"The Exorcist" Author William Peter Blatty On Revisiting His Most Famous Work
The book "The Exorcist", famously made into a movie in 1973, came out 40 years ago.
To celebrate this anniversary, the author William Peter Blatty, now 83 years old, has returned to his original work and made various changes for a new special edition (Harper, $25.99 hardcover, $9.99 e-book). The changes include edits to the dialogue and an entirely new scene.
"This is the version I would like to be remembered for," Blatty wrote recently.
In an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post conducted via email, we asked Mr Blatty about 40-year-old rewrites, why "The Exorcist" became so popular, and what truly makes him feel scared.
How does it feel to revisit this book?
How does it feel? Like absolution after a sudden fall from grace.
The first time I had cause to read my novel after publication was about a dozen years ago when I was asked to do the narration for the audio book.
Reading prose aloud is the test of the rhythm of the lines, and at times as I was reading I was mildly appalled by what I had written as contrasted to what I freshly realized I should have written; once, in fact, I broke up the producer and the sound mixer (who was one of the Doobie Brothers, by the way) by breaking off my reading to erupt, "Who wrote this drek?!”
Okay, guilty with an explanation. While it is true that an American novel has once before been rewritten and republished, namely John Fowles’ ("The Collector," "The French Lieutenant’s Woman") great work of the imagination, "The Magus," whereas Fowles wrote and rewrote it for 12 years before its publication in 1966, and, despite critical and commercial success, continued to rework it until publishing a final revision in 1977, the 1971 edition of "The Exorcist" was my first and only draft.
At the time, I had no choice. Books were for love, and my income was almost totally derived from writing motion picture comedy screenplays; but in 1969 movie comedies were out of both vogue and popcorn sales, thus placing me in that state of financial desperation when comedy writers, as James Thurber once wrote of it in his "Preface to a Life," “take to calling their home from their office or their office from their home, asking for themselves, and then collapsing in hard-breathing relief upon being told they weren’t in.”
Thus, when a week or so before completion of the novel, I received a high-paying offer to write a romantic screenplay for Paul Newman, I leaped at the chance, starting work on the screenplay mere moments after turning in the novel to Harper and Row and foregoing the writing of a second draft.
This new edition is finally it. How much better do I think it is? Well, that’s for its readers to judge, though I suppose it’s not entirely unreasonable to suppose that over a stretch of 40 years, my abilities, such as they are, should have at least improved, however slightly.
Would you recommend this exercise to other authors?
No, because authors don't need to do it: being professionals, most of them sane, they do multiple drafts until the work is as good as they can make it.
Why did you add the extra scene?
A couple of weeks following the release of the film, I was invited to a quiet dinner at the home of the late Frank Wells, then president of Warner Brothers. The women were chatting in the kitchen and Frank and I were in the den drinking martinis.
At one point in our conversation I burst out with indignation about how so many “dense” filmgoers thought the demon took Karras out the window, making the ending seem to be a “downer.” There was a brief silence, and then – God bless his brave and honest soul! – Frank said quietly, “Bill, that’s what I thought happened, too!”
Which is prelude to saying that as I was preparing my new draft, often changing or adding new dialogue, or a new chapter ending, but mostly correcting the rhythm of the lines while carefully polishing the prose throughout as well as definitely intending to make changes to the ending, when I came to a certain point in the novel, that creative part of us that lodges in the unconscious mind and suddenly springs, fangs bared, while we are showering - the new spooky character and extended scene unexpectedly leaped out at me like Kato springing atop Inspector Clouseau in the bathtub in "A Shot in the Dark."
More than that, the scene seemed inevitable, an oversight, in that it should have been there in the first place. As attested by Kurt Vonnegut - without naming names, he once wrote about how we had passed each other walking in opposite directions once, quickly averting our gazes from one another and moving on "like great, wounded bears" - writers rarely talk to one another, so I’m unaware of the views of other novelists on such matters; but I am guessing they are much like me in that whenever they have occasion to reread their own work, there will always be something they want to change, which is why, with the possible exception of Shakespeare's tragedies - his comedies rarely took him more than two weeks - multiple drafts are the norm, if not an absolute necessity.
There are times when the change is not for the better, and the mere "newness" of a line or scene is what has lured you into thinking that it was. This was definitely not the case with the new character and scene in the 40th Anniversary Edition. When it came to me, it seemed inevitable; in fact, like an oversight that, through some bizarre trick of the mind, I had actually written but simply forgotten to include in the manuscript. I think I've established what a hurry I was in.
What did you feel dated most from the original version of the book?
References to President John F. Kennedy and detente with Russians. And now also - because of the film - the characters' seeming unfamiliarity with the phenomenon of possession.
Why do you think the story of "The Exorcist," in its many forms, has resonated so much for so many people?
I can only guess based on what has been written by others.
Obviously, of course, a popular novel has to be a page-turning read. Second, everyone likes a good scare, so long as we know we're not really threatened.
And third - and most importantly, I think - because this novel is an affirmation that there is a final justice in the universe; that man is something more than a neuron net; that there is a high degree of probability - let's not beat around the bush – that there is an intelligence, a creator whom C.S. Lewis famously alluded to as “the love that made the worlds.”
But I suspect that there might have been a somewhat less luminous basis for the power of "The Exorcist"’s argument for faith, which was the widespread and apparently rampant perception that the novel was based on a true story, the so-called "1949 case” of demonic possession of a young boy in Cottage City, Maryland. That perception was – and is – totally false. While writing the novel, the only facts that I had at hand were the classic symptoms of possession that had somehow remained an identical constant in every culture and in every part of the world going back to ancient Egyptian times.
The 1949 case was the novel’s inspiration, the jump-starting electrical jolt being the last line of my first letter from the exorcist in that case, the Jesuit priest Fr. William Bowdern. After informing me that he was bound by the boy’s family to total confidentiality, he ended: “I can tell you this. The case I was involved in was the real thing. I had no doubt about it then and I have no doubt about it now.”
The words charged me with the confidence to write about possession with the heat of conviction.
What makes something scary?
You're asking me? When I was writing the novel I thought of it as a super- natural detective story, and to this day I cannot recall having a conscious intention to terrifying anybody, which you may take, I suppose, as an admission of failure on an almost stupefying scale. As for myself, I sleep with a variety of Nite Lites. Please address this question to the master of terror, Stephen King.
Why do we like to scare ourselves with stories?
Remembering my boyhood, I never felt more alive than during that first terrifying drop on The Cyclone roller-coaster ride at Coney Island.
On the other hand, when I was Director of Publicity at the University of Southern California, I got a great deal of press attention focused on a staff psychiatrist who believed that horror films were a form of “self-administered therapy for teenagers.”
He theorized that while watching a well-crafted fright film, all of their unconscious, but still very real childhood fears of vampires, werewolves and the like, rise into consciousness via their suspension of disbelief. Their jaws drop! Their eyes widen! “See?” they think for the moment; “They’re real, they exist!’
Then the credits roll, the lights come up, and the teenagers inwardly smile and sigh with relief, thinking, “Hey, it was only a movie!” To quote from "The Exorcist"’s Lt. Kinderman, "I mention it only in passing."
What was the last thing that scared you?
Really scared me? The ending of the original "The Wicker Man," with an Honorable Mention to my electric bill.