Looking back at Peter Benchley and Jaws

Legacy – Peter Benchley: Later this month at the Cannes Film Festival, Steven Spielberg will present a restored version of his classic creature-feature, Jaws… and once again, it won’t be safe to go back in the water.

Novelist Peter Benchley, shown in this 1975 photo, who turned ocean waters into a sinister threat with ``Jaws'' and ``The Deep,'' was inducted into the New Jersey Literary Hall of Fame. Benchley, a Princeton native, was honored on Sunday, Oct. 23, 1995. (AP Photo)

We love Spielberg’s scary film, but for those of us who are read-the-book-first purists, it’s Peter Benchley we have to thank. Today would have been his 72nd birthday, so we’re celebrating with 10 facts about the author and his most famous book.

1. Before Benchley became a fiction writer, he was an editor at Newsweek and worked as a speechwriter forPresident Lyndon B. Johnson.

2. Jaws was his first fictional work, and it took more than ten years for it to go from concept to reality. Benchley had read about a fisherman who caught a great white shark weighing more than two tons off the coast of Long Island. The story began to coalesce with an idea that had been in his head for a while – about a shark that wouldn’t stop attacking people.

3. When Benchley met with an editor from Doubleday, he shared some non-fiction ideas, and the editor wasn’t impressed. But when Benchley floated his shark story, the editor knew he had struck gold. Benchley wrote a page of what would become his first novel right there in the Doubleday offices, and he was immediately presented with an advance check.

4. The first page was a winner, but Benchley floundered a bit after that. His first draft of Jaws was nothing like what the book panned out to be… in fact, it was funny. Benchley’s publisher didn’t like the humorous approach, so Benchley went back to the drawing board.

5. Or back to the turkey coop, as the case may be. One of Benchley’s offices while writing Jaws was in a converted turkey coop in Stonington, Connecticut.

6. Benchley was a fantastic writer, but not so great at coming up with titles. Some of the titles he originally suggested for Jaws were The Stillness in the Water, Leviathan Rising, and The Jaws of Leviathan. The final – and far catchier – title was settled upon just minutes before the book went to production.

7. Helen Gurley Brown, then-editor of Cosmopolitan, came across the book and passed it along to her husband, film director David Brown. She included a card reading “might make a good movie” – perhaps one of entertainment’s greatest understatements.

8. After reading the book, Spielberg noted that he was rooting for the shark to win.

9. Benchley, a devoted ocean conservationist in his later years, remarked that he couldn’t write Jaws in good conscience once he learned more about sharks: “[T]he shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”

10. Jaws was such a massive success that it has spawned multiple video game adaptations, a theme park attraction at Universal Studios Florida, not one but two musicals… and of course, that famous film, back in the water at Cannes this year.


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