The Narrative Genius of Jaws: Celebrating 39 years of Aquaphobia

 

“It’s a pretty good story, a pretty perfect structure.”

–Steven Spielberg on Jaws, 2012

Steven Spielberg mugs for the camera “on the set” of “Jaws”

Although when asked these days Spielberg seems to attribute a fair deal of the success of Jaws more to luck than anything else, there are several other reasons why Jaws was able to become the first modern blockbuster, the film that ushered in summer movies, and, more importantly, continues to resonate with audiences to this day. Spielberg himself offers a productive means of exploring its success with his self-effacing remarks about the film’s story. I want to examine Spielberg’s claim about the perfection of this film’s structure and offer some evidence to validate his claim.


The film was conceived to be popular, indeed Peter Benchley wrote the book as a means of making a quick dollar, which of course he did, securing first a $1,000 investment from his publisher based on a one-page treatment and a further $175,000 for the film rights and first draft of the screenplay. But unlike get-rich-quick schemes, which often trade in occult and bogus knowledge, Jaws features no tricks and illusions to achieve its legacy. It’s all in the film, available to any who would look. Spielberg himself drafted a rewrite before passing the revised script to Carl Gottlieb, known primarily for his comedic writing, with the simple injunction that he “tear it apart”.

Eviscerate it he did. The plot of this film is like a heavily picked-over Jenga tower. It’s stacked to the tipping point, with everything in a precise order; move one scene, rewrite one event, the whole film topples. The genius of the intricately crafted structure is suggested by how simple it all seems. The film is structured around one idea: a man needs to kill a shark.  Despite the ostensible simplicity of the concept, the story nonetheless manages to successfully sustain a two-hour runtime that offers three incredibly distinctive leads—four if you count the shark.

Another indicator of the film’s ingenuity is that the film doesn’t actually engage with its main goal–the man doesn’t start hunting the shark–until midway through the film. And yet no one would ever claim that nothing happens in the first half of Jaws. Part of the trick is that the film doesn’t simply delay the hunt for the shark, it builds towards it. And that’s a crucial distinction that seems lost on some screenwriters who just throw events at the audience for two hours and hope something clicks. Sure, the photography is terrific, the acting idiosyncratic and believable, and the music unforgettable, but this would be to obviate the strength of the film’s structure. Without this element, I challenge, the film would not equal the sum of its parts.

Delay is a narrative necessity. Homer’s Odyssey would’ve finished in about two verses without it. Even when Odysseus shows up in his home town of Ithaca, a goal he’s been striving towards for ten years in the story, the text nonetheless continues for another 10 books. Almost half the story is spent with the goal ostensibly there for the taking. But Homer delays, as Spielberg, Gottlieb and Benchley delay. The ending must be earned. They don’t go about this by delaying the ending however, in the same way that Homer doesn’t simply delay Odysseus’ return. Instead, the scenes of the story enhance the main goal, thereby amplifying the reward of its completion. Thus, when the main goal of Jaws is finally achieved, it’s no longer “a man kills a shark”, it is instead “formerly aquaphobic police chief Brody, after nearly sacrificing life and sanity, triumphs over an unstoppable predator and saves the people of his town.” The means by which the film achieves this narrative victory is by breaking the story into a series of goals which are subservient to the main goal. These microgoals, as I shall now refer to them, are thus fundamental pieces of the plot that progress the story to its ultimate conclusion (and which amplifies the terms of its completion). In so doing, microgoals enable the story to develop characterization as a logical extension of plot.*

Robert Shaw as Quint in “Jaws”

I’ll give you a prime example of a microgoal that occurs after the first shark attack, when Quint, the expert fisherman, offers his help to kill the shark. Though the city council balks at his exorbitant price, police chief Brody understands it is the only seemingly viable solution. Only one problem, the mayor doesn’t agree. This establishes a microgoal: “Convince the mayor to pay Quint to kill the Shark”—which is an enhancement of “Brody needs to kill the shark”.

