Study Guide

Jaws

Jaws Introduction


Release Year: 1975

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Thriller

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb

Stars: Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider


Never before have two notes been so frightening.

Equal parts monster movie, swashbuckling ocean adventure, political thriller, and bromance, Universal Pictures' Jaws is about an enormous shark preying upon an idyllic seaside resort town and the three very different men who team up to stop it. When it hit theaters in June 1975, audiences had never seen anything like it. It blew box office records out of the water, gobbled up three Oscars—editing, sound, and score—and changed Hollywood (and going to the beach) forever.

Beach attendance was at an all-time low that summer, but theater attendance was through the roof. Jaws became the highest-grossing movie of all time and the first-ever summer blockbuster, drawing kids on summer break into nice, air-conditioned movie theaters for the adventure—and fright—of their lives. It endowed millions of viewers with an unprecedented fascination with—and sometimes hysterical fear of—sharks.

And of course, it introduced the world to a young director named Steven Spielberg.

Maybe you've heard of him.

Even setting aside its colossal cultural impact, Jaws is just an enduringly great film. Though it lost the Oscar for best picture to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it's been called one of the best movies of all time by everyone from the New York Times to Rolling Stone to the American Film Institute to the Library of Congress. It's a practically perfect potpourri of saltwater, suspense, courage, comedy, blood, boats, tragedy, terror, and teeth.

Did we mention teeth?

As one film analyst put it, "Jaws did for the beach what Psycho did for the shower" (source). It taps into our primal fears and our knowledge that, even though we're pretty high up there on the food chain, we're still on the food chain.

Come on in, Shmoopers; the water's fine.

What is Jaws About and Why Should I Care?

We've heard it a thousand times: You're more likely to be killed by a bee sting, a cow, or a vending machine than by a shark.

Well, you wanna know what?

We. Don't. Care.

So no, we do not want to go abalone diving. And no, we will not enjoy some seaside cliff-jumping next Tuesday. And we will definitely not be going for any sunset swims—ever—thanks. Know why?

Jaws.

Let's put it this way: Once upon a time there was a ten-year-old boy who wanted more than anything to watch Jaws. His mom said he was too young, but after weeks of diligent and calculated whining, she finally relented. He watched it in his best friend's basement, lights off. He was never quite the same again. That summer, he refused to go in a boat on Lake Tahoe, or to swim his Nana Helen's pool, or even to step on the floor of his bedroom when the lights were off at night. He was afraid that a giant great white shark was circling just beneath his house in a subterranean ocean, and the slightest tremor would prompt the beast to surge up through the floor and eat him. (His bedroom was on the second floor, by the way.)

That's the power of Jaws. It's movie magic at its very finest—Thrills! Chills! Gills! Skinny dipping! Exploding air tanks! Jaws delivers everything a blockbuster should (it was the first one, after all). But it's more than that. This movie swims right into your brain and makes a far-fetched premise seem downright realistic. And it makes you feel like you're right there in the water as that heart-thumping music starts and something brushes against your foot.

What makes Jaws special is just how much it gets to the audience. It's worth studying to figure out how on earth Steven Spielberg accomplished all this. How did he manage to pull such incredible performances from his cast while contending with endless problems with his mechanical sharks? What camera techniques make the audience feel like they are the next ones to become shark food? How can there be so much humor in such a grisly story? Why do we love to be scared?

Decades after Jaws' release, scholars continue to pull it apart to figure out why it works so well. Let's jump in and join them.

Trivia

The exploding compressed air tank trick that Brody uses to kill the shark could actually work. Or maybe it couldn't… But maybe it could… (Source)

Bruce lives on! The well-intentioned great white shark in Disney's Finding Nemo is named after the mechanical sharks used on Jaws. Leave it to Disney to send sharks to a 12-step program to get them to stop eating fish. (Source)

Spielberg said he knew Jaws was going to be a hit when he saw a moviegoer run out of the theater after a gory scene, throw up in the lobby, then run back in to watch the rest of the film. (Source)

During post-production, to get the sound of Chrissie drowning during the shark attack, the actress (who was actually a stunt woman) put her head back in front of a microphone while a crew member poured water down her throat. Now that's devotion to your craft. (Source)

Richard Dreyfuss said that, although an actor usually has to pretend to be interested in another character's speeches, he was mesmerized during Robert Shaw's USS Indianapolis monologue. Shaw was drunk when Spielberg did the first shoot, and none of the footage could be used. He apologized to the cast and crew, then absolutely nailed the next take. (Source)

As it turns out, sharks "typically only attack humans if they're being super annoying." Sounds scientific to us. (Source)

Jaws Resources

Websites

He Started It All
A treasure trove of behind-the-scenes photos and videos, contemporary news and magazine articles, and fun facts about sharks.

