During the week of March 10, 1974, Burr by Gore Vidal held the number one spot on the New York Times Hardbound Bestseller List. Jaws held the number 10 spot. It took Jaws five weeks to reach the top ten, but once it arrived in the top ten, it remained there for the next straight thirty-eight weeks. From number ten, Jaws slowly inched up the charts, arriving at number two on March 31, 1974. It held the number two spot for the next four weeks and then fell to number three on May 05. On May 12, Jaws once again reached number two, this time trailing Watership Down by Richard Adams. It remained number two for the next ten weeks, and by September of 1974, it had slipped to number four. Between October 1974 and January 1975, Jaws gradually slid down the charts, often falling off the charts, then reentering at number ten and number seven. On February 02, 1975, one year after its release, Jaws made its final exit from the Hardbound Bestseller list. It never reached number one. Jaws was on the Hardbound Bestseller list for a grand total of forty-five weeks between March 1974 and January 1975. More than one million copies were sold.
When Jaws was released in February of 1974, it was regarded by some as the perfect bestseller. Jaws was not the usual moral story, or even an inspirational story, but the story of a twenty-foot, six thousand pound great white shark which snacked on humans. It instilled fear. Very little was known about great white sharks in 1974, and thus Benchley's novel had a more profound and frightening impact on its readers. The novel's gripping content won the approval of many critics because it satisfied the requirements for a bestseller. First of all, it was a subject about which the public knew very little. The less the public knows about a subject, the greater the impact. Secondly, "it conjured up the external menace. Such situations as a fire in a skyscraper or a jumbo jet with a dead pilot at the controls." Chilling situations such as these, which could tamper with the public's survival instincts, were thought to attract the public's interest and help make a bestseller. For Jaws, it worked. In effect, the novel provided a medium through which the public could escape the ordinary and plunge into the chimerical. A man-eating shark paved the way.
The shark is unquestionably the most praised aspect of the novel. Jaws consists of both a main plot and a sub-plot. The main plot revolves around the shark. The sub-plot revolves around the adulterous affair of the police chief's wife. The sub-plot was considered nothing more than a nuisance because it impaired the main plot. It was considered boring, pointless, and agitating, and it distracted readers from the real subject, the great white shark. All of the action lies in the shark scenes, so who needs "adultery when there's a big fish running loose, " wrote one critic. With such a poor sub-plot, the main plot needed to be fine tuned. It also needed universal appeal. A giant shark with an insatiable appetite proved perfect. Most critics agree that the shark scenes alone carry the novel. The shark scenes were generally praised because they generate intensity, excitement, and action. Each scene was considered skillfully crafted and prepared, and the tension just enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. The shark awakes the imagination, and pulls the reader deeper into the story. Furthermore, the shark scenes move the narrative along, first slowly and then rapidly. Without such gripping shark scenes, critics claimed the reader's attention would wander aimlessly, struggling to get through the boring sub-plot. Critics argued that the novel could have been a more successful literary work if the sub-plot were jettisoned and the main plot amplified. But, it is too late, says one critic, "the damage has been done." As it turns out, the film version did just that. Steven Spielberg and producers Robert Zanuck and David Brown eliminated the sub-plot and amplified the main plot. The result is the eleventh highest grossing movie of all-time.
A little over a year after its initial release, and just seven days after leaving the Hardbound Bestseller list, Jaws surfaced again. On February 09, 1975, Bantam's paperback edition made its debut at number three on the New York Times Paperback Bestseller list. Two weeks later, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong took a back seat as Jaws reached number one. Jaws held the number one spot for the next eleven weeks, and on May 18 it fell to number two as Alive by Piers Paul Read claimed the number one spot. Over the next month and a half, Jaws slowly fell off the Paperback bestseller list. On July 06, 1975 Jaws returned once again and reclaimed the number one spot, taking it from Piers Paul Read. For the next eight weeks it stayed at number one. By September 28, it dropped to number four, and by November 16 it dropped off the bestseller list for the second and final time.
Between February 09, and October 05, 1975 Bantam Books sold an astounding nine million copies. Jaws was printed more than eighteen times in February alone. Ultimately, paperback sales accumulated to more than $17 million. The renewed interest between July and September 1975 was spawned by the highly successful 1975 film version under the same name. According to Steven Spielberg, the movie "should never had been made. It was an impossible effort." The making of the film was plagued by countless faults which hindered production for days at a time. When the last day of shooting came to a close, a tiresome Spielberg spoke to his crew as he climbed into a boat and sailed for land. He shouted, "I shall not return."
