Reading the Screen: The Exorcist
Posted by: David Pitt
Blame my dentist for this one. I was strapped into the chair. While he rooted around in my gaping maw, we were jawing about movies, and he mentioned he’d recently let his 12-year-old son watch The Exorcist (1973). The boy found the movie, and I’m quoting here, “lame.”
The Exorcist is, of course, based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name, and it is likely one of the most literal film adaptations you’re ever going to see. Blatty wrote the screenplay, and won an Academy Award for it, too. The story features a 12-year-old girl (played with great maturity by Linda Blair) who is possessed by a demon, and it’s a simple story: mother detects odd behavior in daughter, subjects her to numerous medical and psychological tests, concludes she must be possessed, calls in an exorcist.
What makes the novel so damned frightening is Blatty’s frank, matter-of-fact, frequently graphic prose style. Even now, forty years after the novel’s publication, it’s shocking to see the words that come out of that little girl’s mouth, to imagine the awful things Blatty describes, and it’s hard to get some of the book’s imagery out of your mind.
William Friedkin, who directed the movie (following the Oscar-winning The French Connection), could have gone the stylized route – his To Live and Die in L.A., from 1985, took a straightforward crime novel and got all jiggy with it — but instead he transferred Blatty’s stark, terrifically unsettling prose into equally terrifying images and sounds. And I’m not just talking about the famous vomiting and head-rotating scenes; I’m talking about the color palette, the use of light and shadow, Mercedes McCambridge’s unforgettable demonic voice, and Linda Blair’s profanity-laced dialogue.
The movie looks exactly like the book feels: dark, shocking, and evil.
Lame? Not a chance.