The 1973 film The Exorcist is considered a classic, and is generally regarded as one of the best horror films of all time. So it was only a matter of time before it was adapted into a mediocre TV show on FOX.
Film to television adaptations are typically difficult to do well. Taking a story written to fill two hours and stretching it into a series usually means that the heart behind the original will be lost in translation.
First, a quick summary of the film: A young girl, Regan, becomes possessed by the demon Pazuzu, and her mother calls in the help of priests Father Karras (played by Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to free Regan from this curse.
The lore surrounding the movie’s creation largely centers around the decisions made by director William Friedkin. He was incredibly particular, insisting on using shots where actors were genuinely injured, and he famously built the set for Regan’s bedroom inside a freezer so that actors’ breath would be visible. He was also notoriously awful to actors: to get a realistic response of disgust, he didn’t inform Jason Miller that projectile vomit would hit him in the face. He also slapped Father William O’Malley before a take to get a more emotional reaction.
While these methods range from abusive to deeply questionable, they helped create an incredibly well-acted and beautifully shot film. It literally paid off, too: The Exorcist is one of the most profitable films of all time, making $440 million worldwide upon its release.
The screenplay for The Exorcist was adapted by William Peter Blatty from his novel of the same name, and was awarded the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. The characters of Father Karras and Father Merrin are unique and nuanced. Regan’s possession is frightening not simply because of visual effects or jump scares, but because of the way the demon interacts with the world around it. It preys on the intimate fears and secrets of those who meet it, attempting to turn people against themselves.
And of course, the special effects used in The Exorcist were innovative and flawlessly executed. Nobody will forget the 360-degree head turn and pea-soup vomit, or the face of Pazuzu flashing from the darkness. The practical use of harnesses to throw actors across rooms or lift them into the air is never cheesy and always terrifying.
The television adaptation of The Exorcist is not a complete failure. It features a diverse and interesting cast, with people of color and women in almost all of the lead roles, while the original was very white. The pilot is directed by Rupert Wyatt, whose clean and modern style made his previous films, The Escapist and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, visually distinctive. He brings this to the show, using intricate lighting techniques to convey mood without being heavy-handed.
However, in terms of visuals, the directorial style cannot make up for how unimaginative the show feels compared to the film. Most of the special effects are CGI, which feels artificial after the incredible use of practical—handmade, not animated—effects in the original. The sleekness of the show feels unoriginal and contrived in the shadow of its predecessor.
In 2016, decent CGI is an industry standard, not a notable attribute of a show. Therefore, the TV adaptation is missing part of the heart that went into the film. That isn’t to say that CGI is not an art in and of itself, but its application is all behind the scenes and in post. When we lose practical effects, we lose the hands-on aesthetic that lent a feeling of authenticity to The Exorcist.
Most importantly, the plot of the show is just plain boring. It spends a massive amount of time profiling its forgettable characters. Even the demonic posession of a teenage girl, Casey Rance, doesn’t feel particularly scary.
In fact, the entire Rance family is uninteresting. Their dysfunctions are typical, and their interactions with one another are barely believable, causing the possession of Casey to hold no emotional stakes for the viewer. The storyline surrounding Father Tomas Ortega doesn’t provide much interest either. His search to find answers about an exorcism he saw in a dream again feels distant. We neither care about Ortega or his mission, which involves a vision he has in a dream. In this vision, a loose-canon priest tries to exorcise a possessed boy in Mexico. We don’t know this boy, we don’t sympathize with the priest, and Ortega is such a milquetoast “nice guy” that we don’t particularly care about what happens to him.
Ultimately, The Exorcist remains a classic horror film, and its other forms and adaptations simply cannot hold a candle to the original. The FOX show lacks the creativity and passion that went into the production of its namesake, and its sleek visual style cannot make up for that. Its characters and storylines are tedious and forgettable. It falls into the trap that most adaptations of films do: it cannot add anything of value to the canon of The Exorcist. If you’re looking for a spooky watch this holiday season, you’ll have to keep looking to the past.