By William Peter Blatty
A classic in horror literature, The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty is an elongated and at times unnecessarily detailed version of the film. I know this is backwards. I know the book was written first but to his credit, Blatty “killed his darlings” beautifully and wrote the screenplay the way he should have written the book. It’s probably sacrilege to say it as a horror fan, but I thought the book was overwrought with backstory and needless characterization of minor players.
Let’s first analyze the basic story. A young girl, presumably by playing with a Ouija board, becomes possessed by a powerful demon. Her mother, suffering with a lot of guilt for being a single mom and a full-time actress, fights ruthlessly to find help for her. Help comes in the form of a Jesuit priest who is undergoing his own crisis of faith and an older priest who had a premonition that he would be battling this demon during an archeological dig in Iraq.
Chris MacNeil is a famous actress, she is either single or estranged from her daughter Regan’s father. She is struggling in the way all single mother’s do to balance her career and her family. She is an atheist, she is a strong woman and is not afraid to speak up when necessary. We get this from Blatty in the first third of the book. Do we need so much detail on her? I’m not sure. I know I struggled to “get to the good stuff” about Regan. The screenplay managed to give us all this information about Chris in a much shorter time. Blatty spent a lot of time on Chris’s acting and career that I just don’t think was essential and when it is so heavily laid in the beginning of the book, had I no history or previous knowledge of where the story was going, I may have quit before getting there.
The rest is woven into the story line well enough that you don’t mind getting the extraneous backstory because it’s a needed break from Regan’s illness. Karl and Willie, Chris’s servants have quite the backstory given to them which is discovered by the very Inspector Columbo-esque Kinderman, who just cannot give up the idea that someone in the house killed Chris’s director and friend Burke. I’m not convinced that we needed so much information that ultimately became obsolete about Willie and Karl’s daughter or Kinderman for that matter. I don’t think it matters to the story that Chris had lost a child before Regan. My guess is, neither did Blatty because he left much if not all of it out when he wrote the screenplay for which he won an Academy Award. I am puzzled why Sharon, Regan’s nanny, never got the same treatment as the rest in the house. I would have liked to know more about her and what she and Regan did all day. How did Regan come to play with a Ouija board alone as often as she professed without Sharon knowing?
If I don’t watch myself, I’ll be just as bad as Blatty with my wordiness. Here’s the thing. I love this story, I wish it was a little less wordy, yes, but my God did Blatty take some chances with it. People tell writers all the time to write for yourself and not to worry about what people might think. Blatty did that no doubt. There is some gruesome language and words in here befitting a high-ranking demon. I loved it. I loved that the priests didn’t come in and just say some words and defeat the demon. I liked the slow escalation in the possession. It seemed realistic and terrifying. The fact that it was a young girl made it all the more horrific. The priests were scared and rightfully so. I read that Blatty used a real exorcism as the basis for this book and he obviously did his research. Blatty’s book and movie have truly become the model that all other possession movies aspire to and often come in lacking.