Conversing with ChatGPT about Jaws, Mimetic Desire, and Sacrifice

by William Benzon, with the assistance of ChatGPT

It’s that time again. You may have heard about it, you may even have played with it. Another AI engine has dropped! – one of those black boxes that Tim Sommers talked about last week. This one is called ChatGPT and, as its name indicates, it’s a close relative of GPT-3, which set off shockwaves when it dropped in the summer of 2020. It was difficult for ordinary mortals to get access to GPT-3, but anyone can sign up for a free account on ChatGPT, and so I did, on December 1, the day after it dropped.

Fish ‘n Chips

Since then I’ve having a lot of fun playing with it. I’ve chatted with it about brass instruments, trumpets in particular, though I had to work a bit to get it to cough up information about Bud Herseth, one of the most important orchestral trumpeters of the last half-century. We had a long and engrossing exchange about Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Gojira, the original Japanese film from 1954. I even coaxed it into writing a parody of “Kubla Khan” that managed to pwn [sic] Donald Trump.

But I want to tell you about our “conversation,” if you will, about Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and the ideas of the late Rene Girard. As you may recall, I published a 3QD article about subject earlier this year, Shark City Sacrifice: A Girardian Reading of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. So I’m familiar with the topic.

Of course, when I did my work, I started by viewing the film, several times in fact. ChatGPT didn’t do that; as far as I know we don’t have any AI system that could view a feature-length film and create a competent summary of the plot much less offer an interpretation of it. However, Jaws is well known and there is a great deal about it on the web, including several different scripts, though I have no idea whether or not any of those scripts were in ChatGPT’s training corpus.

With that in mind, pour yourself a drink and get comfortable, for this is going to take a while.

What happens in Jaws?

ChatGPT has been optimized for conversation. You offer a prompt, which may take any convenient form, and ChatGPT responds. While I was aiming for a Girardian reading, I decided to start with the basics:

BB: Tell me about Spielberg’s “Jaws”

ChatGPT: Jaws is a 1975 American thriller film directed by Steven Spielberg and based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name. The film is about a great white shark that terrorizes a New England beach town and the three men who set out to hunt it. Jaws was a critical and commercial success, and it is often credited with launching Spielberg’s career as a major filmmaker. It also had a significant impact on the development of the summer blockbuster movie genre. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won three for Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Sound.

Tell me more about what happens in the film.

In Jaws, the seaside town of Amity Island is suddenly terrorized by a series of shark attacks. The town’s police chief, Martin Brody, becomes determined to hunt down and kill the shark, but he faces resistance from the town’s mayor and a local shark hunter named Quint. Eventually, Brody teams up with Quint and a marine biologist named Hooper to track down and kill the shark.

The film follows their efforts to hunt the shark, which becomes increasingly difficult as the shark proves to be a formidable adversary. The men must overcome their own personal fears and overcome the challenges posed by the shark in order to succeed in their mission.

Throughout the film, the shark attacks and kills several people, including a young boy and a woman who was skinny dipping. The men eventually discover that the shark is a large great white and they set out to kill it using various methods, including using barrels to track it and using a large explosive to try to kill it.

In the end, the men are able to kill the shark, but not before it takes a significant toll on the town and its inhabitants. The film concludes with the men triumphantly returning to shore as heroes, having saved the town from the terror of the great white shark.

I like that, I like it a lot. I especially like that it picked up on the conflict between Brody and the mayor. However, ChatGPT stumbles at the end. While I can see why one might think the hunters used those barrels to track the shark, that’s wrong. The barrels were intended to tire the shark out. They’re attached to a line sunk into the shark and they’re empty, so they float. When the shark dives the barrels resist going under water, thus tiring the shark. (It didn’t work.) But where did it get the idea that the barrels were tracking devices? If it made it up, good try.

