We all remember Jaws. The classic movie with Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss struggle to rid a small tourist beach town of a great white shark, navigating small-town politics, fear, and disbelief throughout. It made a generation afraid to go in the ocean, and is still one of the scariest movies of all time, 40 years later. What you may not remember is Jaws was a book first, written by Peter Benchley (he also co-wrote the screenplay). The book was popular, but was well overshadowed by the frenzy for the movie.
Benchley rode the Jaws fame to several other works that were developed into movies on both the big and silver screens: The Island, The Deep, Dolphin Cove, The Beast, Creature (from the book White Shark), and most recently Amazon in 1999. In the case of all of these movies, I consumed the books first and found Benchley to be an underrated writer in many respects. The multi-media success of his novels sometimes diluted their appeal, and the similar subject matter can cause them to be written off as kitchsy genre fiction.
From the well-developed characters, to the dark subject matter, to the artful suspense, Benchley has a lot to offer a reader willing to “dive in” (pun) to the watery subject matter:
1) Dark Realism – Benchley has a gift for making characters, and the situations they deal with, dark and disturbing enough to feel real. If you read Jaws, you’ll notice a few key details I won’t spoil here, but believe me, it gets much darker. The Deep and The Island in particular are borderline depressing in some moments. A theme of powerless people struggling against forces bigger than themselves, from the esoteric to the more intangible, pervades all of Benchley’s works. It doesn’t always translate in the visual mediums, but it makes his books feel more authentic and enjoyable.
2) Suspense – Surprisingly, the author of Jaws isn’t exactly a master of suspense. I’d much prefer Stephen King or Michael Crichton for realistic science fiction thrillers. So why is it a reason to read his books? Because it’s a key element of everything he writes and you can see Benchley develop a knack for suspense as he progresses. The difference between how he captures and holds your attention in White Shark versus Jaws is a stark contrast, and if you read them back –to-back you can see how he’ adjusted his style to feel more suspenseful in the later works. If you’re strictly looking for suspense, don’t go with Benchley, but he does leverage it effectively if not artfully in all of his books, and doesn’t distract from the prose.
3) The Smut – While not Romance-novel level, Benchley finds a way to include a healthy portion of smut into his books, and he does have a talent for writing it. Much like the darker subject matter, the inclusion of more graphic sexual scenes gives his works a bit of realism sometimes lacking in the sci-fi/horror genre (at least in book form; in horror movies it’s like rabbits locked in a cage to the point of un-believability). The Island in particular is super-smut packed, and I happened upon this book when I was 11 or 12 years old. It was…educational to say the least.
If you’re a fan of Jaws, or creature movies in general (or even if you aren’t) give Peter Benchley a try.He is an expert at crafting believable characters in a dark, authentic setting that will keep you turning the pages and asking for more.