Peter Benchley (1940-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
(Peter Bradford Benchley)
Born 1940, in New York, NY; Education: Harvard University, A.B. (cum laude), 1961. Hobbies and other interests: Fishing, sharks, poker, theater, films, classical guitar.
Office—Agent—International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Novelist. Washington Post, Washington, DC, reporter, 1963; Newsweek, New York, NY, associate editor, 1964–67; White House, Washington, DC, staff assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967–69; freelance writer and television news correspondent, beginning 1969. Creator of Dolphin Cove (television series), 1989; host of Expedition Earth (television series), ESPN, 1990–93; involved in production of wildlife/adventure television programs, including (writer, narrator, and host) The American Sportsman, 1974–83, Galapagos, 1987, and (host and narrator) Sharks, 1989. Military service: U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, 1962–63.
Coffee House, Century Association (New York, NY).
Jaws, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1974, reprinted, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
The Deep, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1976.
The Island, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1979.
The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1982.
Q Clearance, Random House (New York, NY), 1986.
Rummies, Random House (New York, NY), 1989.
Beast, Random House (New York, NY), 1991.
White Shark, Random House (New York, NY), 1994.
Three Complete Novels (contains Jaws, Beast, and The Girl of the Sea of Cortez), Wings Books (New York, NY), 1994.
(With Carl Gottlieb) Jaws (based on his novel), Universal, 1975.
(Co-author) The Deep (based on his novel), Columbia, 1977.
The Island (based on his novel), Universal, 1980.
Time and a Ticket (nonfiction), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1964.
Jonathan Visits the White House (juvenile), McGraw, 1964.
Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea (exhibition catalogue), edited by Judith Gradwohl, H. N. Abrams/Smithsonian Institution, 1995.
Shark Trouble: True Stories about Sharks and the Sea, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to periodicals, including Holiday, Life, National Geographic, New Yorker, and New York Times.
Beast was produced by Michael R. Joyce and Dan Wigutow Productions for NBC-TV, 1996. Shark Trouble was adapted by Karen Wojtyla as the children's book Shark Life: True Stories about Sharks and the Sea, Delacorte, 2005. White Shark was adapted as an audiobook read by Stephen Collins, Randhom House Audio, 2002; Shark Trouble was also adapted as an audiobook read by the author, Random House Audio, 2002.
With the release of the movie Jaws in 1975, author and journalist Peter Benchley became almost as much a fixture of American popular culture as did his novel, on which the blockbuster movie was based. Benchley, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Jaws, introduced audiences to the wonders and terrors of the sea through the story of the hunt for a deadly shark, a "Great White" that becomes a relentless terror when pursued. In Jaws, as in Benchley's other suspense novels, the sea and its inhabitants are the major characters; humans are merely pawns in a game in which Nature holds all the cards.
Born in 1940 in New York, Benchley attended the prestigious Phillip Exeter Academy before enrolling at Harvard University in 1957. After graduating in 1961, he started a journalism career, working as a reporter for the Washington Post, then moving to New York City to become an associate editorship at Newsweek magazine. From 1967 until 1969 he served as a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson, leaving the White House after Richard Nixon's inauguration to pursue opportunities in both print and television journalism. Involved in the writing and narration of several wildlife-and adventure-based television programs, Benchley has also served as host of Expedition Earth, a television series that aired on ESPN from 1990 to 1993.
Benchley's fast-paced, adventure-packed novels are inspired by the author's interest in nature and his lifelong love of the sea. He credits the boyhood swordfishing expeditions he took with his father off the rough coasts of Nantucket with sparking his interest in sharks and other ocean-dwelling creatures. "The water was just lousy with sharks," Benchley recalled in a Miami Herald interview, "and we began to catch them by the boat-load. Sometimes I would take their carcasses home and cut the jaws out … the jaws are the big thing. They are prehistoric eating machines that have not evolved in thirty million years."
