Book vs. Film: The Exorcist
"Do you hunger, Saint Merrin? Here, I give to you nectar and ambrosia, I give to you the food of your God!" croaked the demon. It excreted diarrhetically, mocking, "For this is my body! Now consecrate that, Saint Merrin!"
O Exorcist. Patron saint of possession, most iconic. Many a viceroy has come now, mimicking your monarch but I confess: they are all merely well-mannered pales, having one on you with their possessed girls and doubting priests, their body horror and murder. Though some strangely incorporate scenes in barns, sadly none have enough fantastical cussing. Most importantly, none have Linda Blair bellowing demonically about cocks in hell. Check: mate.
The Exorcist was strictly verboten in my house growing up. My mother refused to even talk about it, instead saying only, "It's evil." while maintaining a very clear position that I was never, ever to see it. Not never. Not like, you can't see Jaws, ever, until you're 13 and chaperoned by us. Never never. Unflinching. Glare and the sign of the cross at the mention. This is how serious some Catholics are about this movie, loyal to their Church who was mortified by its existence, and like any good Catholic, she would hatefully ignore the problem in the hope it would dissolve on its own.
The main premise of the possession in The Exorcist, though, is that if one believed enough in the potential to be possessed, that it could just happen (this is why the exorcism is suggested by Regan's doctors, who are at a serious loss--if Regan could have somehow manifested this demonic entity by believing in its possibility, then she too must also believe in exorcism. A to B logic). This, for me, is ripe. You can't just ignore it. Imagination is the worst. You either saw The Exorcist and thought it was some kind of grotesque, B-movie type prankish tripe (capitalist bullshit if you are Jane Fonda), or you were scared out of your mind. If you're anything like me, and I know I am, you started with the worry immediately: much like A Nightmare on Elm Street made me terrified to sleep for fear of the dreams I would surely populate, The Exorcist made me terrified to think about The Exorcist, period. Just thinking about it suggested believability.
The first time I saw The Exorcist was, incidentally, at a sleepover with some friends from the same Catholic high school as myself. I was shocked that someone who shared a religion with my mother would even own such an ominous, forbidden evil thing; we put it on immediately. Talked through all the endless dialogue, hushed only by the consistent and loud sound edits. But when the infamous scene started with Regan--"let Jesus fuck you!"--we were all dead silent. Eyes out on stems.
I have to stress that I have never found any of The Exorcist to be campy. Not even when Regan is shoving a crucifix violently into a holy place, not when she then violates her mother, not when she next turns her head 180 degrees (not at 360 either, for that matter) and accentedly inquires about that cunting daughter. I am impervious to the camp factor here, I'm afraid. I can understand, though. It's ripe. Wailing and thrashing, profanity, vomit, obscene vulgarity, and that. And there is of course that whole smelly deal where Regan is a young pre-teen girl, being tied spread-eagled to a bed by Catholic--male--priests who are gonna just drive that causal single-divorced-mother demon out of her. Whatever your reason, I am pretty sure you never forget something as genuinely horrifying as the face of possessed Regan and her mouthlust for profanity.
I didn't sleep that entire sleepover. Some of us were visibly shaken, and so the rest did what any teenaged friends should do: deflate the situation by projecting superiority (see also, The Hipster Method). "Why are you guys so scared? It was so bo-oring. I want my three hours back."
As soon as I got home, I confessed my sin. My mother crossed herself, I had recurring nightmares, and there were no more sleep-overs for a while.
Give this a few years to brew. If there's ever a way to rid yourself of something that haunts--an excellent day for an exorcism, mayhaps?--I figured it could be found in the obsessive compiling of information. I had drank and seen the spider, alright, and so I set about the knowing of all things spidery. This is how I got to reading William Peter Blatty's novel of the same name.
It will bring you to a state dreadful enough to discern it.
It isn't necessarily more "scary" than the movie. It just (naturally) has more scary by quantity. Blatty also wrote the screenplay for the film himself, so the language is almost word for word (or expletive for expletive, as it were) and many of the scenes themselves are decidedly verbatim. Still, one seems ill prepared (especially if you have not seen the director's cut post 2000) to read:
"Gliding spiderlike, rapidly, close behind Sharon, her body arched backward in a bow with her head almost touching her feet, was Regan, her tongue flicking quickly in and out of her mouth while she hissed sibilantly like a serpent [...] Sharon stopped [...] then screamed as she felt Regan's tongue snaking out at her ankle."
