On unintended consequences and memorable movie music

Jaws (novel)
Jaws (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now if that book cover isn’t ominous, I don’t know what is.  It doesn’t even need the rows of supersized teeth that were added in the film’s promotional posters and later editions of the novel.  The mere idea that there’s something lurking underneath, something you can’t see, something much bigger than you, waiting to snatch you up in its terrible jaws.

That’s a cover that can sell a book.  It helped that Peter Benchley drew inspiration from a very real series of shark attacks along the Jersey shore in 1916 – Doubleday actually commissioned him to write the novel.  Another contributing factor was surely that the movie was already in production when the book was published in 1974, all the hype making it an instant bestseller (and Spielberg’s 1975 film was no less successful, becoming the highest-grossing film ever at that time, a position it held until Star Wars came along).

Mr Benchley became famous overnight as the author of nightmares and went on to write several other successful novels, though none of them quite as successful as his debut work.  And through him we learned to fear sharks.

I read once that the great white was almost hunted to extinction, an attempted extermination if you will, after Jaws (book and film) was released.  Our instinctive terror at sharp teeth lurking in the dark below escalated into mass hysteria (if you don’t believe me, just watch the reaction at any popular beach when that little white flag with a black shark goes up…or simply yell “Shark!” and see what happens (but be prepared to be banned from the beach for life if you try that).

Just this week at a special screening of the film at the Dublin Film Festival Richard Dreyfuss, one of the stars of the film, confessed that he still cannot walk off a beach and into the ocean, so much did the movie terrify him.  (He scuba-dives, though, which is weird seeing that his character dies underwater in a shark cage wearing (I assume – it’s been ages) scuba gear.)

Peter Benchley
Peter Benchley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All this is rather ironic.  To start with, Benchley had a deep love of the ocean and all the creatures in it.  I cannot think that his intention was ever to scare us out of the sea and even less to critically endanger one of its most magnificent and oldest creatures.  In fact, the last decade of his career was spent almost exclusively advocating the conservation of sharks.  In one article he wrote, “I couldn’t write “Jaws” today. The extensive new knowledge of sharks would make it impossible for me to create, in good conscience, a villain of the magnitude and malignity of the original.

And that’s the thing.  Today we know that most shark attacks are either a case of curiosity (they figure out what something is by tasting it) or of mistaken identity (in certain circumstances we apparently look like turtles or seals to them).  But man-eaters as in Jaws?  No such thing.  Sharks don’t particularly like our taste.  Sure, they might tear of your leg, but they spit it right back out again (small consolation, I know).

But Jaws remain, along with terror it inspires.  With the fortieth anniversary of the book this year and the film next, I foresee a whole new generation being traumatised by Benchley and Spielberg’s genius.  And John Williams, cause he also helped.  A lot.

Confused?  Williams is the man who composed the soundtrack for Jaws.  I’ve never actually seen the film (I know, right?).  I did read the novel back in high school (although it’s not my favourite Benchley novel – that honour belongs to The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, a delightful tale of a young girl who befriends a giant manta ray and widely considered Benchley’s best work, even if not his most popular).  But in spite of that huge gap in my upbringing I do know one of the most recognisable and most terror-inducing movie themes ever composed.  Without Mr Williams’s contribution I doubt the film would have been nearly as scary.

Here it is.  If you listen carefully, you can hear just the tiniest snippet of music borrowed from the theme of Superman, another of Williams’s compositions, just a little over a minute and a half in.  (I get a right kick out of it when composers do that!  Needless to say, Hans Zimmer is my hero 😉  )

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2 thoughts on “On unintended consequences and memorable movie music

  1. I was forbidden to see that movie, as a kid, lest it leave me frightened of swimming in the ocean. I still haven’t seen it, either. But the thought of sharks crosses my mind every time I go swimming as a direct result of it. Apropos the music, I read an interview once with Frank Zappa who was scathing about the way certain movie themes become tropes – the screeching violins of ‘Psycho’ were the example he used, and to my mind the iconic riff of the “Jaws” theme has become the same for anything with hidden menace. That’s not to under-rate their role at the time…

    1. I think Zappa was just upset that none of his music ever became such a trope 😉

      But seriously, I consider it one of the greatest injustices in the music world that movie music is only really remembered if it becomes a trope. Meanwhile film composers are some of the greatest symphonic composers of our time and their music is relegated to the credits when most people have already left the cinema.

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