Jaws: A Lifetime of Memories

The Great White Shark glides into frame – and into my subconscious.
Image credit: Universal Studios

There’s little I could possibly say about Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece that hasn’t already been said. So instead I’ll focus on my own personal memories. My relationship with one of my all-time favorite movies.

My family. Back row from left: my brother, my mom, and my dad. Front row: moi.

My parents were your average middle-class suburbanite couple. They were both slim, fit, and attractive, and their teaching jobs at the local high school had allowed them to purchase a pretty nice house with a great big yard. That house would be my home for the remainder of my childhood. We had just moved in and were still getting comfortable. It was 1980, and I was three years old. I wandered into the family room one evening where my parents were watching a movie. I asked what it was and they told me it was Jaws. For some reason, they let me join them, even though I was easily scared and prone to night terrors. But I’m glad they did, because it was a revelation. I was utterly captivated by what was playing out on screen.

I’m not sure exactly at what point in the movie I started watching, but they were already aboard the Orca. It might have been the scene when they’re comparing scars. I have a vague memory of the planks bending in as the shark attacks the hull and Brody falling down with water under him. I didn’t know what a shark was, so my parents had to explain it to me. I had seen fishing boats on Mr. Rogers, so I sort of understood that. I thought that when they went down through the hatches to work on the engine that they were in the hold where the fish are kept. I also didn’t really know the difference between that and the forward cabin. I just knew they went down into the bowels of the boat to do things. When the boat starts flooding, I didn’t understand that it wasn’t supposed to be that way. I didn’t understand how these things work. I figured they kept water down there for the fish to swim in. You know, so they’d be fresh, I guess. I was three, okay? What do you want from me? When Hooper went down into the cage, I didn’t understand what that was. I thought he was going down into the bowels of the boat again, and somehow the shark had gotten into the boat. Then when it pops out of the water and lands on the deck, I thought it was coming up out of the hold. I wasn’t sure how the shark had gotten into the boat, but there it is.

From that moment on, I was utterly obsessed with sharks in general and Jaws in particular. I talked about both topics constantly, probably annoying everyone. For my fourth birthday, I got a children’s book called Whales, Sharks, and Other Creatures of the Deep. This was my first encounter with many sea creatures, such as manatees, manta rays, giant squid, and others that would also fascinate me for the rest of my life.

The next few years were a dry spell for me. I didn’t see Jaws or any other shark movies for what seemed like forever. Remember, this was the early 80s – before Netflix, before home video. You had to wait for things to come on TV. Finally there was a movie on HBO called Beyond the Reef about a young man and the tiger shark who befriends him. At the time, I found it a bit tedious, but I watched it anyway because there was a shark in it. I saw it several times, but then it disappeared from my life. I would think of it from time to time, but I didn’t see it again until recently – a span of more than thirty-five years. Watching it as an adult, I found it to be a flawed but entertaining film – though perhaps I’m viewing it through rose-colored glasses, filtered through memories of my toddler self watching it with my brother and grandmother.

One day I asked my brother if he’d ever seen Jaws and he told me he’d seen Jaws 2. He had to explain sequels to me. His only memory of it was a woman on a boat seeing a shark fin and yelling, “Uh-uh-uh-SHAAAARK!!!-uh-uh-uh-uh.” He was clearly referring to when Brody and Ellen find a traumatized Tina lost at sea. Somewhere during this period, I must have seen Jaws 2, or at least part of it. All I remember is the shot where the camera follows Brody out to the end of the dock, where Hendricks is aboard the police launch. I guess I couldn’t tell the difference between Roy Scheider and Don Adams, and since I didn’t know the character’s name, I started calling him “Get Smart.” At some point, someone told me they killed the shark with a power line. I thought that meant they just threw the power line onto the shark.

In the summer of 1982, we took the first of many annual vacations to Jacksonville Beach, Florida. I would have been four years old. I have a vivid memory of running out across the vast expanse of sand between our motel and the Atlantic Ocean. The beach was huge, not at all the narrow strip of sand I had been expecting. Because I didn’t know the actual setting of Jaws, I arbitrarily decided that it took place at Jacksonville Beach and that Brody killed the shark from the end of Jackonville Beach Pier. The first time I went swimming in the ocean, I was terrified of getting eaten by a shark. There actually was a day when we couldn’t go swimming because of a shark warning. Despite straining my eyes as I stared at the ocean, I did not see a shark.

It was around this time that I saw a documentary about sharks and learned of the extinct giant shark, megalodon. The host erroneously stated that the shark in Jaws was a megalodon. I took this to heart, and assumed that the shark in Jaws was a hundred feet long.

