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Devious Dialogues: A.M. Novak and Mike Thorn on FOX’s ‘The Exorcist’

In April, A.M. Novak and Mike Thorn discussed The Exorcist film series in detail. FOX recently announced a second season for Jeremy Slater’s television adaptation, so Novak and Thorn discussed the news at the request of a “Devious Dialogues” reader.

Mike: The first thing that struck me about this series is that its narrative approach is opposite to the prequels (Exorcist: The Beginning [2004] and Dominion [2005]). Whereas those films took different approaches with Father Merrin’s backstory (and, to my mind, equally unsuccessful), creator Jeremy Slater moves forward here to further explore the MacNeil family. In doing so, he reimagines a lot of what was presumably resolved at the end of William Peter Blatty’s novel and William Friedkin’s adaptation. As someone who admires both, I couldn’t stifle the cognitive dissonance — Slater’s MacNeils don’t at all resemble my recollection/perception of Blatty’s original characters. What do you make of Slater’s decision to create a story that builds off the original novel?

Anya: I did notice a disparity between the dynamic of Reagan and her mother in both the novel and the 1973 film, and that of their relationship in the show. There was a definite choice on the writers’ part to create conflict between the now-grown Reagan and her mother Chris MacNeil, due to Chris’ callous exploitation of her daughter’s ordeal after the events in Georgetown. However, in both the novel and the original, there is nothing but the deepest unconditional love between the duo. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of the people watching FOX’s The Exorcist have at least seen the 1973 film, and remember the strong familial bond, myself included. This bond is the source of so much empathy for the characters involved that, for me, their relationship in the new series feels like an unwelcome change that undermined that very empathy. That said, I appreciate the angle that Slater takes by exploring the entire MacNeil family, and found that the emotional ties amongst the other family members (sisters Casey and Kat, and father Henry) provides an adequate substitute for what was lost on Reagan and Chris.

Mike: Another thing that immediately struck me about FOX’s version is that it’s very much of its medium. In other words, while Blatty’s novel synchronizes character psychology with narrative development, this series seems to constantly bend its characters’ actions to match the direction of the plot. I never lost awareness of the sense that it’s episodic by design, and the product of various writers riffing on their own renditions of a text. For a show that spends so much time dwelling on psychological drama, this is a damning fault in my eyes. I find it difficult to spend so much time with characters whose conflicts feel so trite and underdeveloped, and whose motives so often come across as unclear or downright baffling. How do you feel about the show’s use of drama (or, in my eyes, melodrama)? I know Blatty’s novel is character-focused and intently focused on morality, but I think it’s operating on a different register from this program.

Anya: The medium is definitely its own monster, and you’re right about the plot being episodic. I didn’t see it as a fault, however. I acknowledged by the second episode that this is the way the television machine runs, and there are bound to be several changes in that translation across mediums. I like your point about the show being the product of various writers riffing on their own interpretations of the show’s predecessors, because I recall in our discussion about the The Exorcist franchise that we had discovered just how malleable the exorcism story is from film to film, era to era, director to director. So, when you have a team of writers, each bringing forth their own school of thought on themes of faith, love, loss and control, the result is what we see in the show: inconsistencies in character development and narrative. I cannot express enough how disappointed I was in the arc for Father Keane and Mother Bernadette, two of the most interesting supporting characters. They, like young Reagan in Blatty’s book, were simply tools at the disposal of another character’s inner struggles, and the transparency of that writing was frustrating for me. But there are aspects of the show’s use of drama that I find fascinating, such as the parallelism between the priests’ struggles with love and the same struggles within the MacNeil family. The show makes stellar use of juxtapostion in several episodes to create a cohesion among its many players, and it deserve credit for that.

Mike: I have to agree with you on Father Keane and Mother Bernadette! I was interested in both of these characters when they were introduced, but they are noticeably subjected to a lot of the inconsistencies we’ve been talking about.

Is there anything that FOX”s version touches upon that you would’ve liked to see more of? Up until the show brought in the Friars of Ascension, I was intrigued by the somewhat Exorcist III-like subplot of occultist street wanderers murdering people and collecting their internal organs. Now, there’s a concept. The show even briefly touches on the potential for sociopolitical critique, suggesting that the murderers are mostly targeting minorities. Although I conceptually like aspects of the Friars of Ascension, I find the show’s depiction of the group to be forced and cartoonish. How about you?

Anya: This is my biggest source of disharmony with the show. While I love conspiracy plots, especially with a supernatural bent to them, the Friars of Ascension indeed feels forced in its insertion and impotent in its execution. The Friars plot would have made an excellent series on its own, especially with a POC Priest (Father Bennett) investigating these ritualistic murders primarily targeting minorities. That social critique deserved the full 45-minute slot to breathe freely and speak clearly. Wedging it into the show and having it compete with the MacNeil family reduces its potential for powerful commentary to little more than a hiccup in the second half of the season. I would have liked to see more the convent sisters, Mother Bernadette in particular. The quiet moments on a bench between Mother Bernadette and Father Keane are some of the most enthralling moments of the show, as the witty, profound dialogue shines. My favorite moments in Exorcist III are the quiet exchanges between George C. Scott’s Lt. Kinderman and his friend, Father Dyer, in which they riff on faith and life. There was a missed opportunity in the TV series to draw upon that and give a fair amount of time (more than a pithy four episodes) to the back-and-forth between two schools of thought on casting out evil, personified by a man and a woman on a bench. The simplicity of their scenes represent a serene oasis against the mayhem unfolding outside of those convent walls and inside the home of the MacNeils. FOX’s version could have benefited from that simplicity and further underscored its themes.

Mike: That’s an interesting point! I also think there’s potential in the Bernadette-Kean dynamic. Bernadette especially struck me as one of the most intriguing people in the TV series, so I was disappointed to see her show up so infrequently.

What would your ideal TV show look like? I found myself yearning for a pulpier approach, with the two renegade priests teaming up to fight the demon of the week. I don’t think Blatty and Friedkin’s work can be matched on the levels of atmosphere and moral commitment, so I would’ve rather seen Slater and company try for something with a different kind of energy. Frankly, I find the first season to be painfully self-serious, and I really don’t think it earns the emotion that it pushes for in its conclusion.

Anya: My ideal Exorcist show is one that explores the same themes, but plays with setting, era and sociopolitical dynamics a little more. A former priest who left the Church now finds his teenage son is exhibiting signs of possession; what if the parent is the one struggling with their own faith? What if the possessed victim is LGBT, how does that community respond in the time in which the story is set? How does the Church respond, if it’s a legitimate demonic possession? I would love to see something along the lines of what American Horror Story does in terms of a different time and place for each season. I’m all for the show taking itself seriously, provided it’s got something to say.

Mike: Oh, those are some really fantastic ideas. And that’s a good point, in regards to seriousness. I think I would be fine with this kind of tonal approach in the Novak version. Do you plan on watching Season 2? I must admit, in the midst of the new Twin Peaks season, I find it difficult to get caught up in other television shows.

Anya: The Friars of Ascension plot left me feeling underwhelmed, and I’m not as excited for a second season as I was, say, halfway through the first season. I’ll be tuning into the first episode, but my continued interest in the show really hinges upon whether the writers continue with the floating dust devil cult or not. If they do, then I’ll have to say goodbye to Captain Howdy.

A.M. Novak (@BookishPlinko) is a horror enthusiast and contributor to Daily Grindhouse, 100 Films/100 Scenes, Horror Writers and 52 Weeks of Horror. When she’s not staunchly defending Halloween 6, she’s scribbling nightmares for the masses in the form of short stories. 

Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is slated for a November release with Unnerving. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.

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