Appearing on the New York Times bestseller list for a record-breaking forty weeks in 1974, Benchley's novel Jaws "made its author the most successful first novelist in literary history," according to New York Times Book Review critic Jennifer Dunning. Taking place in Amity, a fictional Long Island resort community, Jaws describes what happens when a Great White terrorizes the town's beaches for seemingly no reason. Police chief Martin Brody, forced by greedy local merchants to keep quiet about the finned predator, is finally forced to take a stand against the Great White. Joined by shark expert Matt Hooper and a crusty fisherman named Quint, Brody sets out to destroy the menacing shark. The success of the film version of Jaws, directed by a young, then-unknown filmmaker named Steven Spielberg, spawned several sequels.
Unlike Benchley's first novel, the evil in The Deep lurks in man: namely, a group of drug traffickers and hijackers who attempt to steal the treasure discovered by a young couple while exploring the underwater wreckage of a ship sunk in Bermuda during World War II. The Deep illustrates Benchley's well-rounded knowledge of marine life, skin diving, and underwater treasure hunting: "Many readers will feel improved by the constant flow of sheer information the book contains," noted Gene Lyons in his review for the New York Times Book Review.
The human element also proves sinister—even deadly—in The Island. An imaginative work of fiction that was also adapted as a motion picture, The Island was inspired by a Coast Guard statistic which reported that, during a span of three years, more than 600 sea-going vessels had disappeared, along with their collective 2,000 passengers. Intrigued, Benchley began to imagine what could account for such an amazing statistic and ended up with another bestseller. In The Island magazine editor Blair Maynard ponders the same statistic, and his curiosity eventually leads him and his twelve-year-old son, Justin, to the Caicos islands, located southeast of the Bahamas. While investigating the missing boats, father and son are kidnapped by the descendants of a band of seventeenth-century pirates who, from their base on a remote island, raid and destroy any boat that enters their "territorial waters."
Lloyd Sachs, reviewing The Island for the Chicago Tribune Book World, noted that Benchley "has certainly done his homework on pirate lore—his portrait of the murderous but honorable buccaneer Jean-David Nau and his tenth-generation pirates, who are on the brink of extinction, is convincing and entertaining and more than a little affecting. Benchley succeeds in making their plight touching and funny with one small detail: that they have come to prize 6-12 insect repellant more than just about anything."
In Beast Benchley once again plumbs the ocean depths, this time revealing an even darker, more primeval menace: a one-hundred-foot-long Architeuthis dux, or giant squid, with long, snakelike tentacles, ten arms that end in flesh-rending hooks, and a beak for a mouth. Forced into shallow water because of the destruction of its deep-ocean environment, the squid's presence is discovered when its personal dietary needs result in a rash of mysterious disappearances among Bermuda's shoreline residents. When his children become squid fodder, wealthy Osborne Manning becomes obsessed with avenging their deaths. With the help of a squid expert and an experienced old fisherman, as well as a photographer and an island bureaucrat, Manning goes in search of the beast. While some critics noted the obvious similarities to Jaws, others commented that in Beast Benchley improves upon the strengths of his blockbuster debut. As Bill Kent observed in the New York Times Book Review, the "environmental subtext" in Beast "saves this novel from being too much a copy of [Benchley's] earlier success." In the Voice of Youth Advocates, an enthusiastic contributor exclaimed: "Benchley has done it! He has created a beast more powerful, more savage than the shark in Jaws."
When Benchley wrote Jaws, sharks were little understood and greatly feared. In the decades since that novel's publication, however, sharks such as the Great White have been studied in great detail. Benchley has contributed to the public's increased understanding of sharks with several books: the 1994 novel White Shark, and the 2002 nonfiction work Shark Trouble: True Stories about Sharks and the Sea. The protagonist of White Shark, Simon Chase, works to protect shark environments as chief scientist of Connecticut's Osprey Island Marine Institute. Chase has spent much effort trying to convince local fisherman not to indiscriminately kill sharks as trophy fish, but his efforts are derailed when an "uber-shark," a creature created by Nazi geneticists and held captive in a sunken German U-boat for over half a century, is released. Very angry and very hungry, the creature immediately heads for town and a free lunch. Noting that Benchley has "kept up with the times" with regard to informing his readers about scientific advances in shark research, Timothy Foote wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the plot of White Shark lags because of the author's tendency to stop the action "to let Chase deliver homilies about environmentalism." Benchley noted that these digressions are deliberate; as he told Detroit News interviewer Craig Wilson, "My hope is I'll give you a good time,… but I'm going to force you to learn something too."