The following summer, Jaws 3-D was released. By now I was in school, and a classmate saw it and told me about it. I was excited to see it, but missed it in the theater. I didn’t catch up with it until it played on HBO. I think I found the premise a bit odd, a little sci-fi compared to the others, but it was scary and I dug it. I was also surprised to find that it was about a regular great white and not a megalodon. There was still much for me to learn about sharks, of course, and I didn’t understand how utterly absurd it was that this film’s great white was thirty-five feet long. Real great whites grow to a maximum of twenty feet long, so despite calling it a great white, it really was much closer to a megalodon in size. I was too young to realize what a stink-bomb the movie was. There was a shark in it, so that was good enough for me. My brother watched it with me and even though he thought it was stupid, he embraced it for my sake and we obsessed over it together for a while.

Jaws 3-D may have been a box-office bomb, but it was a staple of my early childhood.
Image credit: Universal Studios

We decided, my brother and I, that we were going to make Jaws 4. The neighbor kid, however, told us that they’d already made Jaws 4, so we changed our plan and said we were going to make Jaws 5. The neighbor kid then told us that they’d already made both Jaws 4 and Jaws 5. In my gut, I knew he was messing with us, but my brother believed him, so we changed our plans yet again. Despite knowing perfectly well that there are only four Jaws movies, I still occasionally go searching for part 5 thanks to that idiot neighbor kid. Anyway, we got to work. My brother would write Jaws 6 and I would take on Jaws 7. Probably just to be a jerk, my brother decided that his shark was going to be so big, the only way to kill it was to blow up the world – which they did, with a doomsday bomb. But he left the door open for part 7, saying that Earth had a sister world called Amnesia where the Jaws saga would continue. Sigh. Thanks, Collin.

Writing an entire novel proved to be an overwhelming task for a five-year-old, though, and I eventually gave up. My brother and I briefly talked about using the family’s Super-8 camera to film a Jaws movie, and we approached our Uncle Ron about playing Brody because we thought he bore a passing resemblance to Roy Scheider. But those plans came to a halt when my uncle refused to work without his daily wages. Years later, I would encounter the same problem with professional actors.

For a long time, it seemed like Jaws 3-D was the only Jaws movie I was ever going to get to see. It played multiple times on HBO, and I seized on every chance I had to watch it. It was a Jaws movie goddamn it. But of course, a part of me longed to see the original. I wondered if I would ever get to see it again, and I asked my mom to tell me the story. Initially, she just said a bunch of people got eaten by a shark, but I knew there had to be more than that. I pressed her, and she continued. “The chief of police and an oceanographer went out on a great big boat. Aaand… some people on the boat got killed. And they… shot the shark… yeah, they shot it. And the chief of police and the oceanographer… swam back to shore.”

The VHS release of Jaws, featuring one of the most iconic images in all of pop culture.

1985. Everything changed. We got our first VCR. We drove to a video store called Nite Owl Video to get our first video membership. When my mom and I walked in, I started browsing titles, and there it was. That iconic image of the shark hurtling up under the unsuspecting swimmer. That bold font. Jaws. I grabbed it and showed it to my mom and obviously she had to rent it for me. To my utter disappointment, we couldn’t rent it that day. I’m not sure why – something to do with the process of signing up. But we would be able to next time.

The wait was agony, but finally there we all were – me, my parents, and my brother. By now, my brother had made it clear that he didn’t really care for the Jaws movies, and I had the sense that my parents were indifferent. They were indulging me. I recorded the event with my tape recorder so I could at least enjoy the audio after we’d returned the film. “Jaws,” I said. “Jaws One. Starting.” Duh-dunn. Duh-dunn. The movie began to unfold. Instantly I sensed that this was a better film than the third one. Everyone laughed at the jokes, and the shark attacks were bloodier and more intense than the ones in the third film. I was enjoying what seemed to be to be a pretty good Jaws movie. And then the switcheroo happened.

I knew from my mom’s telling of the story that they would eventually go out on a boat to kill the shark, but I figured that would be at the very end, and I had no idea what the movie was going to pull. The camera dollies in on the jaws of a shark mounted on a window, the Orca visible beyond, heading to sea, as if sailing right into the jaws of the shark, and John Williams was suddenly scoring a different movie. Not a horror movie. An adventure movie. I still get chills every time I watch the movie and it gets to this point. But this was only the beginning. After a while of hanging out on the boat, I began to realize that we were nowhere near the climax. And then the shark pops out of the water. Rather than a horror set piece, suddenly it’s adventure on the high seas! Quint, Brody, and Hooper leap into action as the score builds the excitement. It’s fun, funny, and thrilling, and then… that harpoon comes into view as John Williams delivers six musical notes that would forever change the way I experience movies. Holy. Goddam. Shit. This isn’t just a Jaws movie. This is Jaws.

