Peter Benchley made his second trip to the best seller list in two years with his second novel The Deep. This novel follows in the path of the enormous novel, movie and paraphernalia success of Benchley's first
novel Jaws. Benchley deviates from the concept of Jaws when writing The Deep and strove to make the novel center around human characters instead of a mythically proportioned man-eating shark. While it may be easy to credit the success of The Deep to the
fact that it rode on the coattails of Jaws, a closer examination of the novel reveals that it has many of its own characteristics that propel it onto the best seller list. The Deep did receive a boost from the success of Jaws but Benchley was also able
to incorporate many aspects of fiction into the novel that are found in best sellers. The Deep is a novel embedded in escapism and by examining this element of the novel and the book selling trends of the times, a better understanding can be gained of wh
y this novel became a best seller in 1976.
To simply credit the novelistic merit of the novel would be misleading though. The Deep was able to gain initial popularity because of its status as heir apparent to Jaws. In 1974, the reprint rights for Jaws has been sold to Bantam Books for $575,000.
In addition, $85,000 was received from Reader's Digest, the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Playboy Book Club. The film rights for Jaws were sold for $150,000 and Peter Benchley received and additional $25,000 to write the screenplay. Doubleday ordered
an initial printing of 35,000 copies. Jaws the novel ended up selling over 200,000 copies and the movie made money faster than any motion picture as it grossed nearly $125,000,000 in little over three months. The movie was directed by Steven Speilberg
and its acting core consisted of stars Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.
Two years later, Benchley had become an enormous success as a popular novelist as well as a viable producer of Hollywood worthy material. This led to an even greater prepublication outlay of money by various interests. Before being published, Columbia P
ictures purchased the rights for The Deep for $350,000. Bantam Books paid an estimated $1,500,000 for the paperback rights to the novel. From looking at these figures, The Deep's potential commercial success was forecasted by all interested parties. W
hile The Deep was able to become a best seller it sold less than copies than Jaws at just over 153,000. The motion picture did not create a national stir like Jaws even though it starred Nick Nolte, Jaqueline Bisset, Robert Shaw and Louis Gossett Jr. Th
e Deep was able to capitalize on the success of Jaws but Benchley's ability to write quality popular fiction enabled the novel to surpass the minimum success that it was guaranteed being Jaws successor.
In addition to the commercial success of Jaws, The Deep also benefited from the conditions of the book market in the year 1976. Daisy Maryles writes, "The performance of hardcover fiction far outdistanced that of last year, when unit sales were below the
norm. At the same time, the mix of novels that placed in the top ten, as well as the runners-up, seems a typical one. Most of them are pleasant escapist entertainment. Most are written by seasoned pros with long track records" (466). The Deep was pub
lished when most popular fiction was purchased because the author was a proven escapist novelist. The purchasing public was buying novels that they knew would provide the escapist fiction they were looking for. Of the top ten novels in the annual best s
eller list in 1976, nine authors were making at least their second appearance on the list. Only Sidney Sheldon, who came in at number ten with A Stranger in the Mirror, makes his first appearance on the best-seller list. In addition to Benchley and Shel
don, the other novelists were Leon Uris, Agatha Christie, Gore Vidal, Jacqueline Susann, Jack Higgins, Kurt Vonnegut, Mary Stewart and Harold Robbins.
There were two notable entries on the non-fiction side that show some of the prevailing social thoughts and issues of 1976. Maryles writes, "Gail Sheehy's treatment of midlife adult crisis in Passages propelled her to the top of best-seller charts" (468
). The male protagonist of the novel, David Sanders has a midlife crisis, which causes him to leave his old life behind in search of the one that he believed in as a youth. Also on the non-fiction best-seller list for the year was Shere Hite's The Hite
Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality. As the women's liberation movement was beginning to hit its full stride, Benchley was wise to include a female character, Gail, who is very independent and adventurous and able to succeed on her own in th
e world. The characters in The Deep reflect some of the man social topics of the time period and for that reason, readers are able to identify with the character in Benchley's novel.
The quality adventure writing of The Deep is what vaulted the novel onto the yearly best seller list. Benchley constructs a tightly woven plot of intrigue and adventures that keeps the reader engaged until the explosive end. While not exceptionally deve
loped, the characters' appeal lies in their being easy to relate to while others capture the attention through their exotic nature. The center of the action is the beautiful island of Bermuda and its surrounding waters. It is on a honeymoon where two n
ormal Americans are thrust into a dangerous world of drugs and sunken treasure where they must fight for their lives amid threats from criminals and from the ocean. The basic outline of the novel is that of an adventure novel interwoven with the tale of
man and a woman who are fed up with the constant battle to acquire materialistic wealth. The success of the novel can be attributed to the fact that this story is an engaging read that allows the reader to escape into a world that cannot be easily entere
d by most of Americans stuck in the daily grind of the capitalistic machine of the 1970's.
David Sanders could be any middle-aged corporate executive whose idea of the world went down the drain when the realities of supporting a family and conforming to the social norm hits home. Gene Lyons writes, "Anyone, who reads much contemporary fiction
has encountered characters like David Sanders with increasing frequency." Since junior high David has believed in two of Thoreau's attitudes put forth in Walden. Peter Benchley writes, "One said, 'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation'; the
other 'I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived'" (58). Throughout his college career Sanders had dreams of j
oining Jacques-Yves Cousteau on aquatic adventures throughout the globe. After losing this dream to the monetary madness of Wall Street, Sanders finds himself married and with two children.
