I’ve seen goldfish swimming in a big tank
at a library not far from my home.
I’ve stood with a woman I know looking
and the fish sometimes looked back, their eyes blank.
Somewhere in the spaces—the quantum foam—
between the fish I’ve seen monsters lurking.
Seeing a monster isn’t the real trick.
The tricky bit comes after you’ve seen one.
Monsters appear, disappear and they’re done.
But the brain stays numb, heart frozen, soul sick.
Of the various suburban libraries around these parts, about twenty of the libraries stock DVD’s of the movie “Jaws.”
Today I wanted to re-read the original novel by Peter Benchley and it was pretty hard to find. Of all the libraries using our local catalogue system only about ten stock the novel.
[ Sighs ]
As luck would have it, the only library near me that stocked the novel was a very pleasant small library I’ve written about quite a few times. It’s the only library I’ve ever visited that has an aquarium so, I guess, it’s fitting that they’d carry one of the most famous modern books ever written about a big fish.
Of the nine billion changes Steven Spielberg and his writers made adapting the novel “Jaws” into the movie, they made the fewest changes to the opening death of Chrissie Watkins.
(In the novel her first name is specified as “Christine.” I’ve written before about a movie that begins with the death of a woman named “Christine.” In that case the woman’s killer was named “Roman.” [ Coughs ] )
I’ve always hated the business of the shark eating Chrissie Watkins. I hated the scene both in the movie and the book.
I was fourteen years old when I read the book and saw the movie. I already knew I wanted to be a writer and I already knew that scenes like that “signaled” a great deal about the narrative to come, and functioned as much more than just “shock value” or as a “grabber.”
As a superficial for instance, film critic James Rose would write of the death of Chrissie Watkins:
We do not see a graphic depiction of the shark’s attack in the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Instead the viewer sees images that are far more terrifying. First Chrissie Watkins confused then panicked face, as she is momentarily pulled underwater. She is then dragged thorough the sea, screaming 'God help me. God help me.' The shark releases her and she takes hold of a waterline marker, its bell ringing out her death toll. The viewer can just hear Chrissie say 'God it hurts. It hurts.' The shark attacks again and again it thrashes her body back and forth. Her final scream 'God please help me' is in vain as the shark pulls her beneath the waves.
Chrissie Watkins death is simply the beginning, functioning like most, if not all, horror film prologues: simultaneously announcing the arrival of the narrative’s threat and visually demonstrating the ferocity of its attack.
... Beneath the surface of Jaws lies a narrative that is not just about a Great White shark but one about the myth of the Great White male: three different men pitting themselves against the unknown. To enable them to do this, women can have only a limited narrative function. Through their loss or their reduction to the status of victim, they enable the male(s) to fulfill their role as protector not just of the individual or the community, but for us all.
In the novel, writer Peter Benchley includes a bit of dialogue that sums up Chrissie Watkins from the point-of-view of the characters in the novel. And it telegraphs something of the way Peter Benchley thinks of her character. And it shapes—for the duration of the reading—how readers are, at least, asked to think of her character. This is Vaughan, the mayor, who has just convinced Brody, the police chief, not to close the beaches after Chrissie Watkins has been found, the obvious victim of a shark attack:
“We do have one thing going for us. Miss Watkins was a nobody. She was a drifter. No family, no close friends. She said she had hitchhiked East from Idaho. So she won’t be missed.”
The novel “Jaws” came out in 1974 and the film was released the following year.
Even as a character the fictive construct “Chrissie Watkins” was not a “nobody” who “won’t be missed.”
But as a social construct the concept of certain people as nobodies who won't be missed is very much alive.
It is alive both as a sad political reality visible in the decisions made by politicians and businessmen, and as an even sadder ethical reality visible in how many people think of themselves.
I strongly suspect both “Jaws” the novel construct and “Jaws” the movie construct are bigger and more deadly monsters than the ‘great’ white shark they feature.