Every year on the Fourth of July, we watch Jaws. It’s the original summer movie, and the template for everything great about the blockbuster/tentpole approach. It’s also a really good story (and yes, it was a good story when Melville first told it, too, but that’s another post).
The book it is based on, however, is not. A really good story, that is. It’s what used to be termed a “potboiler,” with lots of disparate elements tossed in to hopefully create a kind of plot stew that gives everyone something to like. Yes, there’s a shark, and it does essentially the same things the one in the movies does. But the characters are unpleasant and not really admirable people, and in the end (SPOILER) the shark just sort of dies of an accumulation of injuries, it isn’t cathartically destroyed by the last remaining hero. Also in the book, the ichthyologist Hooper has an affair with Chief Brody’s wife. (END SPOILER) The film takes the skeleton of the plot and puts entirely new, and much better, meat and muscle on it.
Here’s the key: in the film, every moment, whether it’s a dinner, a city council meeting, or the moment the three heroes finally set out to sea, ends up being about the shark. Even though it’s barely glimpsed until two-thirds of the way through the movie, the characters talk about, or around, the shark in every scene. And this doesn’t result in shallow or dull characters: it results in focused characters, whose presence works actively for the story.
Consider the three heroes. Chief Brody, the transplanted New Yorker with a fear of water (blessedly never explained as a childhood trauma, or [as it would inanely be today] the result of a previous shark attack, or some such half-assed psychological nonsense), finds his character tested by the way he reacts to the shark professionally, and personally. He begins as someone willing to be pushed around, then gradually rises to the challenge and takes the action he knows is right. In contrast you have Quint, sole survivor of the worst shark-related disaster in history, who refuses to change, and pays the price for it. And in between is the jester, Hooper, who takes things seriously but always sees the absurd, especially in Quint and Brody.
To see how badly a similar story can be done, check out Twister. The insipid romance between Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, as well as third wheel Jamie Gertz, is given as much screen time as the tornadoes themselves. When you’re dealing with one of the most powerful and unpredictable forces known to man, you’ve got enough drama–tell your story about that, and about the way it impinges on the characters. Otherwise, why are you telling a story about tornadoes at all?