With Shark Trouble Benchley's ambition to inform his readers is far more successful; in fact, the information he imparts was useful in the year of the book's release, when news of shark attacks seemed to proliferate. In addition to explaining that the media had blown the shark-attack threat out of proportion—the number of attacks during the summer of 2001 was normal, Benchley shows—he also teaches readers how to dive safely and avoid becoming a victim of a shark attack through safe swimming practices, by avoiding shiny jewelry, or moving in a way that might attract a hungry shark. He recounts the many interactions he and members of his family have had with sharks and other ocean creatures, and explains that ten million sharks are killed by humans for every human killed by a shark. In fact, Benchley admits that he would never have written Jaws had he been aware then of all he has learned about sharks in the decades since that novel's publication. In essence, then Shark Trouble is the antidote to Jaws.
Praised by a Library Journal contributor as "solid and informative," Shark Trouble was viewed appreciatively by Booklist reviewer Nancy Spillman, who recognized Benchley's aim to educate readers and characterized the book as a collection of "spellbinding shark stories, told in Benchley's clear, crisp tones." As Donna Seaman noted in a second Booklist review, Benchley is "not merely a wily storyteller …, but, rather, a knowledgeable and intrepid diver and a passionate advocate for the preservation of ocean life." Shark Trouble "sets the record straight," concluded Kliatt critic Ann Hart, noting that the book also serves another important function. Because of its "fast, informative, and entertaining" text, Hart wrote, Benchley's book also serves as a "valuable tool" to inspire teen boys to get "involved in a little more demanding reading."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Book, July-August, 2002, Eric Wargo, review of Shark Trouble: True Stories and Lessons about the Sea, p. 76.
Booklist, April 15, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Shark Trouble, p. 1362; October 1, 2002, Nancy Spillman, review of Shark Trouble, p. 350.
Chicago Tribune Book World, May 13, 1979, Lloyd Sachs, review of The Island.
Detroit News, June 29, 1994, Craig Wilson, "Fish Tale."
Kliatt, November, 1992, p. 4; April 15, 2002, review of Shark Trouble, p. 536; November, 2002, Carol Reich, review of Shark Trouble (audiobook), p. 53; September, 2003, Ann Hart, review of Shark Trouble, p. 44.
Library Journal, June 1, 1975; May 1, 1979, p. 1075; May 15, 1982, Betty Page, review of The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, p. 1008; June 15, 2002, Margaret A. Rioux, review of Shark Trouble, p. 88.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 22, 1982, Lola Gillebaard, review of The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, p. 11.
Miami Herald, June 8, 1975, interview with Benchley.
Newsweek, May 10, 1976, pp. 109, 111.
New York Times Book Review, May 17, 1976, Gene Lyons, review of The Deep, p. 8; July 8, 1979, Jennifer Dunning, review of Jaws; July 7, 1991, Bill Kent, "What's 100 Feet Long and Has Suckers?," p. 7; June 5, 1994, Timothy Foote, review of White Shark, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, November 12, 1973, p. 31; May 16, 1986, p. 68; August 18, 1989, p. 48; August 5, 2002, review of White Shark (audiobook), p. 26.
School Library Journal, September, 1976, p. 142; January, 1983, Carol J. Saunders, review of The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, pp. 89-90.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1992, review of Beast, p. 268.
Peter Benchley Web site, http://www.peterbenchley.com (September 15, 2005.)
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