Character vs. Plot in Two Exorcism Movies

Last night Kim and I watched The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Naturally, any movie about satanic possession is going to be compared to the granddaddy of the genre, The Exorcist. There were some similarities, of course, but there was one great big difference between the two, and I thought that would make for a good essay today.



The Exorcist is one of my favorite examples of a character-driven story. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, however, is an excellent example of a plot-driven story. Let’s look at some of the differences.


Both films feature a priest as a lead player. In The Exorcist we see Fr. Damien Karras well before he becomes involved with the little girl possessed by the devil. We see Karras tending to his sick, elderly mother. We see him react to his mother’s death, to the bum in the subway and we see him admit his loss of faith to another priest. By the time Karras enters the room to face demon-possessed Regan, we know the man.


In contrast, we never see Fr. Moore outside his cell, the courtroom or in flashbacks at the Rose home during the exorcism of Emily Rose. Who is he? We learn very little about the man, and all we learn relates directly to Emily Rose’s death. The focus here is not on Fr. Moore’s character development; he is the same man with the same beliefs at the beginning of the movie and at the end of the movie.


In The Exorcist, the story is about Karras’s reaction to the possession. In The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the focus is simply on the question, What happens next?


The Exorcist gives us a complete story. By the time Karras jumps out that window, we know that evil exists and that he has regained his faith through the confrontation with the devil. We feel wrung out by the journey and satisfied with the tidy conclusion.


The Exorcism of Emily Rose, on the other hand, doesn’t fully answer any questions. The filmmakers didn’t intend to. The main character here, defense attorney Erin Bruner, declares herself an agnostic at the beginning of the movie. We later see her describe an event that prompts Fr. Moore to call her a mystic. We see her react to unexplained events in her home, events that mirror things witnesses claim happened to Emily Rose. In the end, though, Bruner doesn’t pronounce a newfound faith or religious belief. We don’t even know for sure if she believes the case as she presented it. We only know that she has some doubts about another man she defended who she knew was guilty and who later repeats his crime after she secured his freedom. Is the guilt she feels caused by a change in her belief system? We don’t know.


We’re left to wonder if Bruner did find faith and, more importantly, to wonder about our own beliefs.


Both films work very well and achieve their goals. Both are highly entertaining and both probe the subject of satanic possession in a thought provoking way. Where one focuses on character development in the face of sure demonic possession, the other shows us a series of events and offers demonic possession as one possible explanation.


Go watch them both and decide if you prefer the character-driven or the plot-driven story.

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