Moreover, the remaining men, Brody and Hooper, did not return triumphantly to town. As the film ends, we see Brody and Hooper swimming toward the shore. Then the end credits start rolling over a shot of a deserted beach. If you look very carefully you can see two men swimming toward shore and then standing up, beneath the end credits. There is no triumphant return.

So, we’ve got problems. Had ChatGPT seen the movie it might have recalled the ending. As it is…Well, I don’t know what it did. Did it just make up an ending, perhaps because hero-quest movies often end with a triumphal return, or had it found some place on the web that made that mistake (I found such a place).

Still, I’m pleased with how this is going.

Moving on, I decide to ask ChatGPT about Quint, who is at the center of my own interest in the film.

What do we know about Quint’s background?

In the film Jaws, Quint is a local shark hunter who is hired by the police chief, Martin Brody, to help track down and kill the great white shark that is terrorizing the town. However, very little is revealed about Quint’s background in the film.

We do know that Quint is an experienced shark hunter and that he has a deep hatred for sharks, likely stemming from an encounter with a shark in his past. He is also shown to be a tough and skilled sailor, as well as an expert in the use of various weapons and shark-hunting techniques.

Other than these details, however, very little is revealed about Quint’s background or personal life in the film. It is possible that the character’s backstory was explored in greater detail in the novel on which the film was based, but this is not addressed in the movie itself.

That last paragraph is not true. The film gives us one big incident from Quint’s past when, in a lull during the chase, he talks about being aboard the “U. S. S. Indianapolis” at the end of World War II when it was sunk in shark infested waters. I attempt to elicit that information:

Was Quint ever in the Navy?

There is no mention in the film Jaws or in the novel on which it is based of Quint ever serving in the Navy. In fact, very little is revealed about Quint’s background or personal life in the film. We do know that he is an experienced shark hunter and that he has a deep hatred for sharks, but there is no indication that he has any military experience.

It is possible that the character’s background and personal life were explored in greater detail in the novel, but this is not addressed in the film. Without more information, it is difficult to say whether or not Quint has any military experience.

Wrong. So I gave up on that and, after more discussion about this and that, went on to discuss Girard, which I’ll get to in a minute. But I want to stay with Quint for a moment. About an hour after I’d finished my first Girard conversation, I decided to go back in and see if I can elicit more information about Quint’s background:

In Spielberg’s Jaws, what happened to Quint in World War II?

In the movie Jaws, the character Quint tells a story about his experience in World War II, during which he was a sailor on the USS Indianapolis. The ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk, and Quint was one of only a few survivors who had to spend several days floating in the open ocean before being rescued. It’s a harrowing tale, and Quint’s experiences during this time clearly had a profound effect on him.

Bingo! That’s what I was looking for. ChatGPT had the information but, for some reason, wasn’t able to access it in our original interaction. And that, by the way, seems common.

Just to be sure, I asked ChatGPT to respond to the WWII prompt again…

In Jaws, Quint tells the story of his experience in World War II as a member of the U.S. Navy on the USS Indianapolis. He describes how the ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine and how he and a small group of survivors were stranded in the ocean for four days without food or water. They were eventually rescued, but only 316 of the original 1,196 crew members survived. Quint explains that the experience has left him with a deep hatred for sharks.

and again:

In the movie Jaws, it is revealed that Quint was a survivor of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II. He and a handful of other sailors were stranded in the ocean for five days before being rescued, during which time they were attacked by sharks. This traumatic experience left a lasting impact on Quint, who became obsessed with hunting sharks as a result.

Notice that it offers up slightly different information each time.

* * * * *

Now we’re going shift gears. Up to this point I gave ChatGPT a prompt which may have been broad (the whole movie) or narrow (Quint in World War II) and asked it for relevant information. Whether broad or narrow, it’s one body of information. I’m going to ask ChatGPT to apply one body of conceptual material, the theories of Rene Girard, and apply it to a different body, the events of Jaws. Now we’re dealing with two dissimilar bodies of conceptual material and asking for links between them. This, I believe, and could argue – though not here, is a more complex process that what we’ve already seen.