While the film takes advantage of its medium to better orchestrate horrific things like the head swiveling, the projectile vomit (there's more in the book, I'm afraid) and violent relic masturbation, I think the book was more successful in making the possession itself unbearable, as it lasts months on the page and the demon is given legs to torment everyone, most especially the priests. In the final quarter of the book the demon declares that due to Merrin's unbelievable pride and Karras's helplessness and spiritual/medical impotence (more is made of his additional doctorly role), and playing on Karras's guilt about his faith, his mother, a childhood pet he allowed to waste away from distemper, his helplessness to free Regan, that it is going to kill its little piglet, dead, by refusing to let her sleep.
The end result is the same as in the film, but I think that what transpires to get there in the book is even worse, as the demon is given a distinct voice and personality and does such remarkably petulant things, such childish behavior, that it would be laughable if it weren't so desperately serious, murderous. It slows Regan's pulse at will, slowly decreasing it to threadier beats after days of roaring and violently raging without sleep. In this way the fight for Regan's life is much more involving for the spectator; it truly feels humanistic, as our would-be-heroes are deeply flawed, fallible yet earnest, and the demon preys on this mercilessly.
In the film, the final day or so of the exorcism we are merely voyeurs of the horror, firmly behind Brecht's wall. It's just a matter of time, and so we watch and wait tensely; someone is going to eat it, but the idea that it might be Regan seems as far as the fetching goes. In the book, it is the mission of the demon to kill her, specifically to punish the priests. Merrin's death infuriates the demon, as it sees this as purposeful on Merrin's part, cheating, as their fight for Regan was not over and "you were losing!"
The novel cleanses some of the film's hamfisted symbolism and sentimentality (the Jesuit medal that Merrin finds conveniently juxtaposed with the Pazuzu relic, and then later Karras's medal being found and given to Father Dwyer is nowhere in the book). It also saves us from some of the overtly obvious foreshadowing--Merrin in Iraq, in a dusk silhouette, standing on the opposite side of the frame as the Pazuzu statue, the two facing each other while the sound shrieks mercilessly, painfully. It's too easy, just like when Regan and Pazuzu are later superimposed next to each other during the height of the exorcism.
Even yet, this is not why I ultimately choose the book as the better blunt of the brutality. It is something that words do no justice for; it is only felt, and I felt it so strongly that I could hardly bear it. Perhaps my telling you that I kept my copy of The Exorcist separate from all the rest of my books, in a drawer of art materials, will serve. This eventually would not do and the book was exiled to a drawer in a tool chest in the back of the house. This is not logical, and I can't explain it, but I truly felt that the book was evil. It is not rational thinking that keeps me rooted to this earth. The demon was given so much more of a specific personality that it felt, well, real. This goes back to the believabilty. The more time spent with Pazuzu, the more distinct the voice became; repulsive, malicious, unnerving, diabolical, and most believable in the book, which was enough for me.
It must be mentioned, reader, that I am not alone: a strange phenomenon surrounds the book. Many copies have been excommunicated from book collections and libraries, relegated to "safe" distances like linen closets and spare bedroom closets and, in some inexplicable cases, bathroom reading piles. Perhaps a statement on its subject vis a vis excrement, or maybe a nod to Blatty's seeming obsession with the foulest of the bodily functions.
Officially: BOOK. The film and the novel are similar as Blatty wrote for both, and the film is a threshold of horror and sets a high bar for the genre, and though it is iconic and terrifying and will surely people your dreams, for myself there is an inexplicable evil felt in the book that is so impressively powerful as to be traumatizing. Start carving out some space in that old junk drawer, just in case.
FYI: My intentions with Book vs. Film is not to suggest that one of these mediums is always superior to the other, as that's not the case. Instead, I want to tell you my opinion specific to a story. Now, if a film adaptation is awful, I'm going to tell you. If the book is awful, I'm going to tell you. Perhaps both--reach into recent history and I'm sure you can recall both terrible novels and their ungodly film versions. Think: vampire. If the source material and the film are wildly different, I'm going to tell you. Sound good? Sounds mighty peach to me. Also, I am open to your suggestions but have a strict "not with a ten foot pole" policy on Chuck's own adaptations because we have all been there a million times by now and I think your opinions there are just fine. Take a seat; stay awhile.