark hunters (not only from Amity, but from several surrounding states) that mobilizes in response to this bounty has no idea what they are up against. The shark hunt begins, for example, as two locals, Charlie (Robert Chambers) and Denherder (Edward Chalmers Jr.), try to hook the shark from a boat dock, using a heavy chain as fishing line and Charlie’s wife’s holiday roast as bait. The two are clearly comic characters, somewhat in the mode of Shakespeare’s “mechanicals.” Perhaps surprisingly, though, they actually do manage to hook the shark, tying off the chain on the dock. The shark then heads out to sea, taking a big chunk of the dock with it and nearly killing Charlie in the process. Charlie manages (barely) to get back to safety, preserving the essentially comic nature of the scene (though Brody, when told the story as if it is funny, gruffly declares that it is not).

Several boatloads of (obviously incompetent) shark hunters then gather to head out in search of the shark, nearly capsizing each other in the process. At the same time, this Keystone Kops sequence also has some of the texture of a Western lynch mob, giving it a much darker undertone. And, as Quirke notes, a sort of lynching has, in fact occurred, with an additional link to the Western embodied in the fact that the “lynched” shark (a tiger shark, not even the right kind of shark, we will discover) even has an incongruous arrow sticking out of its side, as if ambushed by Injuns. Victory is declared by the loutish humans who have brought in the shark, but our sympathies are entirely with the animal, and there is no question in our minds, even before Hooper’s impromptu autopsy on the fish, that this tiger shark is not the guilty party. An innocent fish has been hanged. By its tail. For display.

This seemingly comical shark hunt will take an especially dark turn when Brody and Hooper discover one of the hunters’ boats, wrecked and adrift in the water. Hooper dons his scuba gear and dives in to investigate, finding a large shark’s tooth embedded in the hull; then Hooper peers through a hole in the hull, when suddenly the head of dead shark hunter Ben Gardner (Craig Kingsbury) pops into view, bloated and decomposing, with worms wriggling out of one of its eye sockets. It’s a calculated jump-scare moment and one of the darkest moments in the film—matched in visual intensity only by the sights of Chrissie’s body being eaten by crabs and Quint being eaten by the shark, though the shot of a leg bitten off of the boater in the estuary is pretty intense as well[5].

The gruesome head of Ben Gardner.

One way to measure the success of Jaws is to note its influence on subsequent films—none of which had anywhere close to the impact of the original. The immense success of Jaws predictably inspired a number of films featuring attacks by sharks (and sometimes by other undersea creatures) in the coming years. Indeed, Jaws itself spawned three sequels released from 1978 to 1987. Most big shark films have been pretty bad, though films such as Tintorera (1978) have gained something of a cult following. Sharks are scary enough, however, that many films about shark attacks have simply featured normal-sized sharks, including such films as Deep Blue Sea (1999, with super-smart sharks), Open Water (2003), The Reef (2010), The Shallows (2016), and 47 Meters Down (2017). In 2018, however, the Jason Statham vehicle The Meg (a joint Chinese-U.S. production) featured the biggest sharks of them all, in the form of massive prehistoric sharks known as a “megalodons.” Notable films featuring undersea monsters that were not sharks include Leviathan (1989) and the recent Underwater (2020), which tries (but largely fails) to replicate the science fiction-horror classic Alien (1979) in an undersea environment, employing a Cthulhu-like monster.

In the twenty-first century sharks have also enjoyed an enduring popularity in spoofy, over-the-top films made possible by the availability of inexpensive computer-generated imagery. In recent years, the cable channel SyFy has made such films something of a specialty, beginning with the 2010 Sharktopus, a Roger Corman production that featured a genetically engineered creature that was half shark and half octopus. This creature, though destroyed in this film, would make a comeback in two sequels in which it battled other hybrid monsters: Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda (2014) and Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf (2015). But SyFy’s biggest hit in this odd subgenre was the totally ridiculous Sharknado, which became something of a cult sensation, triggering a series of five more explicitly comical sequels.

Much less ridiculous, but still a bit of a Jaws spoof, is Beneath (2013), from horror-film auteur Larry Fessenden. Here, a group of teenagers go for an outing in a remote location, something that never bodes well for teenagers in horror films. Then they go out in a boat on the lake and spend the rest of the film battling for their lives against a giant, hokey-looking catfish that apparently serves as a sort of god of the lake. The film’s mixture of horror and comedy never entirely finds the right balance, while the battle against the catfish is at times overshadowed by battles among the teenagers themselves, but it definitely has its moments, especially if viewed in the right spirit.