Mimetic Desire in Jaws

Let’s turn to the ideas of Rene Girard. Would ChatGPT have even the foggiest idea about how to produce an interpretive reading of a film, specifically, a Girardian reading of Jaws? I didn’t know.

I began by asking: “What would a thinker like Rene Girard say about Jaws?” ChatGPT offered a reasonable answer, but I want to skip over that here. I’m not trying to hide anything. Rather, I just want to bring this article home in well less than 5000 words. So I can’t report and comment on everything that transpired.

I took a different approach:

What is mimetic desire?

Mimetic desire is a concept developed by the French philosopher and literary theorist Rene Girard. It refers to the idea that human desire is often based on the desire of others. In other words, people often desire things because they see others desiring them, and they believe that by obtaining those things they will be able to achieve the same level of satisfaction and fulfillment that the other person appears to have.

Girard argued that this dynamic is at the heart of many conflicts and social tensions, as people compete with each other for the same objects of desire and become jealous and envious of each other’s possessions and achievements. He also believed that mimetic desire can be dangerous and destructive, as it can lead people to pursue their desires to the point of obsession, causing harm to themselves and others in the process.

Girard’s concept of mimetic desire has been influential in a number of fields, including philosophy, anthropology, and literary theory. It has been used to explain a wide range of phenomena, from the dynamics of social groups and the origins of violence, to the role of desire in art and literature.

That’s a reasonable short answer. So then:

How does mimetic desire work in Jaws?

Mimetic desire is a concept developed by the French philosopher and literary theorist Rene Girard. It refers to the idea that human desire is often based on the desire of others, and it can be seen at work in the film Jaws in a number of ways.

One example of mimetic desire in the film is the way that the townspeople of Amity Island desire the safety and security that the town’s police chief, Martin Brody, is able to provide. When the town is terrorized by a great white shark, the townspeople look to Brody to protect them and to find a way to stop the shark. This desire for protection and security is mimetic, as the townspeople are basing their desire on Brody’s ability to provide it.

Another example of mimetic desire in the film is the way that the shark itself is driven by its own insatiable hunger and desire. The shark is driven to attack and kill the townspeople because it desires their flesh and blood, and it is unable to control its own desire. This mimetic desire ultimately leads to the shark’s own destruction, as it is killed by the town’s police chief in a final confrontation.

Overall, Girard’s concept of mimetic desire can be seen as a useful way of understanding the dynamics at play in the film Jaws, and the ways in which desire can be both destructive and transformative.

That’s reasonable, sorta’. However, the shark’s desire is not mimetic on the evidence offered. The shark may desire flesh and blood, and its desire may be uncontrollable, but there’s no imitation there. There’s just desire.

And, for that matter, its account of the townspeople needs adjusting as well. One of the townspeople (a woman whose son had been killed) had offered a reward to whomever kills the shark. People were competing with one another, that is, imitating one another, for that reward. And, once a shark – but not THE shark – had been killed, people scrambled to get in the photograph (“I was in on the kill”) that was going to be published in the paper. ChatGPT was looking in the right place for mimesis, but didn’t get the connections right.

But how did it know where to look, and just what do we mean by place in this context? Presumably it’s some kind of region in the very high-dimensional space of ChatGPT’s language model. But this is not the place for that kind of discussion.

Sacrifice in Jaws

Girard’s account of sacrifice is closely related to his theory of mimetic desire. I asked ChatGPT about that:

What is Rene Girard’s theory of sacrifice?

Rene Girard was a French philosopher and literary critic who developed a theory of human behavior and culture based on the concept of desire and mimetic rivalry. According to Girard, human desire is not self-generated, but rather is a product of imitation, or mimetic desire. We desire things because we see others desiring them. This mimetic desire can lead to rivalry and conflict between individuals or groups, which in turn can lead to violence and other destructive behaviors.

