Nearly 50 years after the release of Jaws, which launched Steven Spielberg’s career and inspired generations of filmmakers, the director is swimming against the tide set forth by one of his seminal works.
During a recent interview on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, Spielberg reflected on some of his most notable movies, including West Side Story, Schindler’s List, ET, and this year’s The Fabelmans. When asked about Jaws, Spielberg recalled the ways in which he was able to incite fear while rarely showing any sharks. “I had to be resourceful in figuring out how to create suspense and terror without seeing the shark itself,” he explained. “[Alfred] Hitchcock did that and I think Hitchcock was a tremendous guide for me in the way he was able to scare you without really seeing anything.” Spielberg then called it “good fortune” that the film’s mechanical shark “kept breaking,” adding, “It was my good luck, and I think it’s the audience’s good luck too, because it’s a scarier movie without seeing so much of the shark.”
The Oscar winner then acknowledged that misinformation about the danger of sharks in Jaws legacy may have contributed to shrinking of their population. (Since the early 1970s the global population of sharks and rays has dropped by 71% due to fishing, a Nature study concluded last year.) “That’s one of the things I still fear,” Spielberg said, “not to get eaten by a shark, but that sharks are somehow mad at me for the feeding frenzy of crazy sport fishermen that happened after 1975, which I truly, and to this day, regret the decimation of the shark population because of the book and the film. I really, truly regret that.”
Peter Benchley—who wrote the script for Jaws as well as the 1974 novel on which it’s based—penned an op-ed for the The Guardian in 2000, urging people to stop killing sharks. “When I wrote the book and film a quarter of a century ago, knowledge of sharks was in its infancy,” he wrote. “We believed that sharks actually attacked boats; we believed that they actively sought out human prey. We believed that their numbers were infinite and the threat they posed incalculable. Over the years, we have come to know otherwise. Over those same years, unfortunately, the demand worldwide for shark products has soared, and improved technology has given man the tools to slaughter sharks wholesale to meet that demand.”
Paul Cox, chief executive of the Shark Trust charity in Plymouth, England, told The Guardian that blaming Jaws for decimated shark populations is “giving the film far too much credit.” He did maintain that the movie led to audiences “spending too much time talking about all the things that sharks aren’t rather than all the great things sharks are.” And Cox thanked Spielberg for addressing any negative impacts his film may have had on the species: “For someone with his celebrity to be addressing the challenge of communicating about sharks in a more positive way is very welcome.”