Which is better, the movie or the book?
That’s a question that’s often asked and I think the knee jerk reaction is always to say that the book was better but that’s certainly not always true. There are a few notable cases where the film has been dramatically better than the book. Just check out The Godfather, if you don’t believe me. Occasionally, you’ll run into something like the recent two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s It. The first film was dramatically better than the novel while the second film was significantly worse.
And then occasionally, you’ll have a case where the book and the movie are equally good, albeit for different reasons. That’s the case with William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist.
The book and the movie both tell the same story. Perhaps because Blatty served as both the writer and the producer of the film version, the movie sticks closely to the basic plot of his novel. Regan McNeil, the daughter of an atheist actress named Chris McNeil, is possessed by a demon called Pazuzu. It falls to Father Merrin and Father Karras to perform an exorcism. Unfortunately, Merrin is old and in bad healthy while Karras fears that his faith might not be strong enough to defeat the demon.
Though the plot does remain the same, there are, of course a few differences between the film and the book. As befits a novel written by a screenwriter, the book gets a bit more gossipy when detailing the production of Chris’s film. The book also spends a good deal more time on Inspector Kinderman’s investigation into the deaths of characters like film director Burke Dennings. In the film, Kinderman only appears in a few scenes. In the book, he’s as important a character as Karras and it’s rather obvious that he was Blatty’s favorite character to write. (It’s not a surprise that Kinderman was subsequently the main character in Legion, which was filmed as The Exorcist III and which starred George C. Scott as Kinderman.) The book also spends a good deal more time on Karras’s crisis of faith. In the film, Karras was portrayed as being initially hesitant to accept that Regan was possessed. In the book, Karras researches the history of exorcisms and considers almost every other alternative before committing himself to performing the exorcism. When the book was first published, those scenes were included to make the reader themselves question whether or not Regan was actually possessed. Modern readers, however, already know that answer to that.
Myself, I appreciated the extra time that the novel spent with Kinderman and Karras. As written by Blatty, they’re both engaging characters and Karras’s crisis of faith is actually handled with a good deal more skill in the book than in the movie. If the movie is a nonstop roller coaster of terror, the book is a bit more thoughtful. Whereas the movie shocks you into accepting its premise, the book actually tries to convince you that demons are real and that they’re responsible for the evil in the world. (The books opens with a series of quotes from real-life dictators and mobsters.) The movie aims for your gut while the book’s horrors are often more cerebral but they both get under your skin and inspire you to make sure that every door is locked and every window is closed. Not that any of that would protect you, of course. Both the movie and the novel understand that the scariest thing about what happens to Regan is that it’s out-of-her-control and could, in theory, happen to any of us. Demons are going to do whatever they can. Both the book and the film are fantastically effective and worthy of being known as horror classics.
This October, definitely be sure to watch The Exorcist and The Exorcist III. Hell, maybe even watch The Exorcist II. It’s not that bad! (Okay, well, actually, it is. But still, it’s kind of …. fun, in its way.) But also take the time to read the books. Doing one without doing the other is only getting half the story.