In Girard’s view, sacrifice is a way for a community to resolve this mimetic rivalry and restore social order. The community selects a victim, often through some form of ritual, and directs its collective violence toward that victim, who is then sacrificed. This sacrifice serves as a release valve for the community’s pent-up tensions, allowing them to move on and return to a state of social harmony.

Girard’s theory of sacrifice has been influential in a number of fields, including anthropology, sociology, and religious studies. Critics of Girard’s theory have pointed out that it is based on a narrow and potentially overly simplistic view of human behavior, and that it may be difficult to apply to all societies and cultures. However, many scholars have found his ideas to be thought-provoking and illuminating.

Can you apply Girard’s theory of sacrifice to Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.”

Girard’s theory of sacrifice could potentially be applied to the 1975 film “Jaws” by Steven Spielberg. In the film, a small town is terrorized by a great white shark that is attacking and killing people in the waters off the town. The townspeople, who are initially in denial about the shark’s existence, eventually come to see it as a threat that must be dealt with.

According to Girard’s theory, the shark could be seen as a scapegoat, or a victim that is selected by the community and sacrificed in order to restore social order. In the film, the shark is eventually hunted down and killed by the town’s police chief, who becomes a hero for his actions. This act of killing the shark could be seen as a sacrifice that allows the town to return to a state of peace and harmony.

However, it is worth noting that Girard’s theory is not without its critics, and some may argue that it is not applicable to the film “Jaws” in this way. The theory is based on a particular view of human behavior and culture, and it may not be appropriate to apply it to all situations or contexts. Ultimately, the applicability of Girard’s theory to “Jaws” would depend on how one interprets the events of the film and the motivations of the characters.

That’s an entirely reasonable approach to the film. If you look at the film’s Wikipedia page you’ll see that a lot of attention has been given to the shark: what does it represent or symbolize? It’s thus the natural focus of a sacrificial reading, not to mention the fact that animal sacrifice has been a common practice at various times and place, and still is. But one could also argue that Quint was the sacrificial victim, though it’s a more subtle and demanding argument. That’s what I argued in my article.

Rather than trying to lead ChatGPT to that argument by a series of Socratically devious questions, it decided to head straight at it:

What about Quint? Could you argue that Quint is a sacrificial victim? If so, how?

In the 1975 film “Jaws” by Steven Spielberg, the character of Quint could potentially be seen as a sacrificial victim in the context of Rene Girard’s theory of sacrifice. According to this theory, sacrifice involves the selection of a victim by a community, who then directs their collective violence toward that victim in order to restore social order.

In the case of “Jaws,” Quint could be seen as a sacrificial victim because he is selected by the community (represented by the other main characters in the film, Chief Brody and Matt Hooper) to help them hunt and kill the shark that is terrorizing their town. Quint, as a professional shark hunter, is seen as the best person for the job, and he willingly agrees to help.

However, in the process of hunting the shark, Quint ultimately meets his demise. He is killed by the shark, and his death could be seen as a sacrifice that allows the town to move on and return to a state of peace and harmony. In this way, Quint’s character could be interpreted as a sacrificial victim within the framework of Girard’s theory.

Again, it is worth noting that Girard’s theory is not without its critics, and some may argue that it is not applicable to the film “Jaws” in this way. The theory is based on a particular view of human behavior and culture, and it may not be appropriate to apply it to all situations or contexts. Ultimately, the applicability of Girard’s theory to “Jaws” and the character of Quint would depend on how one interprets the events of the film and the motivations of the characters.


First, notice the formulaic nature of that last paragraph, which is very like the final paragraph in its previous reply, about the shark as sacrificial victim. The initial paragraphs in each reply are also somewhat formulaic. As for the substance of its argument, it’s much the same as in the case of the shark:

SHARK: This act of killing the shark could be seen as a sacrifice that allows the town to return to a state of peace and harmony.

