You're supposed to feel guilty when you secretly like the movie version of a book better than the book itself, but in the case of Jaws — a book I read and reread long before I was allowed to see the film — I'm far more embarrassed to admit I prefer the novel. Because while Jaws the movie is a bone-chilling update on Moby Dick, Jaws the novel is more like Peyton Place by the sea. Everyone swears like a sailor, and the hunt for the shark comes a very distant second to a bunch of hot summer trysts.
Take Police Chief Martin Brody, the likable family man played by Roy Scheider in the movie. He is haunted by all the deaths he might have prevented. But in the book, he is also a frustrated cuckold whose unsatisfied wife is noodling around with a handsome ichthyologist. In the film, a chatty Richard Dreyfuss gets to live, but in the book, his character, the suavely seductive Matt Hooper, gets eaten alive — and because you've seen exactly what he did to Brody's wife in a hotel a few chapters earlier, you know he totally deserves it.
I'm also secretly addicted to Benchley's skill with the well-placed obscenity. Sure, we're now used to a few R-rated bombs dropped in prime time. But even 35 years ago, Benchley would have put your average episode of The Sopranos to shame. I've never seen profanity so exquisitely arranged, or so frequently flung out, like ladlefuls of bloody chum. The filthiest tongue of all belongs to salty sea dog Quint, who is not only an expert on the hunt but also a true master of the filthy riposte. His frequent eruptions fill me with a naughty thrill — especially the line he lets loose when he sees a full frontal of the shark. (Hint: It's not "We're gonna need a bigger boat.")
I finally saw the movie version of Jaws, and I have to hand it to Spielberg: It worked. I'm still scared to wade out past my knees. But I'm perfectly happy to sit on the shore and crack open the paperback. Unlike the scary scenes in the movie, when you get to the good parts of this book, you don't have to cover your eyes.
"My Guilty Pleasure" is edited and produced by Ellen Silva