This is ostensibly a delay; after all, it can be summed up by the mayor saying no to the request, but the microgoal accomplishes more than that. It doesn’t just offer antagonism, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. That is, if the mayor had simply said no, only to later say yes, that too would’ve just been a delay in the story. And yet, to a degree, this is precisely what happens: the mayor initially refuses only to later change his mind. But this goal is not a mere delay. It’s vital to the film. More than just giving us another shark attack (though it does allow that to happen), the goal provides a good deal of character building that would have been lost without it. The conflict offered by the microgoal allows the characters to show facets of their personalities through their interactions with each other. (I should also mention that narrative aside, this section of the film provides the audience a sense of extreme tension. Even an audience watching this movie for the first time knows that there’s going to be another attack, but they don’t know when, where or how it will happen, and so they’re on edge waiting for the shark to strike, which the film wouldn’t have set up effectively otherwise.)

Ironically, from a narrative perspective we don’t actually need the mayor to object at all. The film could’ve shown the first shark hunt to be unsuccessful, and then could have jumped immediately to our three protagonists on the boat conducting a more thorough hunt for the shark. The parameters of the main goal do not change either way. Moreover, in the interest of keeping the story moving one has to wonder why Brody doesn’t just ignore the mayor’s orders and go after the shark. If the film had been made in the 80s this might very well have happened. (Nevermind the suggestion that Quint might be compelled to hunt the shark for free, this is a capitalist society after all and even when lives are at stake bills still need to be paid. This might be brought up if the film were made today, but then it’s a hazy bit of ethics that is probably best left out of summer entertainment.) But then this movie is not a statement about vigilante justice or the machismo male saviour (though it might be charged with this). It’s about survival. It’s the prime factor motivating almost every character in this town, even the shark. Not so coincidentally, both Hooper and Brody, being out-of-towners on the island, seem exempt from this condition.

Quint, Brody and Hooper stare down their prey (or is it predator?)

The delay is useful because it creates conflict, a key ingredient of drama, be it external (between Brody and the Mayor) or internal (between Brody and his fears). But unnecessary conflict isn’t useful. Unmotivated by a goal or without coordination with the main goal, conflict offers just a boring delay. (And I don’t know why so many films waste their time with it because it must be really expensive to shoot some of this filler garbage). Imagine, for example, how the film would have stalled if the same twenty minutes had been spent trying to convince Brody to go out on the water to look for the shark. Not only would the audience lose interest in the scene when it finally occurred, Brody would become analogous to the mayor: both would have been typified as stupid and stubborn bastards. (And it’s hard to sympathize with the goal of a stubborn bastard, nevermind a stupid one.)

And yet, when Hooper suggests that he and Brody go look for the shark at night, Brody does decline (motivated by internal conflict—his aquaphobia). Though this is a delay, the scriptwriters seem aware of its ability to induce tedium and only allow it to continue for about thirty seconds. They judged (quite rightly) that it’s not necessary to create a sustained conflict here, least of all between these two characters. And yet, by having Brody say no initially, the character still manages to give a detail of his personality. Why won’t he go out on a boat? Because he doesn’t like the water—and because it’s nighttime and he doesn’t want to get eaten by a shark. Minimal character development, I admit, but development nonetheless (if you’ll notice it’s also this fear of water that he ostensibly conquers by the conclusion of the film—not so coincidentally by overcoming his main goal). And it also gives a humorous transition to the next scene, a terrifying excursion to a partially submerged boat. So the scene functions on multiple levels of narrative achievement: to develop the characters, to establish a rapport between the two leads, and to develop crucial plot development. It even serves as a useful counterbalance to the terror of the ensuing scene (another element which many scriptwriters neglect to include, but which can salvage an otherwise unbearably tense film, and notice how it achieves this contrast through character development and not through situation. The people are playful in the scene while the action—gutting a shark to search for a recently devoured boy—is not.)

A shot that still terrifies to this day

But why is the conflict necessary? Why can’t they all just get along? Consider the contrary: If Brody had just asked and the mayor had just said yes, one might have wondered the point of the scene. Not only would it have been dull, and delayed the action, it might have even been inadvertently comical. (Similar to if a robber were to growl “give me all your money” and the hapless victim were to casually agree: the conflict is deflated, the dichotomy of the emotions is ridiculous and makes a mockery of both reactions).