During a trip alone to Club Med, Sanders has a short affair with Gail and when he returns to New York he files for divorce from his wife and begins to see Gail full time. Men and women both can relate to the situation of being stuck in a rut in life and
finally finding a romantic escape that leads them to a life of adventure and passion. Sanders was an idealistic youth who began work at National Geographic magazine expecting adventures all over the world and instead would up being a menial worker who sp
ent all of his time at a desk. The rise of the corporately dominated workplace destroyed the dreams of many that had spent their early adulthood during the late sixties and early seventies. Only two years earlier Joseph Heller's novel of the decadence
and miserable nature of the corporate world, Something Happened, made the annual best seller list. The Deep provides a tale of someone who was able to break out of the corporate stranglehold and strike out into the unknown and along the way find adventur
e in a tropical paradise. Gene Lyons writes, "What one gets from Benchley, I think, is the essence of his commercial genius, is escape. Instead of wallowing among the commonplaces of our culture's self-doubt, Sanders is lucky enough to have An Adventur
e." As corporate executives flew from coast to coast The Deep could take them away from their current state in life and they could lead the life of David Sanders for 300 pages.
David and Gail Sanders form an ideal couple for the career-orientated relationships of the 1970s. David leaves his wife with no concrete commitment from Gail. Benchley writes, "He had neither sought nor been offered a commitment of any kind from Gail.
Though he knew he was in love with her" (65). The relationship that evolves between David and Gail is free of many of the worries of a marital situation. Their relationship is one of carefree love and is the type that would make many married couples env
ious. Only when David's divorce is officially complete do the two lovers decide to marry and spend their honeymoon in Bermuda. They plan to spend their honeymoon scuba diving, the same activity they were doing when they first met. David has been able
to shed his earlier life in order to spend his new life being adventurous with the "vibrantly, viscerally appealing" Gail (63). Readers can live through the life of David and Gail Sanders and escape from the realities of their own surroundings. A housew
ife can suddenly find herself scuba diving below water searching the hull of an ancient shipwreck and evading gun-toting drug dealers instead of thinking about what time she needs to pick the kids up at school or what time she has to be at work.
One of the most engaging and intriguing aspects of the novel, and one that is guaranteed to get the attention of a reader who is trying to make some small fortune in the world, is the search for sunken treasure. While diving and searching for a cargo shi
p for World War II, David and Gail stumble upon a clue as to the treasure-laden Spanish galleon that lay underneath the cargo ship. The 1970's were filled with news stories about millions and millions of dollars of sunken treasure being recovered from a
ll over the world. Readers could easily relate the actual news stories with the fictional plot Benchley that creates. David and Gail no longer have to worry about their monetary worries in life now that they have uncovered an enormous pile of sunken tre
asure. There is an element of the exotic in a hunt for sunken treasure. Most normal humans do not possess the abilities nor resources to go off on a fantastic treasure hunt and the two protagonists of the novel just happen to stumble upon one with the h
elp of the island expert Romer Treece. The three search out the treasure while simultaneously trying to remove ampoules of morphine from the sunken cargo ship. This task brings into the novel the character of the diabolical Henri Cloche.
Cloche's character embodies all the normal conventions used to heighten the sense of evil of a character. He is mysterious and is said to be the son of a powerful voodoo witch. Cloche is the typical underworld boss who is able to run his business throu
gh fear and intimidation. His goons kidnap David and Gail as they ride down the street on their motoscooters. When David questions Treece about Cloche, Treece replies, "He's got a dozen different names. He comes from Haiti, originally. That's the my
th, at least. It's hard to separate fact from fancy about Cloche; he's built himself into a kind of folk hero among island blacks" (93). Cloche turns out to be a politician using drug money to try and overthrow the Bermudan government. The shipment o
f morphine can be synthesized into heroin that Cloche will sell on the streets of America. Cloche threatens David and Gail that if they tell the authorities and run back to New York that he will be able to get to them there as easily as he can get to the
m while they are in Bermuda. David, Gail and Treece band together to stop Cloche's international criminal organization.
Benchley does not leave out the underwater terror in this novel. Instead of the shark that captivated millions of fans and put fear into the world, Benchley uses a giant moral eel named Percy. While not nearly the threat that Jaws was, Percy does pose a
problem for David and Treece because he guards the cave that they morphine is being stored in. There was no way to appease Jaws, but a simple dead fish will keep Percy occupied for some time. In the end though Percy seems to be one of the heroes in the
novel and not one of the bad guys. He comes to the aid of David and Treece by clamping onto one of Cloche's henchmen in the final scenes of the novel.
The novel combines the exotic setting of Bermuda with the element of underwater adventure and danger. Benchley clearly has a comfortable knowledge of the underwater and this is what sets his novel apart from other adventure novels. The underwater elemen
t brings the reader into a world that is seldom seen and does so with details and accuracy. By combining the plot of the underwater saga of the morphine and the sunken treasure with the land plot of a mythic drug lord, Benchley is able to maintain the su
spense throughout the novel
The Deep was guaranteed of initial success commercially because of its predecessor Jaws. The financial data related to the pre-publication sales of paperback and movie rights proves that everyone predicted The Deep to be a blockbuster hit. Benchley was
able to utilize his previous success and turn this novel into one that would be able to reach the best seller list even after the initial hype surrounding the novel fizzled out. The easy to relate to characters as well as the exotic setting action and pl
ot topics enabled The Deep to sell over 150,000 copies. Benchley used his skills to produce a work of popular fiction that would be able to reach a wide audience and one that would be able to keep the readers riveted to the action.
Benchley, Peter. The Deep. New York: Doubleday & Co: 1976.
Lyons, Gene. "The Deep", New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1976.
Maryles, Daisy. "Best Sellers of 1976" Bowker Annual, 1977.