It was mid-morning here in Australia when Part 1 of The Exorcist dramatization went to air on BBC Radio 4. I had purchased a delicious coffee, closed my shutters and sat in darkness by the dim light of my monitor, listening without bias as best I could while taking down a few notes. This review contains spoilers to the episode, so if you’d rather listen before you read on, I suggest doing so now.
Download MP3: The Exorcist (Part 1)
Fans of The Exorcist, especially diehard fans like myself who have seen the film countless times and read the novel on a number of occasions, faced the difficult task of removing themselves from any familiarities and embracing a new approach as the adaptation got underway. Understanding that the larger intended audience for this dramatization would be people who may have never seen the film or read the book some time ago helped me a great deal. It was hard not to compare, but ultimately– this production delivered.
The first thing that struck me was how masterfully writer Robert Forrest reshuffled the timeline, dropping listeners directly into the heart of the story. The sound of a ticking clock brings us straight into the MacNiel home where Lieutenant Kinderman is again questioning Hollywood actress Chris MacNiel and her assistant Sharon about the death of film director Burke Dennings. Regan is already possessed. Chris is already stressed. Kinderman is already investigating Burke’s death.
Our introduction to Father Karras in the very next scene has him asking his parish’s Father Superior for a transfer so he can be closer to his mother, warming the character right away and laying the foundations of his guilt and rocky faith.
And just like that, with no time wasted, we’re in the thick of a captivating story.
Interestingly, there was no mention of Father Merrin whatsoever in this episode. And that’s fine– it didn’t need it. Not yet.
Hearing Kinderman mention Regan was already ‘unwell’ in the opening lines of dialogue worried me at first. I was concerned her innocence would be completely lost for anyone hearing this story for the first time. But, again, Forrest’s fantastic writing had the answer: Chris played a recording Regan made for her father before she became unwell. She spoke about Washington monuments, a graveyard the size of a city and getting a horse. We got to hear how she was before messing around with her imaginary friend Captain Howdy (referred as Mister Howdy in this instance).
While hearing Regan’s natural voice before Karras stepped into her room was cleverly handled via the tape recording, the smartest move was to not use clichéd and cringe worthy ‘raspy demon voice’ which has been so poorly mimicked since The Exorcist (even in its own sequels). Hearing Regan’s innocent voice sniping demonic things while talking with Karras had a much creepier feel to it. Even when she interchanged between tones (to illustrate numerous demons inside “the piglet”) it wasn’t as distracting as a silly-sounding demon voice might have been.
I don’t want to harp on performance because there’s only so much you can do with voices and many things need to be telegraphed as a result. So there’s bound to be a few hiccups in that regard and I think it’s acceptable to let most slide.
Having said that, I must mention how jarring and awfully out of place I found Chris MacNiel during this entire episode.
It seemed she said everything with a snarky bitterness. Perhaps this direction was deliberate in an effort to convey that she, as a mother, is at the end if her wits and desperate to get this problem with her daughter resolved. Unfortunately it unintentionally presented Chris as completely lacking any warmth. She came across as clinical, privileged and uncaring– not the kind of traits I was expecting from a worried mother.
Or perhaps I’ve just been spoilt by Ellen Burstyn’s immaculate performance in the film which perfectly encapsulated Chris’ turmoil.
Ultimately, though, the focus was clearly on Karras and his struggles, even to the point where the possessed 12-year-old Regan (who, unfortunately, doesn’t sound twelve whatsoever) plays third in line; behind Karras and his faith; and second to Kinderman’s investigation.
For a digest version of this story, things are still very deliberately paced. Lieutenant Kinderman doesn’t introduce himself to Father Karras until the 42nd minute of the hour-long episode, kicking off the second act right before the episode came to a close.
The voices were deliberate and sincere. Importantly, the music and sound design by Gary C. Newman was subtly placed in support of the drama, not in an over-barring manner which so easily could have been the case. It’s obvious the drama of this story and these characters is front-seat, leaving the listener to find the chills themselves as they listen.
While eerily similar, everything about this dramatization of The Exorcist refreshingly different. I am eagerly looking forward to part 2 tomorrow.