QUINT: He is killed by the shark, and his death could be seen as a sacrifice that allows the town to move on and return to a state of peace and harmony.

Formulaic, yes. But they’re in the right region of conceptual “space.” Now, if only we knew how to map this conceptual space more accurately.

What’s This Tell us about the Relative Capabilities of Humans and Computers?

In an exact way? Very little to nothing. This isn’t a question we know how to address with exactitude. I’m afraid the best I can do is to offer a sophisticated, but (merely) qualitative, judgment.

I was impressed with ChatGPT’s capabilities. Interacting with it was fun, so much fun that at times I was giggling and laughing out loud. But whether or not this is a harbinger of the much-touted Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), much less a warning of impending doom at the hands of an All-Knowing, All-Powerful Superintelligence – are you kidding? Nothing like that, nothing at all. A useful assistant for a variety of tasks, I can see that, and relatively soon. Maybe even a bit more than an assistant. But that’s as far as I can see.

We can compare what ChatGPT did in response to my prompting with what I did unprompted, freely and of my own volition. There’s nothing its replies that approaches my article, Shark City Sacrifice, nor the various blog posts I wrote about the film. That’s important. I was neither expecting, much less hoping, that ChatGPT would act like a full-on AGI. No, I have something else in mind.

What’s got my attention is what I had to do to write the article. In the first place I had to watch the film and make sense of it. As I’ve already indicated, have no artificial system with the required capabilities, visual, auditory, and cognitive. I watched the film several times in order to be sure of the details. I also consulted scripts I found on the internet. I also watched Jaws 2 more than once. Why did I do that? There’s curiosity and general principle. But there’s also the fact that the Wikipedia article for Jaws asserted that none of the three sequels were as good as the original. I had to watch the others to see for myself – though I was unable to finish watching either of that last two.

At this point I was on the prowl, though I hadn’t yet decided to write anything.

I now asked myself why the original was so much better than the first sequel, which was at least watchable. I came up with two things: 1) the original film was well-organized and tight while the sequel sprawled, and 2) Quint, there was no character in the sequel comparable to Quint.

Why did Quint die? Oh, I know what happened in the film; that’s not what I was asking. The question was an aesthetic one. As long as the shark was killed the town would be saved. That necessity did not entail the Quint’s death, nor anyone else’s. If Quint hadn’t died, how would the ending have felt? What if it had been Brody or Hooper?

It was while thinking about such questions that it hit me: sacrifice! Girard! How is it that Girard’s ideas came to me. I wasn’t looking for them, not in any direct sense. I was just asking counter-factual questions about the film.


Once Girard was on my mind I smelled blood, that is, the possibility of writing an interesting article. I started reading, making notes, and corresponding with my friend, David Porush, who knows Girard’s thinking much better than I do. Can I make a nice tight article? That’s what I was trying to figure out. I was only after I’d made some preliminary posts, drafted some text, and run it by David that I decided to go for it. The article turned out well enough that I decided to publish it. And so I did.

It’s one thing to figure out whether or not such and such a text/film exhibits such and such pattern when you are given the text and the pattern. That’s what ChatGPT did. Since I had already made the connection between Girard and Jaws it didn’t have to do that. I was just prompting ChatGPT to verify the connection, which it did (albeit in a weak way). That’s the kind of task we set for high school students and lower division college students.

Did I just write that? Did I imply that ChatGPT’s performance is comparable to that of high school students. Lordy, lordy! I’m going to catch hell for that! It ain’t so! It ain’t so!!

No matter.

I don’t really think that ChatGPT is operating at a high school level in this context. Nor do I NOT think that. I don’t know quite what to think. And I’m happy with that.

The deeper point is that there is a world of difference between what ChatGPT was doing when I piloted it into Jaws and Girard and what I eventually did when I watched Jaws and decided to look around to see what I could see. How is it that, in that process, Girard came to me? I wasn’t looking for Girard. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. How do we teach a computer to look around for nothing in particular and come up with something interesting?