It’s no easy feat for a director to transform a bestselling novel into a hit film. It is inevitable that things will have to change as the story is adapted for a movie; subtle changes to the story that fans of the novel remember will happen: just because it worked on the written page does not mean it will work on the big screen. Peter Jackson did a fine job with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and one could argue that every director to touch the Potter series did the corresponding novel justice. However, in other cases, the transition is a disaster: Interview with the Vampire and Battlefield Earth (my favorite Hubbard novel) are the first examples that come to mind. On another less-common level, there are movies that were based on a novel but actually became a fairly separate entity as a film, case in point-World War Z.
We all know that JAWS was an enormous hit as a movie. But before it was a movie it was a very successful novel; spending 44 weeks on the best sellers list. I saw the movie at a young age well before I read the novel; some years later while browsing the shelves of my local used book store I came across a copy of the novel for $1.00. I figured I would give it a try and see what all the fuss was about. I have to admit I was highly skeptical of my chances enjoying the novel as much as the film, well I was wrong. After reading the novel I could see why Hollywood rushed to make the movie and many of the iconic scenes in the movie were lifted directly from the pages of the novel. But I’m not writing tonight to give you a review of the book; rather I would like to give you a bit of a comparison of the two. I enjoy comparing a novel to its film adaptation; currently my wife and I are reading through The Walking Dead comics and are having animated discussions about the changes in the T.V. show. The film version of Jaws did stay on track with the core story from the novel, but there were some minor changes to characters and motivations that tweaked it just enough to keep the audience’s attention where it needed to be. Here is my break down of the major shifts in the story and my thoughts on each.
The marriage: In the novel Ellen was not entirely pleased with her life as a small town sheriff’s wife. Before she married Brody she was living a swanky carefree lifestyle as a New York Socialite. The only reason she stayed with him after he took the job as Amity’s Sheriff was for the kids. This was one of the changes I completely agree with. The film only had room for 4 characters, Quint, Hooper, Brody and the Shark. Giving Ellen more development would’ve bogged down the story and possibly taken the attention away from what audiences really wanted to see, the shark.
Bait: In the novel, when our three Ahab’s go after their shark, Quint Brody discovers that Quint is using illegal bait for chum; he is capturing baby dolphins and chopping them up. This added a level of conflict between Quint and Brody that is not present in the film. Quint does give Brody shit once he is on the boat in the movie but we don’t really get anything from Brody, at least not at the level we see in the novel. I would’ve kept this in somehow to add some extra tension between the three while they were at sea.
The Mayor: In the movie Mayor Vaughn insist the beaches stay open because the town’s people depend on the “summer dollars”. If he allowed the beaches to be closed then the summer vacationers would not come to the island. Most of the town’s people supported him; Amity’s greed essentially outweighs their judgment. In the novel the Mayor owes money to his mysterious “silent partners” and wants to keep the beaches open so he can skim what he needs form the island’s profits to pay them back. These silent partners turn out to be the mob; the reporter Harry Meadows (a much more prominent figure in the novel) uncovers the conspiracy. There really was no need for this to be mentioned in the film, I’ve had discussions with fellow film freaks and they’ve all agreed that most fans of the film kind of imagined the possibility of this anyway, so there was no need to mention. Making this sub-plot more prominent in the film would have been distracting.
Hooper: The Hooper character in the novel is a snotty, well to do, Ivy League egomaniac. His relationship with Brody is not friendly as Brody feels he only came to the island to make a name for himself. It doesn’t get any better when Brody begins to suspect that Hooper and Ellen have been sleeping together (which they have, numerous times). The tension between these two builds to a fight on the boat which Quint thoroughly enjoys watching. This is very different from the charming and funny Hooper we see in the film. Additionally Hooper does not survive the encounter in the shark cage in the novel, leaving Brody as the only survivor.
Quint’s Death: One other small change that works better in the film was that Quint as opposed to being eaten by the shark in the film; a much more appropriate ending for that character.
I’ve read the novel and watched the film a few more times over the years and I have to say, in my personal opinion, that it works much better as a film. But then the movie has always been there, it’s always in my mind as I read the novel. I often wonder what reading it for the first time without the images and sounds of the movie playing in my head might have been like.
I’ve always enjoyed comparing the film version to their corresponding novels and I look forward to more. You guys have any favorite films adaptations?