‘The Exorcist’ is a clash of belief systems
By Jason Zinoman
Could a movie about a girl possessed by the devil really have caused audience members to faint and lose their lunch at theaters? The vehement reaction to “The Exorcist” when it premiered in late 1973 helped create a special place for it in pop culture, as evidenced by the media frenzy at the time. The New York Times asked three of its critics for new perspectives on the film: what it accomplished then and what it represents to us now.
Of all the heads to spin, why this one?
That question was at the core of the dispute between director William Friedkin and screenwriter William Peter Blatty during the making of “The Exorcist.” Their artistic argument was not merely about narrative or character, but the fundamental meaning of the movie.
Blatty, a devout Catholic whose screenplay was an adaptation of his bestselling novel, aimed to make a movie about how an evil demon tests the faith of a priest, Father Damien Karras, through taking over the body of an innocent girl. In an interview more than a decade ago at his Maryland home, Blatty told me that he aimed for more than scares. He took exorcism seriously, and perceived a real and urgent threat. “There are demons running all over that campus,” he said about Georgetown University, the school he attended and the setting for the movie.
Friedkin, an agnostic Jew, was less invested in the religious message but was fascinated by Blatty’s story, which follows an increasingly desperate mother as she tries to explain why her daughter is behaving strangely. After exhausting medical options, she contacts Karras, a priest questioning his faith.
To Friedkin, the seeming randomness of this girl was part of what made the movie so frightening. He preferred some ambiguity, so he cut out two scenes: one that spells out how the priest is being targeted, the other a comforting coda in which a detective talks to a friend of Karras. These changes rattled Blatty, who thought they snipped the message right out of the movie. Friedkin told him: “I’m not doing a commercial for the Catholic Church.”
Blatty appealed to the studio to restore the changes but got nowhere. By its premiere, he felt his movie had shifted from being about the virtue and triumph of faith into exactly the kind of morally indifferent gross-out he didn’t want to make.
Blatty and Friedkin stopped talking to each other but later reconciled. (Blatty died in 2017, and Friedkin died in August.) As a “gift,” Friedkin returned the cuts back when the movie was rereleased in 2000. But the original, which you can still see streaming on Max, hits harder. Its abrupt ending and refusal to overexplain are strengths. Not knowing why this girl is being tormented is far more horrifying than the narrative satisfaction of pat closure.
The religious conviction of Blatty’s story still comes across but with more dimension. “The Exorcist” works on multiple fears of the unknown: the confusion of a parent over the changes of a child approaching puberty; the intimidating jargon of doctors. But its most important, one achieved through the clash of aesthetics between Blatty and Friedkin, works on the mysteries of faith. It holds onto the anxiety of inexplicable awe in the face of an overwhelming world, something horror and religion share.
Sometimes the best work comes not from an artist achieving their vision but compromising it.