Saturday Nightmares: Jaws The Revenge's Novelization Tries Making An Awful Premise Work
The Internet doesn't need another "Jaws The Revenge is a terrible movie!" column, does it? Attacking the third sequel to Steven Spielberg's timeless masterpiece is like shooting bluefish in a barrel: unchallenging and pointless.
By now everyone knows about the roaring shark, the incoherent ending (if you've seen the video/dvd edition) and the ludicrous premise. The novelization, on the other hand, tried its damndest to make the story work. And it almost succeeded.
Author Hank Searls was no stranger to the world of Jaws, having already penned a successful novelization for Jaws 2, which played out as a sequel to both the Peter Benchley book and the Spielberg film (incorporating Mrs. Brody's affair with Matt Hooper into the story of the novelization, for example, even though that was only found in Benchley's book). The powers-that-be decided to skip over any kind of literary tie-in to Jaws 3 in a move that caused my younger self to scour flea markets endlessly right up until the advent of the Internet (when I was finally able to confirm no such adaptation existed), and so Jaws The Revenge ignores all traces of the Sea World misadventure.
Producer/director Joseph Sargent seemed to like the idea of ignoring all sequels as the only thing referenced throughout the cinematic 'Revenge' is the first movie. In his book, Searls demonstrates considerably more respect for the mythos by harkening back to the events of the first two stories quite often. Right off, the book circumvents one of the movie's biggest blunders by excising all of Ellen Brody's flashbacks to events she was never privy to. Instead Searls uses passages from his Jaws 2 to establish Mrs. Brody's connection to her children: Ellen recalls punishing Sean as a boy in a moment that explores the mother's feelings of loss with far more breadth than the movie does.
The book is filled with nice little character asides like this. Later on, Mike reflects on how he'd gotten Martin to acquiesce and allow him scuba lessons, despite the Chief's long-standing fear of the water. It helps enrich these character's lives and make them much more palpable. Searls makes the Brodys feel like any family, with plenty of memories both fond and miserable, and it grants more soul to a story that needs it.
This leads into one aspect of the movie that Searls does retain, and it's a detriment. That's the notion that Martin Brody was killed by his fear of sharks - a completely absurd idea. Throughout Searls' Jaws The Revenge, Ellen makes continued reference to the second shark being the one that killed Marty. That it paralyzed his heart with so much fear, he eventually succumbed to it. That he 'died' during that second confrontation, and that his death was merely prolonged over the course of the next five or six years. It's a completely foolish plot device that cheapens the best character in Jaws while undermining everything he did throughout two stories.
The Jaws franchise contains more than a few commonalities with the Halloween series. Jaws The Revenge might've been the first sequel in a continuity-driven saga to outright ignore the two movies prior, while Halloween H20 would follow suit some eleven years later - wiping three movies off the slate. But it also beat Halloween to the punch by imbuing its antagonist with a convoluted (and overtly supernatural) motivation that should never have been offered. We're all aware of the druid cult that surrounded Michael Myers in 1996's Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, but did you know that the shark in Jaws The Revenge is the direct result of a devious voodoo witch doctor with an axe to grind against Mike Brody?
It should be fairly obvious that there was more meat on Jaws 4 than what we got in the completed film. The catalyst for the shark's Bahamas vacation is Papa Jacques, a supernatural witch doctor utilized by many superstitious island natives. Mike Brody believes Jacques to be nothing more than a con man, and he doesn't mince words when telling him off. They have a second altercation, this time of a more violent nature, and Jacques sets the shark on not only Mike, but on his young daughter Thea as well. At the climax of the story, Jacques appears to have somehow taken possession of the shark, as his body dies as soon as the great white is impaled on the bow of the Neptune's Folly.
So, yes, it's silly, silly stuff. But Searls tackles those outré elements with just enough authenticity to make it work on the page. Had this not been wedged into the Jaws mythos, it would've been a completely acceptable nautical horror story. But it's so alien to what's come before that the supernatural bent never settles amicably into this story, or the existing Jaws canon.
Searls opens up the story and setting much more than that, delving into the sociological background of the island community. Racial tensions are high throughout: the natives aren't necessarily thrilled with Mike taking government grant money from "locals", Jake (the Mario van Peebles character) and wife Louisa feel differently about Papa Jacques than Mike does, with Louisa playing a major role throughout the story with respect to the voodoo curse. There's also an expanded role for Carla Brody and her sculpture, an oddly shapeless structure that suddenly takes the form of a great white in the eyes of those directly impacted by the creature (while others see it far more innocuously). It's an excellent metaphor for facing down one's personal demons, and it laces the narrative with far more depth than what we got in the movie.
There's also Hoagie Newcombe (played by Michael Caine in the movie) - a mysterious charter pilot with a secret or two. The movie never bothers to address them, whereas Searls quickly paints Hoagie into the crosshairs of a Latino assassin, opening up a subplot about a Miami Vice-esque drug lord obsessed with murdering him. Just as Benchley touched upon Mafia money in his original novel, and Searls expanded that involvement for his own Jaws 2 , these gangsters have a large role in the plot - devising ways to eliminate the pilot/drug-runner and eventually endangering the Brody clan as well. It's revealed that Hoagie is working with the DEA to bring down the drug baron who allowed his sixteen year old daughter to overdose on cocaine several years earlier. The climax of the book pits Hoagie, Mike and Jake in a close-quarters struggle against the villain as they race - via plane - to reach Ellen in time.
The remaining events of the climax are largely the same with the exception of the drug lord falling from the plane and being eaten by the shark, giving the rest of the gang time to climb aboard the ketch. Jake tumbles into the mouth of the great white and stays dead (as opposed to random video/DVD versions where he inexplicably survives), strobes still provoke the beast and the animal seemingly floats above the waves (because of the supernatural implications, this time) although, unlike the movie, the shark doesn't roar!
As it sounds, the great white takes a backseat for much of the proceedings. It's probably why Universal saw fit to excise most of this stuff from the film (whether or not it was done prior to shooting remains a mystery) as the elements never gel into a cohesive whole. Whereas Jaws The Revenge featured one sorry excuse for a cinematic shark, Searls makes it a menacing villain. Sections written from the shark's point of view are effective and eerie: painting our resident great white as an instinctual killing machine, chronicling its magnificent abilities to create a memorable antagonist (its also revealed to be the son of the shark killed in Jaws 2 - more revenge!). We might never have been afraid of the shark in the film, but such is not the case here. Searls treats his villain with the cold earnestness it deserves and musters some genuine suspense in doing so.
So it's a goofy story well told. Searls is an excellent writer and Jaws The Revenge is a fast moving and vivid read. It was never a good idea to ascribe supernatural abilities to the great white, but this is a superior iteration of the story. Far more enjoyable than what Joseph Sargent gave us during the summer of 1987. It's well-worth tracking down if you're a Jaws fanatic looking to reflect on what might've been.
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