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Steven Spielberg 'truly' regrets demonization of sharks and harmful sport fishing caused by 'Jaws'

To be fair: sharks were here first.

By Josh Weiss
Steven Spielberg Jaws GETTY

In addition to ushering in the concept of the summer blockbuster, Steven Spielberg's Jaws also kind of painted sharks as evil killing machines capable of revenge. Millions of audience members were terrified to go in the water after showings, deathly afraid that they'd be gobbled up like poor Chrissie Watkins, Alex Kinter, and Captain Quint. While it's the film that really launched his directorial career into the stratosphere, Spielberg can't help but feel a little responsible for the negative stereotype that has endured for close to five decades.

“That’s one of the things I still fear. 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," the celebrated filmmaker stated during a recent appearance on the BBC's Island Discs program while promoting his latest film, The Fabelmans. "To this day, I regret the decimation of the shark population because of the book and the film. I really, truly regret that."

Author Peter Benchley also came to rue his depiction of sharks in the best-selling 1974 novel upon which the project was based. Speaking to WildAid prior to his death in early 2006, Benchley pointed the finger of blame at humanity — and rightly so. Sharks were swimming the oceans for millions of years until we showed up on the scene and started ruining the natural world.

"There are too many people with too much modern equipment going after too few fish and catching most of them," he explained. "When you kill an adult breeding shark, you destroy generations upon generations of sharks that will fulfill the community because there are just not that many of them. They don't reproduce enough to maintain the species. The loss to the world, to nature, would be both aesthetic — in that these are wonderful animals that have survived for hundreds of millions of years virtually unchanged — but also very practical. Because if you take the apex predators out of the food chain, nature will be out of balance."

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The cinematic and creative ripples of Jaws (now available to rent or own from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment across a number of different formats) were much more beneficial. Like many of Spielberg's silver screen accomplishments, it's a movie that launched a thousand imitators and homages — from Joe Dante's Piranha, to Ridley Scott's Alien, to Steven Miner's Lake Placid, to Jordan Peele's Nope. Jaws is, without a single shred of doubt, a cultural touchstone and one of the scariest and most important movies ever made. Still, things might have turned out differently if the shark animatronic (lovingly nicknamed "Bruce" by the crew) had worked as intended.

“It’s a much better movie that the shark kept breaking down because I had to be resourceful in figuring out how to create suspense and terror without seeing the shark itself," Spielberg said of the movie's famous production woes that nearly led him to being fired. "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. It was just good fortune that the shark kept breaking. It was my good luck and I think it was the audience’s good luck, too, because I think it’s a scarier movie without seeing so much of the shark."

Hankering for more Spielbergian escapism? The Goonies and Back to the Future are now streaming on Peacock. And The Fabelmans is now in theaters and On Demand.