William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was pretty much an instant bestseller when it came out in 1971, and when the movie version came out just a couple of years later people lined up around the block to go see it. The Exorcist was the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It didn’t win, but just to get that nomination would’ve been a huge step forward for that genre. In other words, Blatty’s terrifying story deserves your respect.
Despite the fact that the movie scared me so much as a kid that I had to sleep with a light on for weeks, I wanted to read the book because I’d always heard that it was more of a supernatural detective novel and less of a straight-up horror. The book is definitely still scary as hell, but in a different way. You probably understand what I mean if you’ve ever read anything scary. What your imagination comes up with when you’re reading a book can be far worse than what a director chooses to show an audience.
The Exorcist definitely felt like a detective story, which is what I liked best about it. It’s not just about Regan writhing away in bed in that freezing cold room and puking all over everybody. It’s also about a priest struggling with the idea of faith and a detective trying to figure everything out before he runs out of time.
Because Blatty wrote the screenplay (and won the Academy Award for it), much of the story is the same and overall the movie has the same tone and feel as the book. There are differences between the two, I just don’t think any of them matter. As an example, one of the most shocking scenes of the movie was actually way more shocking in the book. Trust me when I say that when Regan masturbates with the crucifix in the movie, it’s a toned down version from what happens in the book. That scene in the novel is much longer and way more graphic and sexually explicit, but I don’t think the movie audience misses out on anything.
What the movie has the book doesn’t are those terribly unsettling subliminal shots of the white-faced demon. And when you watch the movie you get the benefit of hearing the incredible score (Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”) and seeing the stunning cinematography. I recently learned that one of the movie’s most famous scenes, where Father Merrin steps out of a cab and stands in front of the MacNeil home (it’s the poster shot seen above), was inspired by Magritte’s series of paintings “Empire of Light” (“L’Empire des lumières”).
What impresses me about the movie adaptation is that they could have got it so wrong but they didn’t. Recently the film’s director William Friedkin had this to say: “This film was just begging to be a flop. If we’d got it wrong, it could very easily have turned into a laugh-riot.” According to this Independent article, there are two reasons the movie version of The Exorcist turned out as good as it did: incredible low-tech special effects (the room actually had to be as cold as a refrigerator during shooting to get the right look) and pared-down visuals, giving the film that Blair Witch feel before that was even a thing.
Even though the book and the movie are so similar, I liked reading Blatty’s words in the novel more than I liked hearing them in the film. While the movie kept me up at night, the book didn’t have quite the same effect, so thankfully I was always able to turn the light off when I sent to sleep. But the book is that different kind of scary, the kind that stays with you even during bright, sunny days. The story seemed more believable in the book, maybe because you’re forced to spend more time with the demon than you are in the movie. I’d put money on the fact that if the movie scared you, so will the book, and vice versa. If the movie didn’t creep you out at all, the book probably will. (And also I don’t believe you. The Exorcist is scary and you know it.)