Book vs. Film: The Exorcist

We take a look at one of the most significant stories of all time - The Exorcist and how it thrived both on paper and on screen.

Warning! Spoiler littered article ahead…

After the success of the novel in 1971 The Exorcist became William Peter Blatty’s magnum opus, a piece of writing so inventive and ahead of its time that it generated great interests especially from director William Friedkin who then in his infinite film-making wisdom adopted the story and crafted an adaptation that became one of the most scariest satanic movies of all time (with the help from Blatty of course).  In 1973 William Friedkin’s adaptation was finally released initiating various reactions from critics and audiences alike, they ranged from good to bad – many stating it to be just mere occult drivel while others referred to it as a hands down classic. Upon release the audience were provided with ‘’Exorcist barf bags’’ in theatres.

William Peter Blatty’s landmark satanic possession story generates such terror through Regan that even uttering the name ‘The Exorcist’ sends shivers down the spine of many novel and film lovers with no surprise of course. The novel itself spawns such a powerful and realistic story of Regan’s possession that it makes one question Blatty’s motives with this disturbing but brilliant piece of writing.

The possession story in the novel is inspired by the 1949 exorcism of Roland Doe, making Blatty’s writing just that little bit more terrifying. The Exorcist is a heavily layered novel – externally a story of a young girl plagued by demonic possession whilst her mother desperately attempts to save her with the help of two priests however there is a deeper, more subversive story at play, dealing with the eternal battle between good and evil and the true nature of faith crafting feelings of both astonishment and disconcertment. The film certainly maintains the true horror of Regan and her mother as well as the novel does with some genuinely frightening scenes – the film utilized cutting edge special effects for scenes such as the crab walk and head-turning to force upon the viewer extremely visceral images that the book could only display on paper. Not to mention the soundtrack of animals being slaughtered that is played subliminally throughout the exorcism scenes. However Blatty, like so many other great writers, allows for the reader to engage in their imagination permitting them to construct their own interpretation of the terror that the young girl and her mother endure in the novel.

The characters in the novel are so polished and profound adding to the layer of the entire story – creating a deeper exploration of the characters that of course the film could scarcely do, this makes the book virtually impossible to put down due to Blatty’s ingenuous story telling. There are still certain parts of the novel that are unbearably terrifying and that is probably down to Blatty’s descriptive and haunting language, especially concerning the crab-walk which is creepy in both the book and film. However, the novel certainly flourished in making the possession and the exorcism itself so much more insufferable, lasting months and months in the novel as opposed to the one night endeavour in the adaptation. The demon is also given more power on paper than he is on screen enabling him to torment not just Regan but the people surrounding her especially the priests – his hatred for Karras and Merrin is slightly more evident in the novel.

The film however was ingenious in the way it depicted the spine-tingling horror making it highly significant to the genre itself with fantastic performances from Linda Blair as the possessed girl and Ellen Burstyn as her despairing mother – Jason Miller as Father Karras scarcely goes unnoticed. The terrific acting brought an entirely fresh perspective on these paper-based characters bringing them and the petrifying story to life. Essentially the tale translates so well onto both mediums making The Exorcist one of the most influential and iconic stories of all time, successful both as a novel and a film.

Many have tried to follow down the footsteps of satanic possession films, attempting to mimic the blood curdling horror and the oh so realistic atmosphere of the eerie film and its predecessor – the inventive novel. But, of course, none were actually successful in capturing the essence of which The Exorcist is so renowned for – as most recreations or reboots rarely manage to do. The sequels which trailed the success of the original were mere failures in acquiring the respect and terror of the former classic.

Since both the novel and the film are so closely similar, the task of deciding which works best is an arduous one. The film is evidently a masterpiece, momentous in the satanic genre and a truly disturbing film that maintains the horror it shaped and crafted. Blatty’s novel however carries the presence of evil in its pages making it distressing and genuinely impossible to top due to his exceptionally effective language and intense story line – making the book the winner of this debate.

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