Sometimes, change is good. For instance, many people consider Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws to be an improvement on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, published the previous year. It did so by getting rid of its extraneous subplots—including one involving, as our reviewer put it, “a restless young wife who remembers better days playing country club tennis” who’s “not immune to a visiting ichthyologist”—and focusing on the hunt for the shark.
1n 1997, Steve Alten published a different aquatic thriller, Meg, about a marine biologist—named Jonas, not Margaret—who’s after a massive shark called a megalodon, which leaves its Mariana Trench home to wreak havoc. Kirkus’ reviewer called it “hellishly riveting,” despite its “[w]eightless characters,” and said that it was “likely to gobble up bestseller lists, as well as reappear in 1998 as a summer blockbuster.” It did hit the New York Times’ list, but the movie version, titled The Meg, would take longer to appear than Jaws’ did—two decades longer. It’s being released today, starring Jason Statham as Jonas Taylor.
Alten released a revised and expanded version of Meg in 2015. In the acknowledgements, he says that he “rewrote the entire novel, extending scenes and developing characters while adding artwork which enhances the reading experience.” It’s hard to say how much these changes enhance the experience, exactly; the 1997 version is out of print. The characters are still weightless, though, and far too numerous—a flaw that the film remedies by deleting most of them, including a minor, pidgin-English-speaking Filipino character who says things like, “That no Orca bite…that’s a demon.” The movie adds other, more interesting players, such as an adventurous scientist, Suyin (Li Bingbing), and an annoying billionaire, entertainingly played by The Office’s Rainn Wilson.
The film, directed by Jon Turteltaub, fixes many of the book’s problems, just as Jaws did, keeping the premise but jettisoning unnecessary details. Jonas is more or less the same in both, but there are key differences. In the book, his backstory includes raising a submersible too quickly after reacting to the sudden appearance of a megalodon, killing two crewmembers; in the film, he’s much more heroic, saving 11 crewmembers but leaving two behind. Later, he gets back in the game to rescue his ex-wife and her crew after their submersible is damaged by the titular shark. It’s an action-star moment, fitting for an actor in the Fast and the Furious film series. But in the book, he returns simply to investigate why his friend’s underwater drones are failing. (Guess why.)
The novel’s events often feel haphazard and sometimes involve uninteresting characters, such as Jonas’ shallow, unfaithful investigative-reporter wife—who later dies horribly. The movie, however, is a well-oiled machine, featuring one over-the-top set-piece after another, including one particularly stunning special-effects spectacle that gives new meaning to the term “jump scare.” Another scene, set near a crowded beach, is truly chilling; unfortunately, it doesn’t include the best sequence in the book, involving a very unlucky surfer. Still, the film’s violence is nowhere near as gruesome.
The movie also thankfully excises the novel’s eye-glazing expositional dialogue, as when Jonas tells a “truly curious” crewmember, “Just like its modern-day cousin, Carchrodon megalodon possessed eight sensory organs that allowed it to search, detect, identify, and stalk its prey. Let’s start with the ampullae of Lorenzini.” Let’s not.
The film’s dialogue does oversell the danger at times: “Man versus meg isn’t a fight. It’s a slaughter.” But it does have a sense of fun, which can’t be said of Alten’s original. It’s no Jaws, but it does share one thing with that film classic—it’s better than the book.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor. Images copyright: © 2018 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., GRAVITY PICTURES FILM PRODUCTION COMPANY, AND APELLES ENTERTAINMENT, INC. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.