(If you do not know how The Exorcist ends, you may want to avoid the spoilers contained herein.)
I have never been content with the end of The Exorcist film adaptation. I’ve seen the movie a handful of times, and I always come away feeling like the bad guys win, at least a little bit. Perhaps I was distracted by the projectile pea soup or Regan’s neck-swiveling trickery, but it’s been hard to tell what the movie is really about.
Not so with the original source material, which is, above all, a novel about faith and doubt. Understood in that way, its ending is triumphant, and it is much stronger thematically than the iconic film.
In the novel, we inhabit the character’s heads and thus get to experience their wavering between belief and doubt instead of just observing from the outside. The reader is with Chris as she watches her daughter transform into something monstrous and seemingly other . And, more importantly, the reader is with Father Karras, the titular exorcist, as he attempts to discern the role of faith in a world that science has seemingly come to dominate. The novel’s main strength lies in following Karras’ struggle with doubt from the inside, with the frustrating slowness that attends any journey from skepticism to faith. He acts as the reader’s surrogate, testing the spirits for us when we can’t and holding to the standard that reason and skepticism demand.
The novel does have its flaws, and they tend to appear when the story departs from Regan and Karras. Too much time is spent on the subplot involving the investigation of Burke Denning’s death. There is no reason for the story to dwell so long with the detective or the family’s handyman, and the movie is an improvement in that it relegates them to minor roles.
I was surprised by the purple prose, which was the last thing I expected in The Exorcist, of all books. It’s downright painful at times, and there are some truly regrettable similes in here. It almost seems like Blatty was trying to convince readers that this book is respectable, even though it features lots of demonic sexual nastiness and “shocking” graphic content. And I have never seen a writer so misuse and abuse the semicolon — did they not have editors in the seventies?
Basically, it comes down to this: I didn’t particularly like this book. I was impatient for the first half. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece or anything. However, reading this changed my whole perspective on the Exorcist story, book or movie, and my understanding of Karras’ journey and its culmination in his implicit declaration of faith and subsequent death at the end. I think the novel asks important questions about good and evil, belief and doubt, and says good things about the process of coming to faith.
And I think even its use of repulsive imagery and description was in service of its message, something that was lost in the movie. I was disturbed and disgusted by the things the novel described, and I didn’t want to be reading it (in fact, I very nearly abandoned it). But in the end, I realized this content isn’t gratuitous. It’s central to one of the main questions the book is asking, which is: if evil/the devil exist — and it’s hard to deny their existence given all the evidence — does it mean that God and good also must exist?