Jaws the movie opened on June 22, 1975 at 490 theaters nationwide. Accompanying the release was a tremendous amount of promotion: cast members made appearances at various locations across the country; T-shirts featuring the shark as depicted on the cover of Bantam's paperback edition were produced in mass quantities; seven hundred thousand dollars was spent on television advertisement; the soundtrack, which featured the Oscar winning Jaws theme by John Williams, was released; and plenty of stuffed sharks, baseball caps and action figures were manufactured for retail outlets. The merchandising campaigns were launched with the hopes of selling the movie. The technique worked, and by December 1975 Jaws became the highest grossing movie of all time (it would later be surpassed in 1977 by Star Wars). Jaws marked the first time in history where mass merchandising helped sell a film. Universal Pictures hoped to match the $66 million dollars earned by the 1973 blockbuster The Excorcist. Jaws eventually earned more than $470 million worldwide.
Most of the major productions were released during the Fall or Winter. It was believed that most adults vacationed during the Summer, favoring the beach instead of the theater. Jaws, however, was released during the beginning of Summer. The effect was dramatic. Movie fanatics flocked to the theaters, and between June and September one of the largest movie attendance for a three month period was recorded. The film generated fear, and, though it was the vacationing season, beach attendance declined dramatically across the country, "especially when commonplace shark sightings were reported." The novel's sales slowed down only months before the movie was released, and Jaws was still very much in the public spotlight. A great white shark terrorizing a Long Island town was not a subject soon forgotten. The Summer release only heightened the already phenomenal literary success. Slowly, Jaws gained puissant momentum.
Both favorable reviews and word of mouth helped make Jaws a blockbuster. Jaws was rated a four-star movie and nearly all reviews were positive. Some critics called it "an exhilarating adventure entertainment of the highest order" while other critics called it "a very horrifying film, a very frightening film, but, most of all, a very fine film." It was even called "a torrid moneymaker" before it became widely popular. Reviews like these helped attract attention, but word of mouth seemed to be the real seller. "The reviews were good," says one critic, "but word of mouth was better." Another critic notes that the movie's "initial popularity came not from a vast array of promotional tie-ins, but from word-of-mouth." All three ? merchandising, reviews, and word of mouth ? in one form or another helped make Jaws a super thriller. Fans simply loved the movie, and the movie's widespread acceptance helped draw attention to the origin of the story--Benchley's novel. Not only were stuffed sharks, baseball caps, T-shirts and movie tickets selling, but books were selling; millions of them.
It seemed obvious to most critics that Jaws had something in common with other works. The last third of Jaws is a shark chase. Three men board a vessel called the Orca and set out to sea with the hopes of snagging a great white shark. The elements, man versus nature, and man versus beast, were thought to resemble The Old Man and the Sea and Moby Dick. In all three novels, man is at odds with both nature and a giant fish. Critics disapproved of the similarities between Melville's classic and Benchley's runaway bestseller. Melville was well established in the literary world. Benchley was a newcomer. Moby Dick therefore laid claim to the sea, and Benchley's novel was considered a cheat imitation.
Despite his success with Jaws, Benchley is not regarded as an eminent literary figure. Writers such as Faulkner, Hemingway, and Twain are often called great literary writers. Peter Benchley has never been called a great literary writers. His novels simply fail to be "classic" literary works. Jaws was considered more of a tale than a work of art. Symbolism, character depth, and enticing prose were entirely absent. Two of Benchley's subsequent novels (The Deep and The Island) made it to the bestseller list as well as the theater, but critics failed to see literary merit in any of his work. Although Benchley has written one of the highest selling novels of all-time, his talents as a writer remain unacknowledged. Great literary writers are often written about in books dedicated solely to their accomplishments. A book focusing on the career, writings, and life of Peter Benchley has never been written.
Jaws has been hailed as one of the greatest movies of all-time. The novel did not receive as much praise, but it is still one of the most successful novels in history. The success of both the movie and the novel supplied Benchley with enough money that he "could write freely for ten years." In total, Jaws sold nearly twelve million copies between February 1974 and September 1975. It stayed on the Hardbound and Paperback Top-Ten Bestseller list for an amazing seventy weeks. Jaws held the number one spot during only eleven of those weeks.
1. Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 12. Gale Publishing.
2. National Observer. March 30, 1974.
3. Time. "Summer of the Shark." June 23, 1975.
4. Uricchio, Marylynn. Pittspurgh Post-Gazett. July 30, 1975.
5. Variety. June 18, 1975.
6. Turnquist, Kristi. The Portland Oregonian. June 20, 1993.
7. Crist, Judith. New York Magazine. June 23, 1975.
8. New York Times Book Review. Jan-Dec.1974, Jan-June 1975. Bestseller List.