Impress Your Friends
Trivia and other cool stuff about Jaws from IMDB.

Study Break!
The New Yorker has a whole slew of hilarious shark cartoons. Check them out.

They Liked It. A Lot.
Everything you always wanted to know about what everyone thought about the film.

Book or TV Adaptations

Goodreads on Jaws (Novel)
Read reviews of the novel that became the film that became a phenomenon that became this Shmoop film guide.

Book vs. Movie Infographic
A handy at-a-glance guide to the differences between Jaws the book and Jaws the movie.

Penguin Readers Guide to the Novel
A guide for teaching kids about the novel, including questions and lesson ideas, for people who don't care if their children never go in the water again.

Articles and Interviews

The Inside Scoop
The writers, director, and producers explain it all, including why Steven Spielberg had nightmares during the filming.

Middle-Aged Matt
The Vineyard Gazette "interviews" Hooper about life after his traumatic experiences in Amity.

The Best Summer
40th anniversary reminiscences from the residents of Martha's Vineyard, the real Amity Island.

USS Indianapolis Survivor Interview
An interview about the tragic true story of the USS Indianapolis.

Cape Cod Beach Resort Offers Real-Life Shark Adventures
Want the adventure of Jaws with the luxury of a four-star Cape Cod resort? You're in luck! The acclaimed Chatham Bars Inn offers shark research excursions in the very waters where Jaws was filmed. Will they let us wear our Quint costumes?

Carl Saves the Day
Spielberg invited Carl Gottlieb to "eviscerate" the first draft of the script and rewrite as needed. The result? Cinema history.

Happy 40th Anniversary
Would you watch Jaws in the water?

The Score Abides
Some reflections on John Williams' unforgettable music.

Most Thumbs Up
A quick look at what the most famous film critic thought of the movie when it was released in 1975.

Video

Jaws: The Lego Version
Guess that's what they mean by "blockbuster." (#sorrynotsorry)

1975 Jaws Trailer
An original Jaws movie trailer from 1975.

The Discarded Image: Episode 01—Jaws
An extremely in-depth look at the classic beach scene.

Peter Benchley Hosts: A Preview of the Movie Jaws
A really cool old promotional video in which Peter Benchley offers a preview of the film.

Jaws Ride at Universal Studios Florida
It is, alas, no longer running, but you can still watch this video of the whole Jaws ride at Universal Studios Florida. Please keep all hands and feet inside the whatever at all times.

In the Teeth of Jaws
A 50-minute documentary on Jaws from the BBC. Are British sharks more polite?

Jaws: The Inside Story
A 90-minute sharkumentary about the making of Jaws.

Audio

Jaws Theme Music
If you ever want to freak everybody out at a pool party…

BBC Radio Interview: "Jaws, Birth of a Blockbuster"
Listen to British people talk about Jaws. Cheers!

Images

Robert Shaw Behind the Scenes
Robert Shaw enjoys a lighter moment on the set before he gets eaten by a mechanical shark. See kids, it's just make-believe.

Jaws Debut in New York City
The line wraps around the block as moviegoers crowd to see Jaws at the Rivoli Theater in New York City in June 1975.

Steve and Bruce
Director Stephen Spielberg pals around with his star performer.

That Had to Hurt
The stuntwoman who played Chrissie gets fitted for the harness that yanks her around during the shark attack.

Original Jaws Poster
This now-iconic poster is what you would have seen promoting the film in theaters across America in 1975. This has to be one of the most enticing movie posters of all time. Who wouldn't want to see this film?

Spielberg on Set
A young director Stephen Spielberg looking very Hollywood on the set.