Jaws is clearly more powerful than any of these successors, even though, in the course of the film, the shark actually claims only five victims: Chrissie, Alex Kintner, the unnamed boater in the estuary, Gardner (killed off camera), and Quint. Thus, the body count in Jaws is far less than in most disaster or monster movies, which suggests that the lasting power of the film has to do with its resonances with larger events in American society at the time.Of course, 1970s events such as Vietnam and Watergate, no matter how central they were to the historical conditions of the production and original reception of the film, no longer have quite the same urgent and immediate charge for contemporary audiences nearly half a century later. We do, though, have our own contemporary problems. In particular, the battle between shutting down the beach for health and safety and opening it up to stimulate the local economy obviously takes on a special significance in our own COVID-19 era, when similar tensions have become a crucial part of the texture of American political life. On this view, as numerous commentators have noted, the shark becomes the novel Coronavirus, while Hooper becomes a sort of composite stand-in for Anthony Fauci, using his scientific knowledge to try to get people to take the shark seriously and to shut down the beach until the danger has been dealt with. Unfortunately, among the political leaders on Amity Island, only the New Yorker Brody (thus playing the role of Andrew Cuomo?) heeds Hooper’s warnings. In opposition, Mayor Vaughn, a bumbling fool and a sleazy huckster figure in the best of times, wants to keep things open and to assure everyone that the beach is already perfectly safe—in order to stimulate the tourism-dependent local economy. We know who Vaughn corresponds to in our real-world version of this crisis. As Jennifer Weiner notes, Jaws might very well be considered a horror movie, but the real horror that makes it so is not the shark (who is just being a shark) but the mayor and the greedy, meretricious forces he represents.

Of course, this comparison, however striking (and meme-able), only goes so far. Even apart from the fact that Jaws is fiction, the stakes in the film are rather small. The economy under threat is the local economy of a small island community; the shark, meanwhile, is actually fairly easy to stop and never attacks more than a handful of people, as opposed to the millions of Americans affected by the virus. It is also much easier to defeat than a virus. Kara Weisenstein thus ends her review of Jaws as a prescient Coronavirus fable by noting that “Unfortunately, you can’t eradicate a virus by shooting it in the mouth.” Indeed, perhaps the most important lesson to ponder via the comparison of Jaws with the Coronavirus Pandemic is the way in which the giant shark in the movie seems so threatening and dangerous, while millions of Americans were able to laugh off the far deadlier virus as a hoax or to declare it to be no worse than the flu—until it killed them or someone close to them.


Britton, Andrew. Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton. Ed. Barry Keith Grant, Wayne State University Press, 2009.

Colwell, Mary. “How Jaws Misrepresented the Great White.” BBC News, 9 June 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33049099. Accessed July 2020.

Croft, Sebastian. “History Bites Back: Confronting the Atomic Leviathan in Jaws.”Film International 81, 2017, pp. 86–98.

Heath, Stephen. “Jaws, Ideology, and Film Theory.” Framework 0.4, Fall 1976, pp. 25–27.

Quirke, Antonia. Jaws. Bloomsbury Publishing (for the British Film Institute), 2019.

Schatz, Thomas. “The New Hollywood.” Film Theory Goes to the Movies, eds. Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, and Ava Preacher Collins, Routledge, 1992, pp. 8–36.

Verevis, Constantine. “Vicious Cycle: Jaws and Revenge-of-Nature Films of the 1970s.” Cycles, Sequels, Spin-offs, Remakes, and Reboots : Multiplicities in Film and Television, Eds. Amanda Ann Klein and R. Barton Palmer, University of Texas Press, 2016, pp. 96–111.

Weiner, Jennifer. “The Real Horror of Jaws Isn’t the Shark: It’s the Leader Who Initially Values Capitalism over Saving Lives.” The New York Times, 7July 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/07/opinion/coronavirus-jaws-movie.html?fbclid=IwAR2FO_g15p0MYNEeCNAVfCtTdzyRPoQ_7njYCl1Naw_-4DdHlYiLFFkKbtA. Accessed July 2020.

Weisenstein, Kara. “Jaws Is a Prescient Fable for the Coronavirus Era.” Mic.com, 3 July 2020, https://www.mic.com/p/jaws-is-a-prescient-fable-for-the-coronavirus-era-28801266. Accessed July 2020.


[1] Benchley’s rather undistinguished novel also has its own sources, of course, including a notorious real-world shark attack that occurred off the New Jersey shore in July of 1916. In addition, the character of Quint was largely based on Montauk sport fisherman Frank Mundus, a one-time shark hunter who later became a shark conservationist.

[2] This striking opening underwater sequence is lifted almost directly from the 1954 classic Creature from the Black Lagoon, in which a swimming woman is also threatened by an underwater creature. That creature, however, is far different from the shark in Jaws, and even ultimately develops a sort of romantic attraction to the woman, a motif that provides much of the inspiration for the 2017 Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water.

[3] It might also be noted that, among the scars suffered by Hooper over the years, he declares the worst of them to be the broken heart he received at the hands of one Mary Ellen Moffat, thus potentially identifying woman as the greatest danger that this world holds for men.

[4] See Verevis for a discussion of Jaws as the inspiration for an entire cycle of “revenge-of-nature” films that followed it in the 1970s, as well as a larger cycle of 1970s disaster films in general.

[5] Quirke suggests that this moment is “the biggest shock in the film, and of Spielberg’s career” (43). She also points out that Spielberg had to reshoot this entire scene in an effort to make it more shocking.