Pop Culture: The Green Invasion

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Jumping the Shark


PETER BENCHLEY IS GONE, dead in February of pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive scarring of the lungs. He died young—65. I never met Benchley, but if I’d had the chance to ask him a question, it would simply be this: knowing what he came to know, would he do it again? Would he write Jaws a second time?

Benchley, whose father and grandfather were distinguished authors, was a moderately successful but frustrated journalist until he published Jaws in 1974. (The book was the result of a lunch with a Doubleday editor and a $1, 000 advance for the first 100 pages.) An entertaining, fast-paced read about a bloodthirsty great white shark terrorizing a Long Island resort town, the novel spent almost a year on the New York Times bestseller list. In 1975, Steven Spielberg made Jaws into the first Hollywood summer blockbuster. (Benchley co-wrote the script.) By the time of Benchley’s death, his book had sold 20 million copies and the movie had taken in more than $450 million—not including the three sequels.

But for Benchley’s protagonist, the shark, that success came with a price. Jaws—the book and the movie—convinced millions that the great white was a menace to be feared and destroyed. A relentless killing machine, Benchley’s shark attacked latenight skinny-dippers, clueless beachgoers, hapless fishermen, and sizable boats with equal bloodlust. Thanks to Benchley, bagging sharks—especially great whites—became big business for macho trophy hunters. Even today collectors pay up to $50,000 for a great white jaw. On Martha’s Vineyard, where Jaws was filmed, a local fishing club hosts an annual “Monster Shark Tournament,” broadcast on ESPN. Angling for a $130,000 grand prize, last year’s contestants hooked thousands of sharks, including a rare, 1,191-pound tiger shark, which they promptly killed.

Meanwhile, shark populations around the world’s oceans are in decline, threatened not only by sport hunters but also by drift nets, longline fishing, and demand for shark-fin soup (considered an aphrodisiac). According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s most recent statistics, 856,000 tons of sharks (and their close relatives, rays and skates) were caught in 2003. Sharks are vanishing—but partly because of Jaws, few people care.

Benchley did try to undo the damage he wrought. He became an ardent conservationist, working with the Environmental Defense Fund and WildAid, a group that aims to protect endangered animals. He lectured and wrote that humans are a vastly greater threat to sharks than the other way around. In subsequent books—none of which was remotely as successful as Jaws—he altered his villains from nature to nature distorted by man: the giant squid that eats people because its food supply has been overfished (Beast), the monster shark genetically created by army scientists (Creature). And at every opportunity, Benchley insisted that Jaws merely reflected what was known about sharks at the time.

But that wasn’t quite true: Even in 1974, people knew that sharks didn’t linger in a small section of ocean, hunting down a town’s bathers and boats like Moby Dick tracking the Pequod. Benchley never wanted to admit that he’d taken gross liberties to make his book more lucrative. After Benchley’s death, his widow, Wendy Benchley, told the Associated Press that “Peter kept telling people the book was fiction, it was a novel, and that he took no more responsibility for the fear of sharks than Mario Puzo took responsibility for the Mafia.”

The line between fiction and consequences is always an uncertain one, of course. Peter Benchley was an aspiring novelist who could never have imagined that his book would become a massive bestseller and even more popular film that changed the way the world sees sharks. Jaws assured Benchley a life of ease, glamour, and continued publication at nature’s expense. The writer-conservationist may never have been completely comfortable with that quid pro quo, yet he never renounced it either. It wasn’t his responsibility.

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Issue 25

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