The conflict offers character development by creating division between certain characters–between Brody, who wants to save people by killing the shark, and the mayor, who wants to save the town’s economy by not forking over $10,000–and it also creates bonds between others. Hooper, the other main character in the film, as we all know, takes Brody’s side. The scene by the vandalized sign, for example, is not just a shouting match between Brody, Hooper and the Mayor. Hooper is shown to be sympathetic to Brody’s plight, he helps Brody argue his case, and even becomes enraged himself at the mayor’s opposition. Though it’s a character building moment for everyone, Hooper achieves the most definition because he doesn’t have to take a side on this issue, it’s not his fight. We get a glimpse of this fact when he gives up in a moment of utter frustration. He could just walk away at any time and save himself the headache (personally I would’ve left right around this part), but he sticks around, bound by a sense of moral duty to save lives and also by his sympathy to Brody’s pleas for help. Ultimately Brody’s goal becomes his goal.

Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) argues with Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) about the size of the town’s problems

This section of the film is built upon these two men learning to share goals. Just as Hooper’s goal to convince the mayor that the shark isn’t dead had become Brody’s goal, so too does Brody’s goal to kill the shark become Hooper’s. His motivation may be different from Brody’s, which is propelled by duty and by guilt, but his goal remains the same, which also clarifies again the goal of the film. By taking a side and by acting on his belief (sticking around to help), the audience is able to confer him with sympathy. And notice too how the film doesn’t waste time by saying this. We don’t have Brody and Hooper boldly declare their undying bromance for each other, one that will last for all time… or at least until the sequel comes around and Hooper is nowhere to be seen. By providing the audience these organic sites for characters to behave in response to conflict, these microgoals, the script allows characters to show their personalities. These characters don’t just tell the audience who they are with monologues, they show us through their actions.

Monologues are useful too, and Jaws makes great use of them to establish Hooper and especially Quint, but their characterization extends beyond merely them talking about themselves. They are not static figures that the script just moves around like mannequins when required for the story. (Prometheus, I look icily at you.)

I can’t stress enough the importance of giving audiences moments to see characters interact, because when the script invests these characters with emotion the audience is able to identify with them. If not with their goals then at least with the emotions which motivate their actions to achieve these goals. The important distinction to make is that it offers the ability to identify with them, and does not function on the supposition that the audience will. The script offers these moments to the audience which they can either accept or reject. The brilliance is the way in which the story doesn’t stop to make these offerings to emotional investment. Many scripts either forget to give characterization or they’re not sure how to go about it, so they stop the story in its tracks to have everyone sit around and listen to character development. The film’s story doesn’t grind to a halt to give these characters a chance to describe themselves, their characters develop naturally from the events of the story. More importantly, and this is the part a lot of scriptwriters don’t seem to get, or don’t know how to do, this investment is achieved by choice. I have to reiterate that because it’s a point so often misunderstood by scriptwriters: The film shows its audience reasons to care rather than simply tells them to care.

Often scriptwriters try to force us to care by just giving us superficial details. It’s like they’re going off a checklist of items designed by a consortium of corporate drones to guarantee sympathy. They tack on a wife and kid, even a dog, as if that suddenly makes the character likeable, sympathetic and worthy of our time. I’m not saying it’s a problem to give the main character a family, but it is lazy when you use the mere presence of that family as a substitute for character development. Though Brody has a family (and not just one dog but two dogs!), the film doesn’t just leave it at that, it gives us moments where they bond (even the dogs need to be fed), and the audience is permitted to engage with their bonding. As a result, the film provides reasons to worry about Brody’s family when they’re on the beach. The audience is more likely to be invested in the scene because they’ve come to know them, if not also care, through that adorable scene of familial bonding. The script doesn’t simply demand from its audience to care about its characters, it takes the extra step to give the audience reasons, and these reasons flesh out the characters at the same time. It’s not just children in peril, as many critics often make of Spielberg’s films.

You don’t need to care about the characters in order to enjoy a movie, and there are some people that are going to care about the main characters in any story no matter what simply because they’re the main character, but Spielberg didn’t get to be Spielberg by using lazy scripts. A story doesn’t resonate with audiences by being lazy, or merely adequate.

So all of this character building happens before the film addresses the main goal directly, which is “Brody wants to kill the shark”. But because the film’s story has done all this work beforehand, setting up the characters so well, the audience is invested in the final part of the movie, which takes place entirely on a boat with only three characters–again, four if you count the shark.

