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 classic is as pointless as shooting bluefish in a barrel.
By now we’ve all had our laughs over 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 what’s crazier? It almost succeeded!
Author Henry Hunt “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. A move that caused Young MattFini to scour flea markets and used bookstores endlessly right up until the advent of the Internet (when I was finally able to confirm no such adaptation existed). Much like the film it’s based on, Searls’ Jaws The Revenge novelization ignores all traces of the Sea World misadventure.
Actually, Jaws The Revenge producer/director Joseph Sargent was largely two or three decades ahead of the curve in his approach to ignoring all previous sequels (a move currently en vogue with many modern reboots), so the only thing referenced throughout the cinematic ‘Revenge’ is the original movie. In the novelization, Searls demonstrates considerably more respect for the mythos by harkening back to the events of the first two films and novels. Right off, he circumvents one of the movie’s biggest blunders by excising all of Ellen Brody’s flashbacks to events she was never present for. Instead, Searls uses passages from his Jaws 2 to establish Mrs. Brody’s connection to her children: Ellen recalls having to discipline Sean as a boy in a moment that explores a mother’s feelings of loss with far more empathy than the movie could hope to manage.
And the book is filled with nice little character asides like this. Later on, for example, Mike Brody reflects on how his dad eventually caved in and allowed him to take scuba lessons, despite the chief’s long-standing fear of the water. These little bits help to enrich the characters’ lives, making them feel like fully formed individuals. Searls really makes the Brodys feel like any family, bursting with memories both fond and miserable, while granting additional soul to a story that desperately needs it.
This leads to 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. It’s such an absurd idea that it’s almost impossible to reconcile. PTSD is one thing, but we’re supposed to swallow that the hero who previously vanquished two great whites spent the rest of his life looking out on ocean waters while cowering in fear? Fear that eventually killed him? Write him out of the story some other way. Any other way. “The chief? Yeah, he couldn’t stand the sight of water. He lives in Arizona now.” Done. I realize this story only works with Martin dead, but come on.
Throughout Searls’ Jaws The Revenge, Ellen makes continued reference to the second shark being the one that killed Chief Brody. That it paralyzed his heart with so much fear, he eventually succumbed to it. That he ‘died’ during that second confrontation and his body merely took five or six years to catch up. The idea itself isn’t bad, but it’s a completely foolish plot device here, treating a beloved hero in such an undignified way that it never registers with any bit of verisimilitude.
As a franchise, Jaws has much in common with Halloween. Jaws The Revenge might’ve been the first sequel in a continuity-driven saga to outright ignore a prior movie, while Halloween H20 would follow suit some eleven years later – wiping three movies off the map. But it also beat Halloween to the punch by giving its antagonist a convoluted (and overly supernatural) motivation that should never have been offered in the first place. We’re all aware of the druid cult that surrounded Michael Myers in 1995’s Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, but did you know that the shark in Jaws The Revenge is the result of a devious voodoo witch doctor with an axe to grind against Mike Brody?
It’s fairly obvious there was more meat on Jaws The Revenge than what we got in the completed 87 minute 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 dismissing him outright. They have a second altercation, this time more violent, and Jacques practically sics 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 fish because, SPOILER, 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 these outré elements with just enough authenticity to make them work on the page. Had this not been wedged into the Jaws mythos, it would’ve been a completely acceptable nautical horror story. The kind of thing Zebra would’ve published. But it’s so alien to what’s come before that the supernatural bent never settles amicably.
And Searls opens up the story and setting much more than that, delving into the sociological background of the tropical 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, 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 the strange art sculpture she spends hours creating: An odd, 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 abstractly). It’s actually a strong metaphor for facing down one’s personal demons, and gives the narrative more depth than its cinematic counterpart.
There’s also Hoagie Newcombe (played by Michael Caine in the movie) – a mysterious charter pilot with a couple secrets of his own. The movie never bothers to address them, whereas Searls quickly paints Hoagie into the crosshairs of a determined assassin, opening up a subplot straight out of Miami Vice. A local drug lord is obsessed with murdering Newcombe, and will go to great lengths to accomplish this. Just as Benchley touched upon Mafia money in Amity in his original novel, and Searls grew that for several side stories throughout 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. Act three reveals 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 this villain as they race – via plane – to reach Ellen amidst her own quest to confront and kill the voodoo shark. You can’t claim the stakes aren’t here, because there’s a lot happening.
The remaining events 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 shark, and the creature still floats above the waves (because of supernatural implications, this time). Unlike the movie, however, 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). The elements simply never gel into a cohesive whole. Whereas the movie version of Jaws The Revenge featured one sorry excuse for a cinematic shark, Searls turns the creature into a rather menacing villain. Sections written from the shark’s point of view are effective and eerie: depicting the resident great white as a killing machine, chronicling its magnificent abilities in an almost fetishistic way. It’s also revealed to be the son of the shark killed in Jaws 2, adding another layer of revenge in a story that honestly doesn’t need any more of it. We might never have feared the shark in the film, but Searls pulls it off by treating his villain with the cold earnestness it deserves and musters some genuine suspense while 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 grant 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, and is best enjoyed on a sandy breach somewhere with a margarita in one hand and this weather-beaten paperback in the other.
Note: This article was originally written for Dread Central and was published there on August 4, 2012. It has been re-edited and re-printed with permission.