‘Jaws’: 10 Facts About Peter Benchley’s Bestselling Novel for Its 50th Anniversary

The hottest beach read of 1974 almost came with a real shark tooth.
The cover of Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws.’
The cover of Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws.’ / Ballantine Books/Amazon (book cover), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

Some of the biggest films in history, from Gone With the Wind to The Godfather, have been based on books—and Jaws was no exception. Released in 1975, the Steven Spielberg shark thriller was based on the 1974 novel of the same name by Peter Benchley. Like its carnivorous antagonist, the book seemingly emerged out of nowhere to frighten millions of readers. Take a look at how Benchley managed to turn a idea culled from a newspaper into a populist and bloody spin on Moby-Dick.

Jaws was sold based on a single page.

Peter Benchley is pictured
'Jaws' author Peter Benchley. / Peter Jones/GettyImages

Born May 8, 1940, in New York City, Peter Benchley had a love of the water instilled in him early on. His parents often took him to Nantucket, where he caught swordfish with his father, author Nathaniel Benchley. (The younger Benchley even said he had “dismembered” some sharks during these excursions, keeping their jawbones.) Later, in 1965, Benchley read of a shark caught in Montauk, Long Island, which got him wondering about what he would later dub “prehistoric eating machines.”

In 1971, over lunch with Doubleday book editor Thomas Congdon, he pitched an idea for a novel about a shark that disrupts a tranquil vacation community. Congdon told him to submit a one-page outline, for which Congdon was able to convince his superiors at Doubleday to pay Benchley a $1000 advance to continue working on what would become Jaws.

The first draft of Jaws was a little too funny.

A scene from 'Jaws' is pictured
Peter Benchley injected a little too much levity in 'Jaws.' / United Archives/GettyImages

In March 1972, Benchley submitted the first four chapters of Jaws to Congdon. The editor was disappointed. In a memo to a colleague, he wrote that “I find the opening of the book marvelous, and the shark scenes good almost all the way through. But almost everything else seems pretty mild…” Congdon took particular issue with Benchley’s habit of giving the characters jokes. “The author is seeking both chuckles and gasps of horror, and it just doesn’t seem to be working.”

Congdon implored Benchley to rewrite the chapters without trying to inject humor, which Benchley did without complaint. That earned him a $7500 advance to finish the book, including the $1000 already paid. The finished manuscript drew raves, prompting others at Doubleday to join Congdon in championing the book.

Jaws was not Peter Benchley’s first book.

Peter Benchley is pictured
Peter Benchley with a book industry award. / Express Newspapers/GettyImages

Although the subsequent success of Jaws prompted The New York Times to declare Benchley the most successful first novelist in history, it wasn’t his first published work. Benchley, a Harvard graduate, spent time working for Newsweek and the Washington Post. In 1964, he published Time and a Ticket, a memoir of his post-graduate life traveling abroad. The same year, he also released the children’s book Jonathan Visits the White House. (Benchley would have a chance to do the same in 1967, when he became a speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson.)

Jaws could have been titled What’s That Noshin’ on My Laig?**

Peter Benchley is pictured
Peter Benchley considered hundreds of titles for 'Jaws.' / Avalon/GettyImages

Jaws is one of the great book (and film) titles in modern history, a succinct and unnerving encapsulation of the beast that stalks human prey. But Benchley and his editors spent a lot of time getting there. There were reportedly over 200 titles considered for the book, including Silence in the Water (Benchley’s original title), The Jaws of the Leviathan, The Summer of the Shark, The Year They Closed the Beaches, and a facetious suggestion by Benchley’s father: What’s That Noshin’ on My Laig [Leg]?

Benchley was adamant they not use shark in the title, fearing booksellers would stock it in the nature section of their stores. The author finally proposed to Congdon that since jaws was at least one word they both liked, they should simply call it Jaws.

One sex scene in Jaws was deemed a poor fit for the book.

While Thomas Congdon was a strong ally for Benchley at Doubleday, the writer had the editor bristling at a sex scene between police chief Martin Brody and his wife Ellen. “I don’t think there’s a place for wholesome married sex in this kind of book,” Congdon wrote, feeling that a would-be bestseller needed more lurid content. In response, Benchley wrote in an affair between Brody’s wife and marine scientist Matt Hooper. (It was a plot point kept out of the movie adaptation, drafts of which Benchley wrote before Spielberg hired Carl Gottlieb. It was Gottlieb who—somewhat ironically—injected humor back into the story after Congdon had worked to scrub it out of the book.)

Jaws almost came with a real shark tooth.

A shark is pictured
Shark teeth were considered for publicity's sake. / Alexis Rosenfeld/GettyImages

Congdon was so enthusiastic about the potential of Jaws that he began dreaming up of unique ways to promote it. Among them: Sending book reviewers an actual shark tooth along with a copy of the novel. When his assistant made calls and discovered a genuine tooth could cost upward of $40, the idea was dropped.

Benchley had no idea Jaws would succeed.

Peter Benchley is pictured
Peter Benchley wasn't sure 'Jaws' would work. / McCarthy/GettyImages

Conventional wisdom in publishing at the time was that first novels rarely made any impact: Writers needed a back catalog to grow a faithful readership. As such, Benchley figured Jaws wouldn’t make too much of a splash, either in print or as a possible movie. “Nobody thought Jaws would be a success,” he said later. “It was a first novel, and nobody reads first novels. It was a novel about a fish, for God’s sake, and who cared about fish? Finally, we all knew it couldn’t be made into a movie, because it was a given that no one could catch and train a great white shark, and everyone involved thought that Hollywood’s special-effects technology was nowhere near advanced enough to build a credible mechanical shark.”

Jaws was a smashing success in paperback.

Peter Benchley is pictured
Peter Benchley with another hit paperback, 'The Deep.' / Avalon/GettyImages

Jaws went on sale in January 1974 and proved Congdon’s instincts correct. It remained on the bestseller lists for 45 weeks, bolstered in part by having been selected by book clubs. While Doubleday held the hardcover rights, paperback rights were sold to Bantam for $575,000. The paperback had 9 million copies in print by the time the Jaws film was released in June 1975.

But Jaws was hardly Benchley’s only financial success. In 1978, he sold adaptation rights to his novel The Island for $2.15 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for non-musical film rights.

The Jaws film rights were sold before the book was released.

A scene from 'Jaws' is pictured
'Jaws' was in the works as a film before the book was published. / Sunset Boulevard/GettyImages

Universal optioned Jaws before the book’s release for $175,000, hoping—as Congdon had—that the public would respond to the story. “We had no idea that the novel would be a best-seller,” Steven Spielberg said. “We involved ourselves in the project when it was only 400 pages of triple spaced galleys.”

But Spielberg and Universal were invested in the book being a success. To help it along, they sent copies to people they deemed influential, from social climbers to studio employees to restaurant owners.

To Benchley’s recollection, however, the movie almost didn’t come to pass: A Universal script reader who endorsed the book gave it an A letter grade, but made it lower-case, making it look like a C. The ensuing confusion led Universal to be among the last studios to make an offer.

Benchley later regretted how Jaws made villains out of sharks.

Peter Benchley is pictured
Peter Benchley in 2005. / Darren McCollester/GettyImages

Benchley conceived of the shark in Jaws as a near-mythical monster. In light of public perception over sharks and the fight for their conservation, he later came to have second thoughts about how he may have contributed to the hysteria and attempted to assist in efforts to preserve their numbers up until his death in 2006. “What I now know, which wasn’t known when I wrote Jaws, is that there is no such thing as a rogue shark which develops a taste for human flesh,” he said in 2000. He would later add: “The shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim, for worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”

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