That’s a lot of chum

I distinguish the main goal as “Brody wants to kill the shark”, and not just “to kill the shark” for a reason. To explain this reason, I ask you to imagine how unsatisfying the finale would have been if anyone else had killed the shark. In fact, unlike the movie, the book doesn’t end with Brody killing the shark. It just dies of its sustained injuries right before it eats him, which Spielberg didn’t find very satisfying. And so he changed it. Benchley, the author, thought the idea of Brody blowing up the shark was both ludicrous and unnecessary, until he saw the film with an audience and agreed, probably while the audience was drowning the theatre in applause, that Spielberg had made the right call. Ok, maybe he didn’t need to blow up half the ocean to do it, and Mythbusters showed there’s no truth behind shooting an air tank to cause an explosion, but then why is this so much more satisfying than the original ending? Because it satisfies the goal of the film, which is that Brody wants to kill the shark. Of course other people want to kill the shark, but Brody is the one whom the audience has been watching this whole time try to kill it (even if that meant hiring somebody to do it). Brody is the one who’s motivated by duty, by revenge and by his guilt to kill the shark. To let anyone or anything else accomplish this goal would’ve been to rob the audience, and the character, the satisfaction of achieving the goal.

I would not go so far as to say that these elements are necessary to create a successful movie narrative. In fact, part of the problem that besets many an action adventure movie these days is that they seem to have internalized the plots that films like Jaws established and sets them down as rules which must be followed. That, combined with a Joseph Campbellian approach to all character development has left us with monomythic heroes all following the same quest routines, but that’s another essay for another time. It has become an overworn cliché to say that Jaws works simply because it’s a giant monster movie that plays so terrifically on our fears. Countless films have done that over the years and none have achieved the same status and cultural reception of Jaws. Nearly 40 years on its brilliance remains undimmed by time, a virtue that challenges its (albeit lofty) status as merely the apotheosis of summer escapist cinema. More than this, Jaws remains a singular achievement in narrative—one that that left an incontrovertible impression on countless stories to follow. That no film has come close to rivalling its legacy however not only speaks to the power of the film, but suggests that perhaps the more useful question to ask when looking at a successful narrative is not simply “what does this story do?” but rather “how does this story accomplish its goals?”.

 

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*Further note on my definition of microgoals:

A microgoal is different from a subplot, which is a subsidiary narrative within the main plot. Unlike a subplot, which can be unconnected to the main narrative, a microgoal is a necessary building block for the plot. I’ll give you an example of a subplot: when the two fisherman go out and try to hunt the shark themselves and almost get eaten in the process, that’s a subplot. (It’s actually, technically, an episode, but since it works as both a comical and terrifying summation of the narrative, we can count it as a subplot). There are of course goals in this scene–the fishermen want to catch the shark, the shark wants to catch the fishermen–but I distinguish the scene from a microgoal because it does not involve the main goal of the plot, which is specifically the main character’s desire to kill the shark, and not simply the death of the shark.

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3 thoughts on “The Narrative Genius of Jaws: Celebrating 39 years of Aquaphobia

  1. It really seems inappropriate to deviate from the main topic once again, but for me at least, the comparison between Jaws and the recent Gareth Edward’s tent-pole movie is inevitable. You’ve thoroughly examined why the first part in Jaws works so well and how Spielberg expertly created gradual suspense that carried the story over the long haul.

    In Godzilla on the other hand, the monster’s reveal is also delayed, but unfortunately we don’t get to see anything interesting up until that point. Postponement of the shark wasn’t the main thing that made Jaws excellent, it was also (as you superbly pointed out) the compelling interactions among people and their development/growth.

    The majority of the characters in Godzilla were just standard foils and way too much time is spent on the vestigial plot. The closest thing we get to some interesting character development is Bryan Cranston’s subplot. The rest of the human story is just a predictable Man hunts Wife during the Apocalypse. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was ridiculously dull as to be frustrating, he completely failed to bring any level of gravitas to his scenes, and while overall his actions to reunite with his family were understandable and human, his actions within that overall arch were ludicrous.

    He didn’t tell his family to leave what was already determined to be the disaster zone. He called his family only once leaving the briefest and vaguest of messages without conveying any sort of warning. Towards the end it gets a little ridiculous how Ford somehow keeps getting involved with every military operation involving Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s, despite not even being with the branch he’s enlisted with.

    And what about his reaction to the monsters – these encounters should be filled with so much horror and consternation, as these apprehensive creatures are meant to be viewed as physical manifestation of human insignificance, much in the way an ant might view a human being. Yet, with an utterly abysmal and bland acting he reacts stoically the entire time, to every situation and crisis. I never saw even the slightest believable traces of fear across his face at any time.