The rest of the movie played out. There were more exciting chases, more thrills, and then some mind-bending terror. When it was over, my brother and I went upstairs and went utterly ape shit. Later that day, I came up with QBH, a sitcom which I performed live with my action figures in which Quint, Brody, and Hooper get an apartment in New York and have many comedic adventures together, including run-ins with Superman and Lex Luthor, a giant mechanical arm, and a trip to space. QBH became a way of life for me and my brother, dominating the rest of our childhoods.

Due to a great cosmic injustice, there were no Jaws action figures for us to play with, so we had to substitute. For me, Emperor Palpatine became Quint, an ATST pilot with Luke Skywalker’s head was Brody, and a little astronaut figure from my Construx set stood in for Hooper. For my brother, Quint was a Chief Quimby figurine from Inspector Gadget, Brody was Luke Skywalker in his Jedi outfit, and Hooper was a jet pilot. It was the best we could do, and it served us well enough at the time. But we needed a playset, and that’s where Grampap came in.

Grampap shows off the catch of the day on one of our many trips to Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

Grampap was an interesting man. With his high cheekbones and weathered complexion, he was like a wooden Indian come to life. A veteran of World War II, he was full of stories from a colorful past. He was a carpenter, and it seemed as if he could build anything you wanted in his garage. He’d already made numerous wooden toys for both of us, so it seemed only natural to ask him to build the Orca. Working from memory, I drew the boat to the best of my ability and gave it to him for reference. A few days later, I had my first highly inaccurate model of the Orca. Not long after that, my brother spent a week in the garage with Grampap building what he called, “The Ultimate Orca.” The overall shape was wrong, but the details were all there and it was functional. It had a removable fighting chair, removable barrels, and a fold-up shark cage. Many hours were spent on the further adventures of Quint, Brody, and Hooper using this model of the Orca.

“Quint,” “Brody,” and “Hooper” head out to “sea” aboard the Ultimate Orca.
Grandma enjoying her patio.

My grandmother was a roly-poly bundle of love who had seen some hard times and had learned the value of family. She was also a hard-core shopper, and if there was something you wanted and it could be found, she would find it for you. So I asked her for Peter Benchly’s original Jaws novel in hardcover. I figured I had set her an impossible task, and in a way I had, since Jaws was not even in print at the time. But she came through, sort of. I don’t know where she found them, but she picked up Jaws 2, by Hank Searls – in hardcover, no less – one each for me and my brother. And she inscribed it on the first page: to Jonathan, from Grandma, “1986.”

I took the book to school and began reading it – my first grown-up book. It was a bit difficult for me, and I kind of slogged through it. Much of the book dealt with gangsters and police work. I felt a bit guilty for finding it so dull, but I kept at it. It took me all year to read it, but I did, reading through the final few chapters in one sitting and with trembling hands. It had been a tough book to get through, but the ending was a good payoff. However, there had been a price for taking it to school. The dust jacket had been ripped to shreds. I was mad about that, holding a plain red book in my hands with no picture of a shark on the cover. I put it on the shelf in my bedroom closet, where it stayed for many, many years.

Jaws 2 may have been tough to get through, but I still wanted to read the original, so my Grandma took me to Nancy’s Fireside Book Exchange, which she thought was our best shot at finding it. Sure enough, there it was. Not hardcover, of course – the mass-market paperback that had flooded book stores in advance of the film’s release. I didn’t start reading it right away, and by the time I did, my brother had already read his copy and spoiled much of it for me. But I read it anyway, zipping through it much faster than Jaws 2. There was much more shark in this one, and even the romance and mafia stuff held my interest. Maybe I was growing up; who knows?

The movie version of Jaws 2 played on ABC, and we taped it. I was surprised at how different it was from the book. It drew me in pretty quickly. The opening attack on the two divers was cool, and the attack on the speedboat was downright awesome. But then it ran out of steam. Talk, talk, talk, talk. Where the hell was the shark? By the time it showed up again, it was time for me to go to bed. I had to wait until after school the next day to finish watching. The second half was much more satisfying than the first. I was a little bored by all the scenes of the teenagers drifting around at sea, but there was enough shark action to hold my interest, and the climax was pretty slick. My verdict at the time was that it was okay, but not as good as one and three. Still, it was the first Jaws movie that we actually owned, so I watched it quite a bit.

