It’s time you read The Exorcist. The novel’s author, William Peter Blatty, died last night at the age of 89. According to his wife Julie, Blatty suffered from multiple myeloma — a cancer of the blood. And there’s no better way to remember him than to read The Exorcist. But we must also remember Blatty was a real character, a man who lived a storied life.
Raised by Catholic Lebanese immigrants, Blatty went on to graduate from Georgetown University in 1950. He then joined the US Air Force and even worked for the US Information Agency in his parents’ home country of Lebanon. After a stint in Beirut, Blatty moved to Los Angeles to kickstart a writing career. And in 1961, as luck would have it, he won $10,000 on Groucho Marx’s TV quiz show. Yes, really.
With this money, Blatty quit his day job and started writing full time. But before he ever wrote his horror masterpiece, he worked on comedies. He was one of the screenwriters who worked on A Shot in the Dark, the second film in the Pink Panther series. It is an oddball entry, arriving in cinemas less than a year after the first. In development, it wasn’t even a Pink Panther movie. It was an adaptation of a Harry Kurnitz play called A Shot in the Dark, which itself was an adaptation of a Marcel Achard play called L’Idiote.
Confused yet? So was the star Peter Sellers, who clashed with director Blake Edwards during production. But today, we remember A Shot in the Dark as one of the best Pink Panther films. We have Blatty, in part, to thank for that. He and Blake Edwards had to make quick and extensive rewrites to retrofit the story into a Pink Panther movie. The two worked together again on the 1970 musical Darling Lili, starring Julie Andrews.
The Exorcist arrived in 1971. And if you’ve seen the 1973 film, then you saw an excellent adaptation and a masterpiece. Blatty himself wrote the screenplay. But the novel is, like most good novels tend to be, a richer experience. It’s funnier and sadder than the film. It serves as a meditation on the illness of a loved one, and the web of responsibilities around them. It spends a lot of time on the transformation one must undergo when you’re taking care of a sick person full time. The book is gruesome and shocking, but also carries Blatty’s kind-hearted humor in spades.
Reading The Exorcist is a must for any horror fan, but it’s a phenomenal drama in its own right. Blatty was capable of great things, on the page and the screen, in comedy or horror or whatever he set his mind to. We will miss him.