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Angels & Demons: What's on the Agenda?
More Detectives Versus Catholics a la Da Vinci Code
By Professor W
March 21, 2009
Less than two months to go before the global launch of ANGELS & DEMONS(2009).
© Sony Pictures Digital Inc.
Less than two months to go now before the global launch of Angels and Demons, the second Ron Howard movie to be made from a Dan Brown novel. So, what can we expect from the new movie, the action of which precedes the events in the The Da Vinci Code?
Dr Robert Langdon (played again by Tom Hanks in his most intense and earnest manner) makes his return in Angels and Demons. For the next movie Hanks has abandoned his combed-back hairstyle for a more trimmed, less intellectual look. Langdon is a “symbologist”, which we have learned from DVC, is a specialist in decoding ancient symbols and messages, which others apparently cannot fathom. Sophie Neveu in DVC asks Langdon whether he has eidetic memory. It seems he does. For the laymen amongst us this seems to mean that he can solve anagrams in crosswords! Of course, because it’s a thriller, Langdon doesn’t solve 6ac “Did novice teach this in film? (3,2,5,4)”. Instead, he decodes the clues carved into the bodies of naked, dead French guys.
Love him or hate him, Dan Brown is a master of the fast-paced page-turner. Okay, he’s a bit shaky on the history and facts, in general, but it’s only a novel, right? Nobody seriously believes what he writes is gospel, do they? But, for many fans of the novel, the movie of DVC was a let-down. I share the view that DVC: The Movie was a doom-laden, vacuous canter through the Dan Brown novel. The lead characters were leaden, the dialogue was ponderous (Langdon: “I need to get to a library--quickly!”) and the plot (JC marries MM and they have child, S--the KTs and PoS keep this a secret until MM years later!) was less gripping than in the novel. However, the DVC novel worked.
You only realize how well-written Brown’s novel is when you read any of the DVC-clones which have hit the bookshelves since DVC was published, all trying to cash in on Brown’s financial success. If you want convincing that Dan Brown can really write a suspenseful thriller, read Kathleen McGowan’s The Book of Love, over five hundred pages of diarrhoeic victim claptrap (see last week’s Mania review , which makes Brown’s writing look like Tom Wolfe. Brown is the master of the pseudo-historic thriller and deserves to be. But what exactly is a pseudo-historic thriller?
In order to add a somewhat spurious gravitas to the DVC, Brown writes in the introduction to DVC: "The Priory of Sion--a European secret society founded in 1099--is a real organization" and that "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents ... and secret rituals in this novel are accurate". Angels and Demons has a similar introduction. This is a common enough literary device and it encourages the reader to believe that he/she is not reading fiction, but somehow reading a work of history which is wrapped in fiction. (It would be nit-picking to point out that there is no evidence whatsoever that the Priory of Sion existed before 1956 when it was invented by a group of French pranksters!)
In an earlier Ron Howard movie, A Beautiful Mind, another “story based on fact”, a similar technique is used. The movie is based upon Sylvia Nasar’s biography of the mathematician, John Nash, who has been a long-term sufferer of mental illness. In order to make Nash’s mental illness more acceptable to the movie audience, Howard uses devices in the film to portray Nash’s illness. For example, he shows all of Nash’s hallucinations as real characters. And this works in the context of a movie. However, where Howard goes off the rails in his movie is when he simply creates fictitious events in Nash’s life for dramatic effect. Like most middle-aged softies who saw A Beautiful Mind, a tear came to my eye when I saw John Nash, played by Russell Crowe, make his Nobel-Prize acceptance speech at the Nobel Prize Award ceremony in Stockholm paying lavish praise to his wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, for having stood by him through his mental illness. It’s an incredibly powerful and emotional scene. The only problem is that Nash was not, in fact, awarded an actual Nobel Prize and that at the actual ceremony for which he was awarded a major prize, Nash was considered too mentally unstable to make a speech. It simply never happened. Howard and his screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, merely invented the scene.
Dan Brown uses the self-same technique in DVC and Angels and Demons. He takes certain broadly verifiable historical facts and then hangs his fiction on them. But it’s just fiction. There’s no truth in it. Brown’s watchword, like Howard’s, appears to be: if it works dramatically, let’s put it in the novel/film. That, however, does not make either the novel or film factual or real.
Ably assisted by his wife, Blythe, Dan Brown writes fiction. That’s all. In my view Angels and Demons is a fine thriller, which has the reader on the edge of his seat throughout. It’s not going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (the real one!). It’s not meant to. It’s nothing more than a good read.
