When I first picked up a Dan Brown book four years ago, I expected to feel either the rapture inherent in a good thriller or the guilt that so often accompanies Christian discussions surrounding popular culture’s fascination with spirituality.
I experienced neither, but since I was traveling around Europe at the time and wanted something that was easy enough to read in the airport at 3 a.m., I picked up the prequel. Having been mildly entertained by the leaps and bounds Brown will go to achieve a good reveal in The Da Vinci Code, I was shocked at the intricacy of plot within Angels and Demons. Rife with staunch believers in credo, tradition, and invention, Brown threw the searching Langdon into a Vatican filled with mystery, intrigue, and, above all, unwavering faith.
After watching Ron Howard’s religiously loyal interpretation of Brown’s text in The Da Vinci Code, despite mass Christian protest, I was curious to see where the film adaptation of Angels and Demons would go. I’m still curious about where an adaptation of the book I read might go.
The lukewarm, character-weak film that I saw in theaters had little else to recommend it besides its leading actors’ valiant attempts to justify characters that have been stripped of motivation in a story that originally thrived on the power of faith to drive and motivate human beings.
This colossal adaptation, directed by Ron Howard, accompanied by Hans Zimmer and starring the incomparable Tom Hanks felt like a weak shadow of Brown’s original story or, to use a more appropriate metaphor, a weak graven image in place of the real thing.
Instead of raising questions of faith or even tradition, instead of bringing up issues that might offend or at best stimulate discussion, Howard’s film blasphemes the one institution artists rigidly revere: story.
Never claiming to be more than a novelist, Brown writes his stories with a dramatic flair and passion for the sensational that leaves some readers lamenting the days of James Joyce and Mark Twain; but Brown’s stories are not empty.
Christian communities exploded in outrage at the inference in The Da Vinci Code that Jesus had led a life complete with romance and a child. Studios and Brown himself reminded them it was just a story. Now it’s the art community’s turn to remind the studio and perhaps Howard what elements a story needs to make audiences care enough to protest.
Beginning at the sterile and sophisticated CERN Laboratories, where antimatter has just been captured in a sustainable form, the film quickly moves on to the lavishness of the Vatican, recently thrown into upheaval by the death of a beloved, liberal pope. Antimatter is hidden in the Vatican and the four cardinals most likely to succeed the late pope (The Preferiti), are gone. Robert Langdon, played with the ease and confidence that has made Tom Hanks legendary, confidently enters the scene, spouting off his knowledge about papal policy as well as the Illuminati lore for which he has been summoned.
Brushing over background and introductions, Langdon and the beautiful CERN scientist Vittoria Vetra, (Ayelet Zurerare), who helped invent antimatter, are quickly plunged into a high-speed, high-stakes game through Rome in search of long-forgotten monuments placed by the secret scientific society of the Illuminati hundreds of years earlier.
The kidnapper has promised to kill one of the Preferiti each hour at the unknown Illuminati locations, and then at midnight the antimatter will explode. Zipping through Rome on winding cobblestone streets, Langdon and Vittoria try to make sense of a manuscript written by Galileo, supposedly a key player in the Illuminati, racing against the killer-for-hire so bent on killing all the elderly Preferiti.
Never shirking on spectacle, the settings and backdrops of the real and CGI locations transport the viewer in ways that the story fails to do. Production design and costume are lavishly elegant. From the cell-phone wielding, red-robed cardinals to the dedicated, gun-toting Swiss guard in their traditional, multi-colored uniforms, we know that this Vatican is one of history and change--a visual cacophony of tradition and science.
My only complaint was that Zurer’s Vetra appears elegant in sophisticated black rather than Brown’s original, less-than-fashionable scientist sporting forbidden khaki shorts into the Holy City. But this is just one more way that Howard’s interpretation ignores the original story’s focus on the clash of the world of science with Catholic tradition.
Back in the Vatican, the various political and religious figures fight for power, not because they have great faith or belief, but merely because that’s what the script tells them to do. Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgård), and Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) scrabble for the right to dictate what the church should do next, without ever letting the audience know what the book so clearly showed: that each player in the unfolding drama has beliefs in a god, whether science or religion, that he will follow down whatever path his god leads him.
The fundamental force behind Langdon’s appeal is always his search for faith, and aside from a line of dialogue explaining that he has none, Hanks is left to charm the audience with mere witty dialogue and his now shorter, straightened hair.
Whether by design or by oversight, Howard succeeds in plowing hurriedly through the elements that made this book so much better than its sequel. The only reason I can see for his doing so might have been to ignore the drive of faith and devotion to creed in a vain attempt to appeal to a larger secular audience.
Failing to make the audience really care at all, Howard forces his characters through the plot, forgetting to arm them with faith in anything whatsoever. Whatever his motivation (something stage and film veterans like Mueller-Stahl, Skarsgård and McGregor should never be lacking), Howard falls short of appealing to any audience wanting more than a cheap adrenaline rush. I do wonder, however, in a film season with a second-time director giving Star Trek a character-rich makeover, how a seasoned director like Howard can hope to compete.
In a society expecting more and more from our diversions, whether literary, theatrical, or filmed, stories that make the audience think should never be avoided.
For those who were worried about another Hollywood version of Christianity, don’t worry about bringing your Bibles; there’s no theology to argue this time. However, if you’re looking for a quick summer adrenaline rush that distracts you from reality and is best accompanied by popcorn with extra butter, this might just be the movie you’re looking for.
Diana Wheeler is a currently finishing up her Masters in English at La Sierra University. She travels and acts whenever possible, and currently has time for neither because she's trying to figure out how to make a living with her degree in Communication and English.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1642