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Peter Benchley

Date of birth : 1940-05-08
Date of death : 2006-02-11
Birthplace : New York City, New York, US
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2011-05-24

Peter Benchley was an American author, best known for his novel Jaws and its subsequent film adaptation, the latter co-written by Benchley (with Carl Gottlieb) and directed by Steven Spielberg. Several more of his works were also adapted for cinema, including The Deep and The Island.

Jaws was published in 1972 and became a great success, staying on the bestseller list for some 44 weeks. Steven Spielberg has said that he initially found many of the characters unsympathetic and wanted the shark to win. Book critics such as Michael A. Rogers of Rolling Stone Magazine shared the sentiment but the book struck a chord with readers.

His reasonably successful second novel, The Deep, is about a honeymooning couple discovering two sunken treasures on the Bermuda reefs—17th century Spanish gold and a fortune in World War Two-era morphine—who are subsequently targeted by a drug syndicate. This 1976 novel is based on Benchley's chance meeting in Bermuda with diver Teddy Tucker while writing a story for National Geographic Magazine. Benchley co-wrote the screenplay for the 1977 film release, along with Tracy Keenan Wynn and an uncredited Tom Mankiewicz. Directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Shaw, Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset, The Deep was a moderate success, and one of the Top 10 highest grossing films in the US in 1977, though its box office tally fell well short of Jaws.

The Island, published in 1979, was a story of descendants of 17th century pirates who terrorize pleasure craft in the Caribbean, leading to the Bermuda Triangle mystery. Benchley again wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation. But the movie version of The Island, starring Michael Caine and co-starring David Warner, failed at the box office when released in 1980.

During the 1980s, Benchley wrote three novels that did not sell as well as his previous works. However, Girl of the Sea of Cortez, a beguiling John Steinbeck-type fable about man's complicated relationship with the sea, was far and away his best reviewed book and has attracted a considerable cult following since its publication. Sea of Cortez signposted Benchley's growing interest in ecological issues and anticipated his future role as an impassioned and intelligent defender of the importance of redressing the current imbalance between human activities and the marine environment. Q Clearance published in 1986 was written from his experience as a staffer in the Johnson White House. Rummies (aka Lush), which appeared in 1989, is a semi-autobiographical work, loosely inspired by the Benchley family's history of alcohol abuse. While the first half of the novel is a relatively straightforward (and harrowing) account of a suburbanite's descent into alcoholic hell, the second part—which takes place at a New Mexico substance abuse clinic—veers off into wildly improbable thriller-type territory.

He returned to nautical themes in 1991's Beast written about a giant squid threatening Bermuda. Beast was brought to the small screen as a made for TV movie in 1996, under the slightly altered title The Beast. His next novel, White Shark, was published in 1994. The story of a Nazi-created genetically engineered shark/human hybrid, failed to achieve popular or critical success. It was also turned into a made-for-TV movie titled Creature, with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times saying it "looks more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than any fish". In 1999, the television show Peter Benchley's Amazon was created, about a group of plane crash survivors in the middle of a vast jungle.

In the last decade of his career, Benchley wrote non-fiction works about the sea and about sharks advocating their conservation. Among these was his book entitled Shark Trouble, which illustrated how hype and news sensationalism can help undermine the public's need to understand marine ecosystems and the potential negative consequences as humans interact with it. This work, which had editions in 2001 and 2003, was written to help a post-Jaws public to more fully understand "the sea in all its beauty, mystery, and power." It details the ways in which man seems to have become more of an aggressor in his relationship with sharks, acting out of ignorance and greed as several of the species become increasingly threatened by overfishing.

Benchley was a member of the National Council of Environmental Defense and a spokesman for its Oceans Program: "[T]he shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors."

He was also one of the founding board members of the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI).

Benchley died of pulmonary fibrosis in 2006.

Author of books:

Jaws (1974, novel)
The Deep (1976, novel)
The Island (1979, novel)
The Girl of the Sea of Cortez (1982, novel)
Q Clearance (1986, novel)
Lush (1989, novel)
Rummies (1989, novel)
Beast (1991, novel)
Monstruo (1993, novel)
White Shark (1994, novel)
Peter Benchley's Creature (1997, novel)


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