The trouble is when you take such a thriller and put it on the screen, add a cod religious soundtrack and you see flashbacks to mediaeval knights being burnt at the stake (seven years before that actually happened!), it seems much more real than in the novel. In DVC the novel, when you read about Mary Magdalene, the reader makes a choice whether to believe that she was Jesus’ wife or not. But on the screen, our emotions are directed into believing that she is some major spiritual force (for which there is absolutely no verifiable historic evidence!) and that borders on making the events depicted in the movie seem to be a historic enactment of a fantastic undiscovered story. It’s just so much harder to believe it’s not reality playing out before our privileged eyes. (I used to have a similar problem when I saw Bambi!)
So, if DVC was a good novel, what went wrong with DVC: The Movie and what does that portend for Angels and Demons: The Movie? Well, in the first instance, the characters in DVC: The Movie are unreal and unconvincing. Apart from Langdon’s crossword-solving skill and the fact that he feels uncomfortable in confined, dark places (a feeling I shared when I first saw the movie!), we know nothing about Robert Langdon, the man. The female lead, Sophie Neveu, is hardly more credible. Ok, she can cure headaches with her hands, but so what? Sophie’s supposedly the latest manifestation of you-know-who’s bloodline, but she’s no more than a minor character in Tom Hanks’ shadow. Other than their all being very serious and anxious, there’s very little in any of the lead characters in the movie which allow us to connect with them.
It’s a dark, dull film, which can’t decide whether it’s an action thriller or whether it’s allowing us insights into genuine religious mysteries. Tom Hanks seems uncomfortable in the role, Audrey Tautou struggles in the English language and, as for Silas with his constant self-flagellation and tying a cilice on to his thighs to inflict further pain on himself, let’s not even go there. To paraphrase the English comic, Peter Cook: “You know, I go to the theatre to be entertained. I don’t want to see plays about rape, sodomy, and drug addiction...I can get all that in the comfort of my own home.”
Angels and Demons has a similar skeleton of facts, dressed up to appear as reality. As we learned recently, whether the Illuminati ever even existed is open to question. There are many who believe that the Illuminati are a powerful sect which thrives underground today, perhaps includes various Bush-family members as officers and plans to take over the world. The trouble is that this is all fictitious baloney. There is no connection between the Neo-cons and the New World Order supposedly envisaged by the Illuminati. It’s just an urban myth which Dan Brown manages to spin into a nice little yarn. I have no doubt that over the next few months we’ll be reading about the Illuminati being behind all sorts of societies--secret or otherwise: Freemasons, Yale’s Skull and Bones Society, the New Mickey Mouse Club…
Now, turning to the usual bad guys: during its long existence, the Catholic Church has committed many nefarious acts in the name of God. For many the Catholics are the bad guys. The important thing is to focus on the verifiable wickednesses committed by the Church and not invent a new set to speculate on.
For Ron Howard, in Angels and Demons, the trick will be to create a riveting two-hour drama which uses real historic and current events which have us on the edge of our seats, shovelling in the popcorn and then going home feeling touched/moved/excited/entertained. Where the difficulties arise is when such a movie, exactly as in DVC: The Movie, encourages the gullible to take what they see depicted on screen as fact.
I have a simple credo: if I want to learn history, I watch a documentary or read a history book (defined as being written by a qualified historian!). If I want to read fiction, I see a good movie or read a good thriller. I try to draw a line between the history and fiction. The trick for Ron Howard in Angels and Demons will be whether he can remember where to draw the line. In my opinion, he failed with DVC. If he gets it right this time around, we could be in for a great treat on May 15.
Angels and Demons was a superior novel to DVC, which bodes well for the movie. When it comes to a screen near you, it won’t matter whether it’s historically correct or not; all that will matter is whether it’s fun to watch. In the novel, Brown appears to misunderstand the differences between matter and anti-matter. I’m sorry, I don’t care, because it really doesn’t matter. Brown isn’t running the CERN experiment!
I don’t care at all whether Dan Brown’s books (and consequently the films) are full of factual errors (they are!). You could fill a bookshelf with Brown’s misunderstandings about religious history, church mysteries and scientific theory. In fact, Brown has and so have hundreds of Brown-parasites who want us to know about the factual/spiritual/historical errors in the works of Brown. I don’t want to know. I just want to see a good movie.
I’m rooting for Ron Howard to deliver the goods this time around. I only want to be entertained, not persuaded to believe in this fictitious group of Illuminati. I don’t want to be one of the gullible ones who takes all this stuff seriously. I just pray to the most holy Mary Magdalene that we get a brilliant version of Angels and Demons in two months’ time…