Author Peter Benchley, whose novel JAWS begat the blockbuster motion picture, is dead at the age of sixty-five. You can read an obituary here.
Benchely’s first novel became a best seller by exploiting the popular fear of sharks. It also took elements of MOBY DICK and replayed them in a simple pop format that was easily digistible for mass consumption.
The film based on the book, directed by Steven Spielberg, became the most successful movie of all time when it was released in 1976, a position it held until STAR WARS was released in 1977. (Of course, “success” here is measured in dollar amounts; due to inflation, older films like GONE WITH THE WIND had actually sold more tickets.)
JAWS the movie truly changed the film industry. Up until that time, Hollywood tended to release films first in exclusive engagements in major cities like New York and Hollywood, before gradually rolling them out into other engagements in the rest of the country. JAWS, instead opened wide — at least by the standards of the day — in 500 theatres. The success of this distribution strategy ultimately led to today’s wide releases, in which major films often make their debut on over 4,000 screens.
Benchley never matched the success of his debut effort, but he did write a couple other water-themed horror novels, BEAST and WHITE SHARK, which were turned into made-for-television miniseries. Both of those books took shots at JAWS, both novel and film, pointing out how much of the story was fictitious. In fact, WHITE SHARK makes a strong argument for protecting the species instead of mercilessly hunting it. (One character even points out that Great White sharks are not exciting game fish — when hooked they simply pull on the line until they get tired and give up.)
Peter Benchely, who began his career writing non-ficiton for National Geographic, came from a family of writers, including novelist Nathaniel Benchely and humorist Robert Benchley. He is survived by his wife, who said he was especially proud of the conservation work he did on behalf of sharks.