Captain Howdy Rides Again

40th exorcist

First published in 1971, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is one of the bestselling books of all time, a landmark horror story that inspired the blockbuster 1973 movie and its countless imitations, and a book which had a profound impact on me since initially reading it at the tender age of eight years.  I’ve reread the novel, viewed the film, and studied their backgrounds extensively.  So I was curious to go over Blatty’s revised 40th Anniversary Edition of The Exorcist from 2011, and now that I have I’m wondering why the devil he did it.

The 2011 version of the book may simply be a print equivalent of the Updated Special Editions of movies and albums which now clutter the market:  a convenient way for studios and record labels to repackage proven products with ready-made “bonus” material, like outtakes, demo tracks, commentaries, and other paraphernalia.  It’s possible that Blatty, now in his eighties, may have needed the infusion of money a redone Exorcist release brought in, although you’d think as author of the original book and producer of the film he’d have been set for life years ago.  But unlike Stephen King or Anne Rice, Blatty has never written anything to match his first big success; he is more like Erich Segal (Love Story) or Mario Puzo (The Godfather), in having delivered a single era-defining title long ago and then spending the rest of his career, willingly or not, in its shadow.

So Blatty has revisited his greatest triumph – the jacket flap refers to it as his magnum opus – and attempted to redo it.  The 2011 Exorcist is actually only a little different from the 1971 model, but the modifications are telling:  a deleted sentence here, a reworded phrase there, some extra lines of dialogue in conversations between the tortured priest Father Karras and the demon inside twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil.  Some minor characters are given more specific or rewritten names, even down to Karras’s remembered dog from childhood, which becomes Reggie, not Gingie.  An inscribed heart on a tenement wall becomes “Petey and Charlotte,” not “Nicky and Ellen” (Blatty’s adult son Pete died of a virus in 2006).  Even the dedication is different:  in 1971 Blatty wrote “For Beth”; in 2011 The Exorcist is “For Julie” – Blatty has been married several times and has seven children. There is a brief new scene of Karras being visited in a dream by the mysterious Ed Lucas, a Jesuit (or is he?) who warns him off the MacNeil case.  None of these changes radically alters the narrative, and had they been part of the first edition its huge popularity may not have been blunted.  But nor do they do anything to enhance The Exorcist‘s fundamental effects or its spiritual message.

Perhaps the revised Exorcist is simply the novel Blatty wanted to publish in 1971, before the blue pencils at Harper & Row got to it (he has acknowledged substantial edits of his first drafts), or perhaps he only sought to amend a few passages or word choices which were dissatisfying him for decades.  As a dedicated reader, I found myself dismayed not just by the pointless retouches but even the unfamiliar typeface and pagination – I prefer my tattered 1970s paperback copy the same way I prefer my scratchy vinyl albums and worn-out cassettes over any technically tweaked CDs of the same music.  The immense cultural legacy of The Exorcist is undeniable, but its literary merit is arguable at best, and there’s no reason the man who imagined one of the most influential works of fiction of the last century shouldn’t be free to apply a few fixes to his creation.  But the millions of us deeply moved by the novel would respond that The Exorcist was never broken.  With the 40th Anniversary edition, I realized that it really takes two to build a magnum opus:  the artist makes it, but the audience decides it is one.

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