“The Exorcist” (1971; 40th Anniversary Edition, 2011)

It’s quite a cliche to snidely remark that the book was better than the movie. We’ve all done it at some point, I’m sure–and in many cases it’s true. The original work is usually the best; if it’s good enough to be adapted for new media, it doesn’t mean it will do well in a new medium. This is generally as true of cross-media adaptations as it is of remakes. There are exceptions, but they’re relatively few and far between (at least in horror).

Which is why it’s so weird that The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, the original novel on which the brilliant, seminal 1973 film is based, is simply not that great.

I’m assuming you’ve seen the film or at the very least are familiar with the general trajectory of the plot. It doesn’t take a lot to figure it out. There’s a demon, a girl gets possessed, priests perform an exorcism, a few folks die. There’s vulgarity and profanity and pea soup vomit everywhere. It’s a good time.

If you haven’t seen it, take a few minutes to think about where you went wrong. Really reflect on it. I’ll wait.

The novel contains all the same narrative stuff as the film. The characters are all there, doing their thing. There’s the same Stephen King-esque focus on the grossification of the familiar. Much of it is brilliant, it’s true. The narrative walks the line between mystery/thriller/horror, and it illustrates why the supernatural is such a potent rhetorical tool. It comes off as what I can only call intelligently pro-Christianity. It’s not a preachy novel, and there’s a great deal of room for interpretation in terms of the cosmology Blatty establishes, but at the end, the priests are the good guys, Father Karras’ broken faith is, in the final moment, restored, and there is a cautionary message about the presence of evil in the world.

The story is brilliant in its simplicity and, despite the problems I’ll get into in a minute, it has quite an emotional impact. Really, it comes down to the difference between a good story and a good telling. Blatty’s story is excellent, but it suffers in the telling.

The writing is angsty and dripping with thesaurus-busting metaphors that put me in mind of self-indulgent high school fanfiction. Especially terrible is his dialogue. I don’t know if people in the early 1970s really spoke like Fred from Scooby Doo; but Chris McNeil, the mother of the possessed girl, Regan, sounds like her biggest worry is that Old Mr. Jones has been scaring everybody away from her amusement park.

He also uses the word “surmise” about four times too many.

There’s also a couple of subplots that didn’t make it to the film, including one with the housekeepers Karl and Willy, and their drug-addict daughter–the presence of which serves virtually no purpose, except perhaps to illustrate the saccharine humanity of Lt. Kinderman, the overweight detective. The worst vestigial narrative turn involves Karras’ ongoing struggle to convince himself that Regan is really possessed. This happens in the film, too, but it isn’t centralized in the way it is in the novel. The crappiest part, though, is that Karras ultimately convinces himself that Regan is not possessed, because he believes that her bizarre powers are manifestations of completely normal parapsychological phenomena.

See those italics there? Those italics are there so you know how goddamned ridiculous this is.

See, Karras decides that he does need to do an exorcism, but not because she’s possessed. Rather, Karras believes the ritual will serve a psychological function, ridding Regan of her disorder or whatever. But he has to build a case for exorcism to present to the Church. Some of this makes it into the film, but I don’t recall a single mention of paranormal phenomena in the movie. Which is a damned good thing. At one stage, Karras, having witnessed Regan reading people’s minds, and seen her bed floating firsthand, concludes that it’s all totally explainable as ESP and therefore is actually an argument against exorcism.

My mother is a psychiatric nurse, and I asked her if parapsychology was sufficiently in in the 1970s to merit this kind of bullshit. Apparently it was, so I guess I can’t blame Blatty for playing to the times. But it’s immensely frustrating that a clearly, blatantly supernatural thing would be dismissed in this way. Imagine if somebody had cancer, and the doctor, after running some tests, concluded that it was not cancer, but was in fact a mass of cells growing out of all proportion and destroying the surrounding tissue, a phenomenon which his particular branch of medicine had recently started calling a flibbityfartlepoo for some stupid reason. 

See where I’m going here? “It’s not a demon, the girl is just an insanely powerful homicidal psychic.” Something doesn’t add up.

I don’t know why that all came out so hostile. I enjoyed the book on a certain level, particularly the surprising humanity and warmth with which Blatty imbues the various heroic male leads (Karras, Merrin, Kinderman). I suppose I just love the film so much that I was let down by what feels to me like a pulpy, grocery store paperback. Like the greats of supernatural horror, Blatty uses horrible evil to paint a paradoxically hopeful picture of the world and the people in it, and in the end you almost feel like you wouldn’t mind living in that world, despite the evil that exists there. Because you learn, as Karras does, that that evil is itself the proof of goodness. I even liked the demon, in a way. When it speaks through Regan, the demon is witty and, in a weird sense, almost amicable. Like, sure, it’s the devil; but it’s the devil as written by C.S. Lewis. He’ll serve you Turkish delight before he devours your soul. You know, civilized. Except for the vomiting and crucifix-masturbating and whatnot. But otherwise, civilized.

But it’s too much. It’s too aware of how grotesque it is, too caught up in its own literary qualities and too inclined to verbose descriptions of scenery and long stretches of awkwardly written interior monologues.

All of this is especially strange when you consider that Blatty himself wrote the screenplay for the film. I know nothing about filmmaking or the processes involved, but it seems to me that he at least recognized how many of these textual flourishes simply wouldn’t make sense in a screen version. And again, thank god he cut what he did. If the film contained the parapsychological stuff I doubt it would have had the same impact.

The Exorcist is worth a read, primarily for the sake of comparison with the infinitely better film. But really, make sure you see the movie first, if you haven’t. The book won’t grab you like the film, which, though equally dated, somehow transcends its era–something the novel just doesn’t quite manage.


6 thoughts on ““The Exorcist” (1971; 40th Anniversary Edition, 2011)

  1. Stonkingly good review! I love the film but have never got round to reading the book….not sure if I will try the novel….will have to think about that….mind you, it IS a book…and I love books…oh no…. do I feel my fingers typing AMAZON into the keyboard… quick call an ordained librarian I think I’m possessed by the spirit of of internet commerce!!!

  2. I’m almost positive that in a documentary about the film, William Friedken (spelling?) says that William Blatty wrote a screenplay that was not very good and filled with unnecessary symbolism so Friedken just took a copy of the book and a marker and basically transformed it into a script the two could agree on. I believe they even show the book all marked up in this way.
    Anyhow, I completely agree with your sentiments on both the book and the movie.

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