Saturday, February 25, 2006

Benchley went from author of "Jaws" to protector of this specie

"NEARLY half the fish had come clear of the water, and it slid forward and down in a belly-flopping motion, grinding the mass of flesh and bone and rubber. The boy's legs were severed at the hips, and they sank, spinning slowly, to the bottom."

So ended the life of a child on an inflatable raft in Jaws, Peter Benchley's first and most successful novel. It spent more than 40 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list in 1974 and has sold more than 20 million copies.

Its success was cemented the following year with Steven Spielberg's film - the director's first with a big budget - propelled by John Williams's wonderfully baleful score. The film was Hollywood's first summer blockbuster, ending the notion that summer was a dead season in the cinema.

Benchley, a freelance journalist before this success, was able to live comfortably off his creation, following it with two more novels of watery menace, The Deep and The Island, also made into films. Yet he would come to regret his treatment of the great white shark as a murderous predator.

Benchley was the son of the writer Nathaniel Benchley and grandson of Robert Benchley, founder of the literary coterie known as the Algonquin Round Table. He learned about sharks on regular family trips to Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, where they would set out in a boat to catch swordfish but succeeded only in hooking sharks.

The idea jelled much later in 1964, when Benchley heard a news report that a fisherman had landed a 2060kg great white off Long Island: "I thought to myself, What would happen if one of those came around and wouldn't go away?".

After studying at Exeter High School and Harvard, Benchley made a living as a freelance journalist, supplying publications such as Life and The New Yorker. He became a journalist for the Washington Post and then an editor at Newsweek. He wrote some pieces about sharks, in which he maintained a keen interest.

Peter Congdon, an editor at the publishing house Doubleday, was sufficiently impressed with Benchley's journalism to approach him about writing a book. To Benchley's surprise, Congdon was most interested in his one fiction idea: the marauding shark that comes to rely on a steady diet of holidaymakers.

But it was not a smooth process. The first 100 pages were rejected and Benchley had to begin again.

Jaws was such an immediate success that Universal hurried to capitalise with a film, taking a gamble with the up-and-coming Spielberg. Benchley co-wrote the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb, but his choices for the story's masculine trio - Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen - were rejected. He quarrelled with Gottlieb about the script and was eventually ejected from the set for criticising the film's explosive climax.

Spielberg's film set new benchmarks in film-making. He was the first to use the forward-tracking zoom out technique to capture Roy Scheider's horror upon discovering the mutilated body of the teenage girl, known to all film students thereafter as the Jaws shot.

Scheider's small-town policeman, caught between the shark and local politics, was a likeable character, well balanced by Richard Dreyfuss as the fish geek and Robert Shaw as the hard-bitten shark hunter.

The book, by contrast, was an airport novel; formulaic, as predictable as it was occasionally shocking and raunchy, and with characters so hard to empathise with that Spielberg admitted, on reading the book, that he had wanted the shark to win.

Benchley's triumph was to release, like a primal scream, something that had loomed unexpressed in America's collective unconscious. Whether the sense of horror, and the pleasure readers took in experiencing it, was entirely to do with Carcharodon carcharias or something more Freudian is still hotly debated. Certainly no discussion of the psychoanalysis of cinema can avoid the book and poster illustration: the nubile female swimmer about to be taken by the creature that rises, jaws agape, like a missile from the darkness.

Jaws 2 (1978) was based on Benchley's original characters, but he had little to do with the increasingly ridiculous Jaws movie franchise, attended by a rash of films - Orca (1977), Piranha (1978), Tentacles (1977).

Benchley's second novel, The Deep (1976), was a well-conceived tale based on the story of the Constellation, a World War II ship sunk with a cargo of pharmaceuticals which became mingled with the cargo of two Spanish galleons sunk centuries before on the same reef. With sex, voodoo ritual, a voracious eel and Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt, the film did fairly well.

The movie adaptation of his third book, The Island, was a flop, and Benchley's novel-film strategy was abandoned until 1998 with the release of The Creature, based on his 1994 novel White Shark. The name of the novel was changed on reprint to agree with the film, but for little reward. Its key concept - a genetically mutated shark created in a lab for military purposes - informed the premise of Deep Blue Sea in 1999. Similarly, Benchley's Amazon, a television series in 1999, was eerily similar to Lost, which has enjoyed much greater success.

Benchley came to regret his misrepresentation of sharks, particularly the momentary spasm of macho nonsense whereby men would charter boats for shark-hunting trips after seeing Jaws. "When I was writing Jaws ... very few people knew anything about sharks, especially great white sharks," he said. "I attributed to them a kind of marauding monsterism that became what Jaws was. Now we know that sharks do not attack boats."

He made amends in a series of documentaries and appeared on ABC's American Sportsman series, where he befriended the ocean conservationist Sylvia Earle and the shark expert Eugenie Clark. He joined the National Board of Environmental Defence and made speeches for several marine concerns, using the ignorance of the oceans evident in Jaws as his starting point.

With the release of Shark Trouble (2002), a collection of sea stories, he was asked if he had turned into a shark-hugger. He replied: "What I have become, to the best of my ability, is a shark protector, a shark advocate, a shark appreciator, and above all a shark respecter."
Benchley is survived by his wife, Wendy, and by a son and daughter.


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