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After 40 Years, Grisly 'Exorcist' Book Gets A Rewrite
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After 40 Years, Grisly 'Exorcist' Book Gets A Rewrite

Author Interviews

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Forty years ago, a novel set off a controversy, which soon grew into a film - and then a firestorm. "The Exorcist," by William Peter Blatty, told the story of a little girl named Regan - at a time when Richard Nixon was president. It was the daughter of a Hollywood star who was shooting a film in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Funny things start happening in their rented house. They hear noises in the wall; Regan starts speaking in a growl, levitating, spinning her head around, and spitting up green slime. Unusual behavior, even for a 12-year-old. Then her bedroom gets as chilly as a frozen-foods case, and her bed starts flying around the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE EXORCIST")

LINDA BLAIR: Mother! Mother! Mother! Mother!

SIMON: Not exactly 'Mary Poppins,' is it? Forty years after 'The Exorcist' hit the best-seller list, William Peter Blatty has revised, polished and restored some parts of the book, added a whole new character. The result? "The Exorcist: The 40th Anniversary Edition." William Peter Blatty joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

WILLIAM PETER BLATTY: Oh, what a pleasure to be invited to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: And what made you revise a novel that has already sold 13 million copies?

BLATTY: When I wrote the novel, books were my love. I was a comic novelist, as a matter of fact, and screenplay writer - "A Shot in the Dark," and that sort of thing.

SIMON: Peter Sellers comedy.

BLATTY: Right. And the summer of 1969 - I recall at the start of that summer, comedy dried up. I could not, as the saying goes, get arrested to write. And I said, what am I going to do? There is this novel I have been thinking about writing since my junior year at Georgetown, and what else have I got to do now? I'll do it. And I worked nine months. And so at about three weeks away from completion, I had an offer to adapt - they call the Willingham novel, "Providence Island," for the screen for Paul Newman - for very, very large bucks. And I raced through the ending of the novel and...

(SOUNDBITE OF HAND CLAPS)

BLATTY: ...that's it. I have no time to do another draft. It was my first draft. Now, you know, I virtually prayed for a chance to do it again, and then along comes Harper and Row and the 40 - I'm still around on the 40th; I can't believe that, 40 years - and I thought it was like a blessing from above.

SIMON: Let me get you to read a section from "The Exorcist"...

BLATTY: Oh, sure.

SIMON: ...if we could. Father Damien Karras, the priest-psychiatrist, comes to meet the tormented little girl, Regan MacNeil. And to say the least, he finds her to be not a typical 12-year-old.

BLATTY: (Reading) Regan's eyes gleamed fiercely, unblinking, as a yellowish saliva dribbled down from a corner of her mouth to her chin, to her lips stretched taut into a feral grin of bow-mouthed mockery. Well, well, well, she gloated sardonically. So, it's you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLATTY: (Reading) They sent you, she continued as if pleased. Well, we've nothing to fear from you at all. Yes, that's right, Karras answered; I'm - I'm your friend, Regan, and I'd like to help you. Well, you might loosen these straps, then, Regan croaked. She had tugged up her wrists so that now, Karras noticed they were bound with a double set of leather restraining straps. I'm afraid you might hurt yourself, Regan, he told her. I'm not Regan. I'm the devil.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You do a pretty good possessed...

BLATTY: Thank you. I did the audio book narration, right?

SIMON: Is there something you learned over the past 40 years that you put into this revised version?

BLATTY: No. Let me be honest with you. No. It was - the basics were all there. Ultimately, at its heart, it was always meant to be - the only reason I wrote it - was a novel of faith. And I have not the slightest recollection - I'm not being cute, I mean it; humiliating confession - I have no recollection of intending to frighten anyone at any point in time. Now to be - you know, the terror, that's Stephen King. He's the master of terror.

SIMON: So you believe in the devil - a devil incarnate?

BLATTY: Dick Cavett asked me that. He's the reason the book is not in the trash bin of history.

SIMON: Yeah.

BLATTY: I must therefore, tell you the story. "The Exorcist," when originally published, was a disaster. Nice reviews, lively.

SIMON: I didn't know that.

BLATTY: Oh, yeah. Really, I am not exaggerate – it was a disaster. Harper treated me to a farewell lunch. They sent one rep, and we lunched at the Four Seasons. And well, the phone is brought over to the table; they want to know if I could get there in 10 minutes. It was "The Dick Cavett Show." They had lost a guest at the last minute, and they were ready to go. I threw down my napkin, and I tore over to the studio. I came out onstage, and Dick Cavett said well, Mr. Blatty, I haven't read your book. I said well, that's OK, so I'll tell you about it. He says oh, please.

BLATTY: I got to do a 41-minute monologue. That was it. At the airport the next week, I picked up a copy of Time magazine. And I looked at the best-seller list - fiction - what? What? What?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLATTY: This is a mistake. It's number four. Two weeks later it was number one on the Times list, stayed at number one for over four months. It was all an accident. I still didn't plan on frightening anyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLATTY: I sleep with a night light. Please.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: William Peter Blatty, who has just brought out new and expanded, revised version of his mammoth best-seller, "The Exorcist: The 40th Anniversary Edition." Thanks so much.

BLATTY: Oh my, thank you very much, Scott. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE EXORCIST")

JASON MILLER: (as Damien Karras) Let's introduce ourselves. I'm Damien Karras.

MERCEDES MCCAMBRIDGE: (as Demon) And I'm the devil. Now kindly undo these straps.

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