    Like that time when Godzilla first used his atomic breath, he just sat there with a blank look on his face as a M.U.T.O. closed in on him trying to eat him. No fear, no worries, just him sitting there slanted – accepting death is one thing, being a bland protagonist is something else entirely. He’s facing creatures that embody nature’s power – behemoths beyond time, beyond the human scope of size for a living being.

    While the gradual reveal of Godzilla is happening, we are stuck with some insipid military guy desperately trying to reunite with his ubiquitous wife in a banal disaster formula. Imagine if instead of this family-reuniting baloney, we got to spend more time with Ken Watanabe’s character. He could have specifically explained about Godzilla’s motivation – why it doesn’t like the M.U.T.O.s, why it goes after them and to overall develop the character more. I personally never understood why Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s were fighting. They never addressed it, as far as I remember it is only indicated that the latter were some sort of parasites.

    Something else to point out with the Jaws comparison is that not seeing the shark works, because it’s underwater for most of the film, thus from a human perspective you wouldn’t be able to see it on land. Same cannot be said when you have two giant monsters duking it out at a Hawaiian Airport where tens of thousands of people can see it happening. Then it becomes less about “tension” and more about “teasing”.

    • I almost hesitate to say that you have terrific ideas since they so closely mirror my own. Although, I’m sure it’s greater narcissism to claim a solipsistic privilege (“you’re thinking MY thoughts!”), so I’ll just say: “Terrific stuff”.

      I’m glad you made the comparison to Godzilla, because there were times in my Jaws analysis that I wanted to contrast my points to the recent Godzilla (like tacking on a family), but I refrained.

      I will say however, that we’re in this nebulous area of subjective opinion. For example, I too would prefer to see the Godzilla movie with Ken Watanabe’s character as the lead, but I can’t argue its superiority. At that point I’m left arguing a hypothetical, and someone else could argue with equal merit a hypothetical set of changes that would make following Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character is the most satisfying choice. What can be argued with ample evidence are the claims you have otherwise made, that Taylor-Johnson is a fairly dull lead (all the more insipid since Charlie Hunnam staked out the territory of ‘muscled white lead with minimal character development’ first in “Pacific Rim”). I’m convinced that any story can be made to work if the script is solid enough, that the “family-reuniting baloney” you mention could be made unique and interesting, if, among other choices, they hadn’t hired a man who’s previous credits included the first 2 Expendables movies. To add insult to mental injury, his script was allegedly rejected, and his name was only tacked on during production (maybe because the finished product shows enough minute similarities that he could have sued otherwise).

      This focus on leads also brings me to the problem that besets modern blockbusters: they must (or assume they must) pander to make money. There was a time when action movies needed to be sophisticated in order to escape box-office obscurity (those pretentious disaster movies in the 70s like “Poseidon Adventure”, “Towering Inferno” and “Airport” especially), whereas now it seems sophistication is a death-knell for any film. The situation seems so dire that I myself can’t imagine a film in which a Japanese scientist speaking accented-English is the lead could actually happen (but then there I go again with the solipsistic delusion). It might make for a much more interesting movie to have a scientist as the lead (although “Andromeda Strain” strains the credibility of that statement), but the audience would probably cry foul that there was not enough soldiers shooting things (even “Andromeda Strain” throws in a fricken turret with a fricken lazer beam attached to its fricken head). One would think that Avatar put the nail in this narrative device. I could, however, see the scientist lead being done by a director with a lot of clout and prestige behind his name, like Nolan (Interstellar features an engineer who becomes an astronaut no less!) or Spielberg (Jurassic Park is populated with them and the film never shows a gun being fired), but Edwards is too fringe at present to do so (this is of course postulating that he even wanted to do it). By the time he gets back to “Godzilla 2”, having in that time made a Star Wars film, he may be established enough to get away with something like that (again, if he feels so inclined).

  2. Brilliant analysis of a great movie, I am a screenwriter and your observations are spot on, there is so much to learn from this movie about narrative construction. Three different types of masculinity at play, micro goals leading to main goal, Even the opening scene of Broody, the exposition is done in a subtle way when we get to know that he is an outsider. Outstanding screenwriting and your analysis is also superb.

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