And then, on our next trip to Florida, the original Jaws played on ABC and we taped it too. We had to set the VCR to record it automatically, and I recall being really tense for the whole trip, worrying that something had gone wrong and it had failed to record. But I put that out of my mind when we stopped at a motel on the way down and watched the movie in our room. To my surprise, there were several scenes that hadn’t been in the version we’d rented. My brother didn’t believe me, and it wasn’t until the movie aired on HBO several years later that I was finally able to prove that the TV version was different.

The novelization of Jaws: The Revenge, by Hank Searls

One day my grandma informed me they were making Jaws Goes to Hawaii. The title sounded like a joke, and I didn’t know where she heard that. Grandma was very good at the things she was good at, but there were also lots of things she was just clueless about. I figured she didn’t know what she was talking about. Over the course of the next year or so, anytime I brought up Jaws, she reminded me that Jaws Goes to Hawaii was going to be coming out. I took this with a grain of salt, of course. A new Jaws movie would be nice, but I wasn’t getting my hopes up. And then one day we were at strip mall a few miles from home. She was busy hunting bargains when I asked her if I could go over to the drug store to look at the books. She said yes and I headed over. I spotted it immediately: Jaws: The Revenge, a new novel by Hank Searls. Holy crap, it was true! As I’d suspected, the title was not Jaws Goes to Hawaii. The destination, it turned out, was the Bahamas. Still a tropical setting, but not Hawaii, and with a much more sensible title. Needless to say, I got Grandma to buy it for me.

I started reading it at once and was horrified to discover that Shawn Brody dies in the opening scene. Partly because I was so shocked, but also partly because I decided that I didn’t want to spoil the movie for myself, I set the book aside for the time being. Finally the movie came out and my whole family went to see it. The marquee said Jaws 4. So that settled that. There was no Jaws 5 and I could permanently put that matter to rest. (Please wait while I conduct a Google search for Jaws 5.) It may seem strange to you, but I actually enjoyed Jaws 4 quite a lot. Maybe it was just because this was the first time I was seeing a Jaws movie in the theater, or maybe it was just because it was brand new. But whatever the reasons were, I loved it, and it completely escaped my notice how utterly stupid it was. Hey, I was ten, okay? I was still at the age where I was watching He-Man. Cut me some slack, will ya?

Not only did I enjoy it, but I liked it enough that I dragged my poor Aunt Patty to see it just to have an excuse to see it again. Every so often, I glanced over to see how she was reacting to things. She just sat like a statue, not reacting at all. I’m sure she was thinking, “What the hell is this garbage?!” When it was over, she told me she’d enjoyed it. God bless her.

By the time high school rolled around, Jaws was an old friend. I not only knew all the dialogue by heart, I could actually watch the movie shot-for-shot in my head with almost perfect clarity. I’d come around to the notion that the sequels weren’t worth anyone’s time, and I hadn’t watched them in years. My brother had always said his favorite movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had never really settled on a favorite movie. For a while, maybe between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I would often say my favorite movie was Dawn of the Dead. That didn’t quite feel true, though. I loved it, but was it really my favorite? Then one day, my brother said that while he still loved 2001, if pressed he would have to say his favorite movie was Jaws. Whoa, buddy! You don’t get to go claiming that! I’m the Jaws nut in this family! I didn’t say that, of course, but on the spot I decided that Jaws was my favorite movie of all time. That felt much more true than Dawn of the Dead.

In my senior year of high-school, I needed a sound byte for an audio drama I was working on. I pulled out our old copy of Jaws 2 so I could record the sound of the shark being electrocuted, but the audio quality was not that great, so I went down the street to the nearest video store and rented it. I was surprised at how much better the picture quality was on the studio-produced copy. Since I’d paid to rent it, I figured I may as well watch it. To my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was. In fact, it was pretty good. Not good like the original, but pretty good.

My experience with renting Jaws 2 had convinced me that the taped-off-TV copies we’d been watching weren’t going to cut it anymore. I had to get factory-made copies of both Jaws and Jaws 2. Not 3 and 4, mind you. I still thought of those as crap. But the first one for sure, and the second one, meh, why not?

