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BOOK VERSUS FILM: An Epic Study of The Exorcist

    It’s Halloween, so for this year’s horror-themed Book Vs Film we’re comparing one of the classics. It’s the book that remained on The New York Times bestseller list for over a year. It’s the film that became the first horror to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.It’s William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist!

    So say a prayer, and let’s see if the power of Christ compels me to choose a winner …

    The Story

    Shortly before her 12th birthday, Regan MacNeil undergoes a change that has nothing to do with puberty. Soon, inexplicable events beset the household, and it’s not long before Regan claims to be possessed by a demon. With the finest medical brains unable to agree on a diagnosis, and the police sniffing around due to a suspicious death near the house, distraught mother Chris turns to the Church, and asks about an exorcism …

    The Characters

    Chris MacNeil is a film star, with the director’s chair her possible next role. She’s also the mother of a loving daughter, Regan. Chrishas a distrust of doctors from when her first-born son Jamie died, aged three, due to a new drug he’d been prescribed. These misgivings resurface when the specialists treating Regan want to institutionalise her. And to add to the conflict coming her way, she’s an atheist.

    Regan ‘Rags’ MacNeil, the girl at the centre of this story, is refreshingly human – whilst she ishuman. There’s a close bond with her mom, but also the hint she feels responsible for her father leaving (dad Howard felt sidelined when the celebrity magazines preferred pictures of Chris and her new daughter to Chris and her hubby). Dad’s absence is keenly felt, so it’s perhaps no coincidence her imaginary Ouija Board ‘playmate’ is called Captain Howdy.

    Father Damien Karras is the broody personification of the book’s main theme: the battle between faith and doubt. As he grapples with grief at his mother’s recent passing he’s also wracked with guilt for not staying closer to her. Karras is a psychiatrist, and therefore the man the other priests turn to with their problems. He’s come to resent this, which only feeds the anger and self-loathing within him.

    Father Lankester Merrin, a philosopher-palaeontologist, writes books that bring science to religion; he’s about as controversial as the Church is willing to go. And yet, from the moment he arrives outside Chris’s house – standing in a mist that will become one of cinema’s defining images – Merrin exudes absolute trust. But he’s not a young man, and he’s not a well man, and the demon inside Regan knows this.

    Lieutenant William Kinderman, Washington DC’s overcoat-wearing detective, is the book’s rational still point. He poses the questions that an increasingly frazzled Chris cannot voice, solving several mysteries in a rambling, absentminded manner that’s one squint away from Peter Falk. (Blatty actually believed Columbo was based on Kinderman, but the TV pilot broadcast after The Exorcist’s publication is the second pilot. There was also one in 1968.)

    The Book

    Published in 1971, The Exorcist almost never happened. Blatty started out writing comedy novels. After an appearance on Groucho Marx’s quiz show You Bet Your Life, he won enough money to write full time. Critical praise was high but sales were low, so he wrote screenplays, including the Peter Sellers’ comedy A Shot In The Dark. However, when work dried up, Blatty returned to an idea from his Georgetown University days, inspired by stories concerning a genuine exorcism…

    The book follows Chris’s third-person viewpoint, although Karras and Kinderman take over when the action shifts from the MacNeil’s Georgetown residence. For much of the first half we’re waiting for these characters to work out what’s wrong with Regan; an answer we’ve been given by the book’s title. This foreknowledge could have been a problem, but Blatty cannily presents a roll-call of experts – neurologists, psychologists, even a hypnotist – and it’s the attempted debunking of the book’s premise where he has the most fun.

    The middle section contains a lot of information. However, it’s surprisingly easy to digest and balanced with talk about factual possessions and black magic. It also features the best material not in the film. One example: Chris’s director, Burke Dennings, is found dead with his head turned backwards. Regan’s 180-degree head turn later on is the demon linking her to the murder – but in the novel Chris alreadyknows. Earlier she’s given a book about witchcraft, and after Dennings dies that book turns up in Regan’s bedroom, and what Chris finds inside… I won’t spoil the reveal, but it’s one of several brilliantly executed shocks, because until this point we’d assumed the book’s function was merely to clue Chris into Regan’s condition.

    Unfortunately some sections aren’t as effective. The first murder suspect is Karl, one of Chris’s staff. His alibi doesn’t hold up, and Kinderman eventually solves the mystery (Karl’s supposedly dead junkie daughter is alive), but as we’ve known he’s innocent all along, these passages feel superfluous, and though well written, you want to get back to the main story.

    One surprising disappointment concerns the ending. It’s the same as what we see in the film, except in the book we don’t see it. We’re with Chris in the study, listening to what happens in Regan’s bedroom. However, if the ending feels rushed, that’s because it was. Three weeks before Blatty was due to deliver the manuscript, Hollywood made an offer for him to start the screenplay. Blatty freely admits to racing through the rest of the novel, with no time for a second draft (that’s right: The Exorcistis a firstdraft). The 40thanniversary edition is his second draft – but, as the film came from the first version, I’ve used that for this comparison.

    So, how does the ‘first draft’ read? It’s mesmerising. There are few books as deserving of the hype as this one. It’s a very literary novel, and if that seems odd considering the genre, I reckon it adds to the genuinely unsettling sense of the uncanny evoked here. The Exorcist is a horror novel for people who don’t read horror novels.

    William Peter Blatty passed away in 2017. Paying tribute, another author described The Exorcist as “the great horror novel of our time”. That author was Stephen King.

