How do Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg build up tension and suspense in the opening chapter of the novel and the opening scene of the film

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Catherine Meachin 10PT

How do Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg build up tension and suspense in the opening chapter of the novel and the opening scene of the film “Jaws”?

Peter Benchley wrote “Jaws” the novel before it was made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg. “Jaws” is a thriller with the main aim being to build up suspense and tension. In the novel Peter Benchley uses many variations of language techniques to emphasise important points that build up suspense. He also uses sentence and paragraph structure to affect the reader in many different ways. Steven Spielberg on the other hand uses different camera angles and shots alongside lighting effects to create atmosphere and tension. In the background he uses music and sound effects to add to the dramatic visual images he creates. Finally Steven Spielberg uses specific dialogue to show the victims feelings and emotions.

At the beginning of the film the soft, relaxing underwater noises of communicating sharks instantly sets the scene and creates the feeling of being deep underwater. The familiar beach sounds have a calming effect, which immediately lulls the audience into a false sense of security. The black screen that appears at the start of the film doesn’t provide the audience with anything interesting to look at so the focus is strongly on the soundtrack. When the opening credits appear, the contrast between the bold, white credits and the plain black screen really stands out. The white credits could symbolize the innocence and vulnerability of the victims against the black, evilness of the shark. As the credits start to roll the first note of the chilling “Jaws” music is struck. The peaceful aquatic sounds are abruptly interrupted by the slow, deliberate minor strokes of a cello. The sound of the cello immediately enforces a feeling of uneasiness and due to the music being associated with the horror film “Psycho” the build up of tension can be felt. The tempo and volume gradually increase with the intention of raising the viewer’s heartbeat. This increase also gives the effect that whatever is moving through the water is getting closer and speeding up. Then all of a sudden a dramatic picture, from the shark’s eye view appears, creeping through the weeds on the seabed. The camera angle is very effective, as the audience moves through the weeds with the shark. The dimly lit darkness of deep underwater which creates an unclear picture has the effect of making the audience anxious as nobody knows what the shark is about to find.

The instant that the picture appears, an abrupt increase in the tempo and the volume of the music makes the viewer’s heart leap. Amounting tension causes an adrenaline rush and makes the viewer edgy. Suspense is created because the viewer knows that something will happen but does not know when. When the music comes to a climax a horn joins in with the cellos. Horns are generally associated with any kind of hunt and although the audience doesn’t yet know that the shark is after the girl the horn adds to the overall nervousness of the atmosphere. As screeching, slashing violins can be heard the bold, glaring title Jaws appears in capital letters signalling the ultimate climax of the tension. Just when the audience can’t take any more and want to get away from the unbearably tense atmosphere the scene cuts to a party on the beach.

The credits that are still rolling now fade so that the focus is totally on the party. The contrast of the happy friendly noise created by the teenagers chatting, laughing and playing music relieves the suspense that has been created by the shark. The dark of the night is lit dimly by the red glow of the flickering fire reflecting in the faces of the young people. The red has been used in a very clever way, as it is a colour that signals danger and blood. The fire is a warning of the forthcoming hazard. The camera moves around between different faces at the party until eventually it focuses on Chrissie and the drunken boy. The close up camera shots of Chrissie and the drunken boy show the audience that they should bring their attention primarily to these two figures. Chrissie, who is giggling, then gets up and sprints enthusiastically towards the beach The drunken boy follows her, stumbling whilst trying to catch up.

At the beginning of the novel the focus is entirely on the woman as unlike in the film the woman has not been at a party and is not with anyone else. The fact that the woman is alone immediately makes her very vulnerable and it is obvious that Peter Benchley has done this on purpose to specifically create instant tension. In addition the reader then learns that the woman in the story is not a competent swimmer. You can tell this by that the way the author has written, “Then she began to swim – with the jerky, head – above – water stroke of the untutored.” This causes the reader to become slightly uneasy as the prospect of a woman, who is not a very good swimmer, alone in the sea, at night is asking for trouble. I think the author has used a woman as a victim because women are stereotyped as a lot weaker than men are physically and mentally. Being a woman the reader will feel that she is a lot more vulnerable than if she was a man. However, from the suggestions in the opening paragraph the reader can sense that the woman is relaxed and not in the slightest bit frightened. You can tell this by the way that Peter Benchley has used long, flowing, descriptive sentences. It is precisely the awareness of how defenceless but yet relaxed the girl is that encourages the reader to read on. One of the main differences between the novel and the film is that in the novel the woman doesn’t have a name and is simply referred to as “the woman”. The start of the novel, and presumably all the way through the novel, is written in the form of the third person and switches from the woman’s point of view to the sharks point of view with each alternating paragraph. This change of perspective at each paragraph shows the reader that two things are happening at the same time. Throughout the beginning of the novel this technique builds up the tension and suspense because the reader knows of the sharks whereabouts and that it is closing on the woman. The reader will desperately want to control the situation, to stop the shark reaching the woman, but the inevitable will happen and the reader knows it. This sense of being out of control will make the reader feel anxious and tense not knowing exactly when the shark will strike.

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In the second paragraph the reader is told that, at this stage, all the fish can sense through its “series of tiny canals, filled with mucus and dotted with nerve endings” are the “vibrations” given off by the movement of the woman. The reader’s worst fears have been realised and the tension is building up as the shark has notice the woman. The final sentence of the second paragraph is the first point at which the reader knows that an attack is almost certain to happen. Being short and to the point the sentence leaves the reader with a ...

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