“Jaws” and COVID-19: When Fact and Fiction Blur
I have a strange but vivid memory around “Jaws.” It was 1975 and I was nine years old and was waiting in a local music store in Wheaton, Ill. for the start of my beginner guitar lessons.
I wasn’t alone.
There were several parents there waiting for their kids to finish their music lessons. I looked up from my backpack and my guitar case and realized that every parent in the room had a paperback copy of Peter Benchley’s “Jaws” in their hands, reading it intently. The cover had the now-iconic poster for the Spielberg film of the same name that showed a young woman swimming and below her is a giant shark with its mouth wide open, ready to have a mid-morning snack.
It was my first introduction to the classic film that would make me afraid to go swimming for years afterward.
That was the impact that “Jaws” had on American society. Everyone had to see this film and read the book, it seemed. In fact, it has been repeatedly argued that “Jaws” was the first true “summer blockbuster,” earning more than $100 million dollars, but would overnight change the philosophy of movie studios. No longer would studios put out dozens of dramas and art films and make a few million dollars on each film. Instead, they would put all their budgets into a few films that would make hundreds of millions, and now billions, of dollars.
After “Jaws” came “Star Wars,” “Close Encounter of the Third Kind,” “ET,” etc. etc. etc.
So why bring that up now? In the past few months, I have heard numerous references to the film. I’ve had friends who pulled it out and watched it at home during the COVID-19 lockdown. I’ve seen it mentioned in some movie blogs. Recently, it made news when screenwriter Carl Gottlieb discussed who the “real villain” of the movie is, the shark or the mayor.
Just as recently as two weeks ago, I was standing in socially-distanced line in my local Schnuck’s (it’s a grocery chain in St. Louis, when an elderly couple standing six feet behind me with their cart asked me a simple question about where I got a product in my cart. After answering it, we struck up a conversation and the woman said “My husband and I are having a socially-distanced date night tonight. We’ve rented ‘Jaws’ and ordered a pizza.”
Surprised, because I’ve heard so many random mentions of this film in the past few months, I asked why “Jaws?” Why not a romance, or a new film they may have missed such as the brilliant “Knives Out?”
“I don’t really know,” the woman said. “I hadn’t seen it in a long time and my husband has never seen it at all.” Then after thinking about it for a moment, she added, “I think it’s because it’s a film about how you are being warned to not go into the water, and we are all being told not to go into crowds. It’s really a movie about how we desire normalcy but can’t have it.”
And she may be right.
The film seems to be almost like a artistic interpretation of what we are all going through today. We want to go outside and play, but there’s an “unseen” danger lurking out there that is preventing us from “going into the water.” In “Jaws,” spotting the tip of the shark fin induces panic. For us in COVID-19, it’s may be hearing someone cough or sneeze, or even complain that they just don’t feel well.
And sometimes these are false signs. In “Jaws,” there’s the scene where the kid has a fake shark fin on while swimming, which causes mass panic on the beach. For those of us with seasonal allergies, a routine sneeze will cause people to duck for cover or run to the other side of the street.
There also are other similarities.
In “Jaws,” there is the mayor of the town, a businessman who uses political pressure to keep the beaches open because he’s afraid that closing them will impact the town’s economy. The mayor doesn’t think the shark is a real threat. In real life, we have a businessman-president who also has denounced the hidden threat, claiming COVID-19 is “like the flu,” and that socially distancing and wearing masks doesn’t do anything. He has openly admitted to endangering everyone’s lives to “keep the economy open.”
And in “Jaws,” the entire scope of the threat is not realized until it’s too late for the intrepid heroes. In the film, it’s when Roy Scheider’s character sees, for the first time, the actual size of the shark and comments “I think we are going to need a bigger boat.” Shortly afterward, the boat is destroyed, and the captain is swallowed by the shark. In COVID-19 USA, our leadership denied the scope of the problem (and in many ways still do,) and now we are having as many people die every single day as died in the 9–11 attacks, with the numbers (as of the date of this writing) close to 200,000 dead in a manner of months. I would say the boat has sank and the “captain” has completely lost control, at the very least.
So going back to my conversation with the woman in the Schnuck’s check-out line, I believe that she was correct — “Jaws” is a film about our desire to have normalcy, whether it’s wanting to go swimming or go to nightclubs and bars, about how leaders will willingly ignore dangers because they think it will make them look bad if the impact is greater than the threat, and how when we ignore the warnings, we risk imminent death.
We are, in essence, living a dramatic blockbuster reinterpretation of “Jaws.”