    On that note, let’s see how the film compares. No pressure …

    The Film

    December 26th, 1973, and Americans heading to their local fleapit may have chanced a few bucks on the new horror flick opening that Boxing Day. Directed by William Friedkin with the same realism that earned The French Connectiona Best Picture Oscar, The Exorcist will have given them a Christmas they never forgot …

    The Cast

    For the role of Chris, Ellen Burstyn is exceptional as the mother powerless to save her daughter. Likewise, Jason Miller channels Karras’s doubt and pain with total conviction. Max von Sydow’s brief but effective turn as Merrin also deserves a mention: his acting is so good many in the audience had no idea he wasplaying a man over 40 years older(it’s a shame the Oscar for makeup and hair didn’t exist then, as Dick Smith would have walked away with it). But the film belongs to one person.

    “Mother, what’s wrong with me…?” with this one line, Linda Blair not only makes real every parents’ worst fear, but lays bare the story’s emotional heart. She gives a performance that isn’t just career-defining but genre-defining. Like Perkins’ Norman Bates, or Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, her Regan MacNeil refuses to be constrained by the screen: she’s entered the public consciousness, and if Regan’s name may not be as familiar to some, just mention pea-soup and they’ll see her.

    Does this mean the head-spinning, the makeup, the green vomit, etc, are why she’s remembered? They contribute (as does Mercedes McCambridge, who voices demonic Regan), but throughout one of the most harrowing performances ever seen, we never forget the sweet kid trapped within – and that’s all down to Blair. To suggest Regan is the sum of her ‘gimmicks’ is to say Norman Bates is nothing without a knife and a shower.

    The reception

    Critics were divided, but the public loved it. Following a small domestic opening at the end of 1973 word spread, and by the time the UK got it the following March, The Exorcist was everywhere. It eventually grossed over $441 million worldwide (including re-releases) and when adjusted for inflation – a better representation of ticket sales – it joins the billion dollar club. More impressive though, when the domestic box office is likewise adjustedThe Exorcist becomes the ninth most successful movie of all timein North America. And I haven’t even mentioned the awards.

    The Exorcist garnered 10 nominations at the 46thAcademy Awards, including three of the four acting honours, and won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing (well deserved, as the sound is key to the unsettling feel). Burstyn, Miller and Blair were denied the acting Oscars, though Blair did win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. The film picked up seven Globes, including Best Motion Picture – Drama, and Best Director, and another screenplay award for Blatty.

    Finally, in 2001 the American Film Institute 100 Yearslist announced its ‘100 Years… 100 Thrills’ – which rated the “most exciting, action-packed, suspenseful or frightening films” – and placed The Exorcist third, behind Psycho and Jaws.

    The power of Christ compares you

    In Blatty’s 40thanniversary interview, he confessed that he never intended his novel to be scary. It was supposed to be a rumination on faith, not a fright-fest. Luckily, when he wrote the screenplay, such reservations seem to have been forgotten.

    Clocks stopping, candles flaring, house lights flashing: these newmoments heighten the unease, yet none are as effective – or as infamous – as the “subliminal face-of-death image” glimpsed providing you don’t blink at the wrong time. The fact this bleached visage pops up for no readily explained reason means you’re never prepared for it, so its ability to disturb is undiminished even on repeated viewings.

    What of those ‘gimmicks’? The bed levitating and head-spinning are, unsurprisingly, more effective in the film. However, the novel stretches the exorcism over several days rather than one night, heightening the risk to Regan’s life. (The demon threatens to kill her by not letting Regan sleep, leading to Karras bringing in a cardiologist who confirms she is indeed close to death.) It also triumphs with Burke Dennings’ gruesome fate. The film rushes this by having Kinderman tell Karras what happened, but the book has Kinderman visit the morgue, revealing the corpse with its head facing backwards. But if the film loses the “show don’t tell” over Dennings’ murder, it does get a last-gasp equaliser as we finally see what happens between Karras and the demon. So, is there a clear winner? No. But there is a winner.

    And the Winner is …

    Both have aged incredibly well, considering they’re approaching a half-century. They share the points for atmosphere, but though the book triumphs in the plausibility stakes, not having a two-hour runtime to restrict it, some subplots feel extraneous or undeveloped, which the film streamlines or removes.

    Turning to the characters, Chris’s story works better in the book – in particular how she sacrifices everything, including that directing job, for her daughter. But Regan’s ordeal is so graphic that the film is a natural fit, and that’s before we consider those brilliantly realised money-shots. As for Karras, I found him more relatable on screen. This may be due to his role in the film carrying more weight despite no additional scenes, expanding upon the author’s original intention – a story about the loss of faith – and leading to a richer experience.

    So the film wins it. But regardless of which came out on top, the real winner is William Peter Blatty. Stephen King’s assertion that he wrote the great horror novel of our time holds up. It just happens he wrote the great horror film of our time as well.

    Thanks, Nick! Another great comparison 🙂

    BIO: Nick Jackson’s most recent work appeared in the Momaya Short Story Review 2018 (Momaya Press). He has been published in several horror and science fiction anthologies, and will shortly feature in The Singularity (Create50). He quite likes board games, but not ones involving a planchette.

    1 thought on “BOOK VERSUS FILM: An Epic Study of The Exorcist”

    1. Love your website. More horror and science fiction please. I’m sure there’re a few fans out there who would love to read your take on Jaws.

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