After all these years, I finally encountered a hardcover edition of the original novel – in, of all places, the high-school library. It wasn’t anything like I’d imagined. Instead of the famous artwork from the movie poster, it was a plain black cover with a basic-looking shark. If this had been what my grandmother had given me, I likely would have been disappointed. It occurred to me that perhaps I could photocopy the dust jacket from my brother’s copy of Jaws 2. But color photocopying was not as advanced then as it is today, and I wasn’t happy with the results. Still, at least my copy had a cover again, albeit an imperfect one.

Many times on our vacations to Florida, we would go deep sea fishing aboard a big party boat called the Miss Mayport. It was fun, but crowded, standing elbow-to-elbow with strangers. The summer after I graduated from high-school, however, Grampap had a surprise for us. We showed up at the dock and my brother and I headed for the Miss Mayport as usual when Grampap called to us. We turned around to see him standing on the deck of a small charter boat. At first we thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. He’d done what we’d been talking about doing since we’d first seen Jaws. He’d chartered a small fishing boat like the one in the movie. Usually when we went fishing we’d each come home with maybe one or two small-frys. This time we caught so many fish – big ones, king mackerels – that we had to throw some back. It was the best day at sea I ever had and one of my fondest memories.

Heading out to sea for real – a surprise gift from Grapap.

Life marched on. I did a semester at Cal U, I went to film school, I got a job. I made my first feature film. I got my first grown-up job working as a projectionist at various local theaters. I dated. I had my heart broken. My uncle and my grandparents died. I struggled with creative success. I made friends. I lost friends. My twenties disappeared into a black hole. And I emerged from it all… changed. And kind of tired. I decided that in the interest of looking smart, I had turned my nose up at a lot of movies I’d once loved – sequels especially. After a long time away, I revisited Jaws 3 and Jaws: The Revenge. And God, they were so… awful. By any objective standard, they were prime examples of the worst drek Hollywood had churned out in the early 80s. And I loved them anyway. Every godawful frame of them, I loved it all.

Thanks to the internet, I was able to obtain a new dust jacket for my copy of Jaws 2. Also, Random House released a new edition of the original novel, this time with the cover art from the mass-market paperback. It was exactly what I’d hoped my grandma would find for me all those years ago, and it made a nice companion edition to what she’d bought me. I decided to revisit the novel of Jaws 2 and it was a different experience reading it as an adult. I was able to appreciate the subtle nuances of character development that I’d missed as a kid. The mafia stuff didn’t bore me this time, and I plowed through it quickly. Ultimately, I did decide that the movie was better. In the novel, Brody doesn’t even suspect there’s a shark until the very end, instead wasting his time chasing after a two-bit crook. It makes him look like a fool. His arc in the movie is much more satisfying. But I didn’t care. I was able to enjoy this childhood gift with a new level of appreciation. As I read the final chapters, I trembled with the same excitement I’d had the first time, and when I finished, I closed the book and looked at it for a moment, then hugged it as if it were my grandma.

My hardcover Jaws books – a beautiful set I waited a lifetime for.

One day my brother declared that he’d always suspected that Jaws wasn’t really my favorite movie. He said he thought The Thing was my favorite movie. At the time, I insisted he was wrong, that Jaws really was my favorite movie. But these days, if I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure I really do have a favorite movie. I love Jaws. I also love The Thing. And I love Dawn of the Dead. And Back to the Future. And Raiders of the Lost Ark. And a host of others. I have a lot of favorite movies, not just one. And that’s okay. I don’t think it’s necessary to single out one movie as your tippy-top favorite. There’s room in my heart for more than one movie.

As of this writing, I’m forty-one years old. In many ways, I couldn’t be more different from the little toddler who wandered into the family room to find his parents watching a strange, scary movie about a shark. In other ways, it’s like I’ve come full-circle. Or perhaps almost full, the starting point forever out of reach. I’ve lived this long life full of discovery and change, and now it’s like I’m trying to reconnect with myself. Or maybe I’m just grasping at a simpler time, my fingers closing around water, the reflection dancing and rippling before me, teasing me. But at least I know now that I don’t have to impress anyone. It’s okay for me to like whatever I want, even if it’s bad, and I owe an explanation to no one. When a friend saw blu-ray copies all four Jaws movies sitting on my shelf, he was baffled. He could understand owning the original. He could even understand owning the second one. But the third and fourth? Surely I had better taste than that. Why did I own them? The answer is simple. Because a little boy I used to know likes sharks and wants to watch movies about them.

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One thought on “Jaws: A Lifetime of Memories

  1. I loved reading this. I especially like the line about reconnecting with a “simpler time,” your “fingers closing around water, the reflection dancing and rippling” before you. . .great image!

    Like

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