The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition (1971) [Book]

One of the reasons I like fiction so much is it helps me put all manner of cultural and historical tidbits into perspective. For instance, Leave it to Beaver went off the air in 1963, and less than eight years later William Peter Blatty gave us his blood- and vomit-drenched novel, The Exorcist. I don’t know why I find that to be such an astonishing fact, I just do.

To put it another way: the same decade America finally got sick of The Beaver’s shit, the country was captivated by a little girl who screamed obscenities and masturbated violently with a crucifix. Another oddly routed synapse in your brain might make the following connection: the novel came out only a decade after mainstream American movies broke their silly taboo of showing a toilet on the screen. That’s a long way to go in just a handful of years.

For many years I’ve been perplexed by the fact that William Friedkin’s film adaptation of The Exorcist never really moved me one way or the other. It’s a movie I should love, if my general taste in horror is any indication, and a movie I always wanted to love. My feelings toward the film are especially peculiar considering Rosemary’s Baby, which has a lot in common with The Exorcist, was love at first sight for me. (I’m also the only person I know who loved Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, but that’s a whole other post.)

I’m minutes away from giving Friedkin’s film another chance, but I wanted to record my thoughts on the novel before my next viewing of the movie blurs my distinction between the two. First off, I thought the book was fantastic. And not just fantastic, but cunting fantastic, to borrow an oft-used phrase from the dialogue. I wouldn’t say Blatty spends a whole lot of time fleshing the characters out, but they’re real enough and, more importantly, the ease at which we get to know them keeps the pace from slouching.

A note about the current edition: if Blatty is to be believed, the changes he made for the 40th Anniversary text are mostly superficial corrections he would have made the first time around if he didn’t have a deadline. There’s an added scene here and a bit of expanded dialogue there, but it’s my understanding that it’s more or less the same novel that came out in the seventies.

While the film is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the novel (if my memory of the film serves me correctly, that is), the most noticeable difference is the somewhat reduced role of Lieutenant Kinderman, a point-of-view character who later becomes the main character of Blatty’s sequel, Legion. (Legion, by the way, would serve as the basis for The Exorcist III, a vastly underrated movie which knocked my socks off both times I watched it.) The second most noticeable difference is the very reason I prefer the book: it’s not made clear whether Regan MacNeil is actually possessed or suffering from a mental illness.

Yeah, William Peter Blatty seems to think telekinesis and ESP are completely possible things recognized by science in real life (which is how he explains the bed-shaking and the levitating for those who prefer the non-supernatural version), but he gets a pass because it was written in the seventies and everyone back then seemed to believe in weird stuff like that. As for the famous head-rotation which explicitly takes place in the film? In the novel, Regan’s mother only thinks she sees her daughter’s head spin around (she later doubts whether anything supernatural occurred at all). That scene always bothered me in the film because it’s not like we ever saw the demon spin her head back to reverse the damaged he’d done to her spine, but oh well.

Blatty goes out of his way to humanize his Jesuits, characters who too often become set dressings in stories like this. I wasn’t raised in a religious household, so stepping into the shoes of a priest burdened with Catholic guilt is a bit of a novelty. I think the priest-who-lost-his-faith routine is a bit old hat these days, but in the context of the story it works quite well and works towards a satisfying conclusion.

I especially like the emphysematic Kinderman, who’s somehow both sly and polite, often striking up friendly conversations with the people he’s investigating for murder. In fact, it was George C. Scott’s portrayal of Kinderman in The Exorcist III that made me want to check out the rest of William Blatty’s stuff (I almost started with Legion, but I’m glad I didn’t.)

If you can’t wait for the TV series to come back on the air this Friday, you can do worse than passing your time with the original novel. I’m off to watch the movie for the first time in years so I’ll probably blog about that sooner than later. After reading the book, I’m very excited to give the film another chance.

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