The Deep (1977)* The Island (1980)


Jaws was both blessing and curse to author Peter Benchley.
Creatively it was mainly a curse: far from giving the freedom to write anything he liked it straitjacketed him as an author of maritime peril, whose subsequent novels never quite sold well enough again to justify the occasional experiments such as the ecological fable The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, or such entirely dry land ventures as Rummies and Q Clearance. Later books like Beast and White Shark have an oddly melancholy air, not because there is anything wrong with them - strictly on its merits Beast is among his best - but because they are so very formulaic, and reveal an author clearly unhappy with the job he has been handed.

But that was all in the future when he embarked on The Deep and The Island, and the success of Jaws was still ringing loudly and inspiringly, even if he was already becoming accustomed to the tiresome line that it was an amazing film based on a disposable novel. (It is now impossible to avoid encountering this sentiment wherever the book and the film are mentioned in the same sentence: suffice to say here that it is depressingly untrue: it's a splendid book, just very different from the film.) Nonetheless, it is interesting to compare the books and the films of these two follow-up ventures, which between them more or less sealed his fate as an author.
The Deep seems like a rather cynical cash-in, as if he had thought to himself that he would deliver a surefire potboiler to consolidate the success of Jaws, and then move on to weightier fare. As a result, it is a novel that reads like a novelisation, clearly conceived in his mind as a screenplay, and though never dislikeable or dull, almost certainly his weakest book on its own terms. But snatched from under Universal's nose by Columbia, it nonetheless made an eminently lively and entertaining movie, with no expense spared and everything but the kitchen sink thrown into its two hours-plus running time, including treasure seeking, drug smuggling, voodoo, a touch of sex, and of course a few underwater beasties for security. Clearly the aim on everybody's mind was to produce that quintessentially 1970s kind of super-entertainment, and to stick as close as possible to the Jaws blueprint, even to the point of retaining the services of Robert Shaw. With some gorgeous underwater photography, several well-staged action sequences and a lush John Barry score it repackages the Jaws ingredients with skill and energy, if not, perhaps, an excess of fresh imagination. And Jacqueline Bisset, whose wet t-shirt was reckoned a major factor in the film's success, makes for a good sexy heroine: the one thing, the producers must have reasoned, that Jaws lacked.

Though neither quite hit the Jaws peaks, both book and film were comfortable successes, and though it seems obvious to us now, there was no real reason at the time to think that the wheels were about to come off the Benchley express. As a result, he must have begun work on The Island with quiet confidence: still obliged to retain the trademark trappings of the ocean thriller, but free to try a rather different kind of narrative. For my money, the result was his finest ever novel, a thrilling, sometimes scary and always fascinating sociobiological jeu d'esprit, concerning a crazed anthropologist who has first discovered, then befriended and is now experimentally cultivating an island of inbred but authentic 18th century buccaneers still living the pirate's life oblivious of the world around them: the maritime equivalent of the apocryphal Japanese soldiers lost in the jungle and still fighting World War II. Into this lost world stumbles Blair Maynard, an American reporter and his son, the latter of whom is made instant convert to the pirate life, while the former is imprisoned as breeding stock.
Jaws producers Zanuck and Brown weren't going to repeat the mistake of losing The Deep to Columbia, and snapped this one up for Universal, where it was shot as an adults only thriller, with some extremely strong and unpleasant gore effects in the opening scenes and a sharp eye for brutality throughout: an odd decision given that a huge part of the success of Jaws was due to its careful retention of an A certificate, and its calculated appeal to children as well as adults. It should have cemented Benchley's position as a master thriller writer, instead it more or less finished him. Ironically, while The Deep was a minor novel that made an enjoyable and successful film, The Island was a terrific novel - but the film is an inexplicable mess. And it would seem that Benchley had nobody to blame but himself, either: while his earlier screen adaptations were all collaborations, with Benchley delivering the first draft and more experienced screenwriters re-structuring, tidying and polishing, the credits would have us believe that this time we are looking at entirely his own work, yet it is full of bizarre deviations from his original book, and all of them disadvantageous.
Some may be excused as impositions from the studio, in particular the central and monumental miscasting of Michael Caine as Maynard, whose dogged masculinity and bell-clanging Britishness (clunkily accommodated in the script) are totally wrong for the character Benchley created. Others are unavoidable: when you can actually see him smartmouthing Caine, rather than imagine him as your own child, it's impossible to give a damn about the welfare of the insufferably brattish son, and this creates a second massive hole in the film for audience interest to leak through.
But the rest of the film's errors are unnecessary and self-inflicted, not least the main and unconquerable folly of making the pirates eccentric rather than bestial. Constantly muttering gibberish to each other in squeaky voices, led by a loony David Warner and stocked with cosy British oddballs (David Warner, Dudley Sutton, Colin Jeavons, Don Henderson), the colony play as macabre comic turns, whereas in the book they were truly terrifying. It's an act of self-sabotage from which no film could recover, especially given the overt simplification of the other characters' motivation, and the loss of the book's fascinating passages of evolutionary speculation. And Benchley the novelist has always had a problem with anti-climax, carefully taken care of by the other screenwriters in Jaws and The Deep, but left to stand here. 
Quite lost amidst these problems, sadly, is the splendid performance by Frank Middlemass as the villainous doctor who funds and studies the pirates.