This week, I both read Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons and saw Ron Howard’s film adaptation of the novel. Christian viewers and readers will be pleased to know that Angels & Demons, unlike The Da Vinci Code, makes no preposterous claims about the church’s conspiratorial process of canonizing the gospels to hide the “fact” that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene. As the Vatican has already declared, Angels & Demons is “harmless” in its theological assertions—which is to say, it doesn’t really have any.
Though both film and book nod to a supposed war between science and religion, both focus more on the mystery-thriller aspects of Robert Langdon’s symbol-hunt through Rome. In the book, this quest takes Langdon and the plot through increasingly ludicrous twists—including, and I kid you not, the Harvard symbologist jumping from a helicopter without a parachute, landing in the Tiber River, and somehow surviving the night to have a tryst with his otherwise purposeless female sidekick. Fortunately for the movie (though sadly for me, since I was hoping for a good laugh), its screenplay manages to jettison most of the novel’s improbabilities—an impressive feat, considering how many of them there are, but one that leaves the film merely mediocre instead of spectacularly bad.
Back to that science-and-religion war. The plot of Angels & Demons is set into motion when a canister of antimatter (yes, antimatter) is stolen from the Large Hadron Collider, where it happens to have been created by a scientist who is also a priest (Look! Science and religion can coexist after all! He wears a clerical collar with his lab coat!). That’s okay, though, because he’s not long for this world: he’s assassinated minutes after creating the antimatter, and the Illuminati claim responsibility. In Dan Brown’s world, the Illuminati are a secret society of scientists, most notably Galileo, once persecuted by the Catholic Church, so presumably they’re ticked by the antimatter physicist’s collar.
All this of course happens at the same time that the former Pope has died, and the conclave in which the cardinals will elect the new Pope is about to begin. The Illuminati conceal the antimatter canister somewhere in Vatican City, where it will explode in a matter of hours. Because apparently blowing up the Vatican is not enough, the terrorists also kidnap the four cardinals who are frontrunners (preferiti) for the Papacy and threaten to assassinate one every hour until the big explosion. Wouldn’t said big explosion kill all the cardinals anyway? Yes, but then Robert Langdon wouldn’t have a trail to follow and wouldn’t be able to arrive at the site of each assassination five minutes too late.
Actually, one of things I prefer about the Langdon of Angels & Demons, as opposed to The Da Vinci Code, is that he’s somewhat incompetent. Vittoria Vetra, the aforementioned sidekick (who also happens to be a biophysicist but doesn’t actually get to do anything useful with that knowledge during the film), even gets to make a crack about his profession when she meets him: “He called you a symbologist. Is that some sort of joke?” Like the film version of The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons wisely gets rid of any attempted romantic chemistry between Langdon and his female tag-alongs—which is a particularly good thing, because in both books, Langdon is wooing these women (or rather, they’re wooing him, because he’s apparently irresistible) the same day that they have lost close family members (in Sophie Neveu’s case, her grandfather; in Vittoria’s case, in the novel, the assassinated physicist was her adopted father, rather than just her lab partner). Very classy.
The Langdon of Angels & Demons also shows some softening towards matters of faith, which could in part be because the film is supposed to be a sequel to The Da Vinci Code (while the novel was a prequel). He admits to being an agnostic, but he at least seems to be on friendlier terms with the Catholic Church here. He’s willing to admit that he doesn’t know everything. Langdon also doesn’t do as much speechifying in this film, leaving the late Pope’s chamberlain (or camerlengo) to shoulder that responsibility. The camerlengo makes some impassioned points about how science and religion aren’t necessarily opposed, but how the Church acts as science’s conscience, calling “Wait a moment! Think!” to keep scientists from recklessly pursuing progress. However, despite the camerlengo’s histrionics, the movie isn’t really interested in the science-and-religion issue. This is fine by me, because, in the novel, Dan Brown’s understanding of science and religion is such that he has the Harvard Divinity School protesting genetic research. You heard that right: the Harvard Divinity School.
In any case, the ticking away of the antimatter bomb does create some needed tension lacking from the film version of The Da Vinci Code. My husband informs me that the plot actually got a little exciting towards the end (I don’t know, because I was too busy trying to decide whether I was grateful or disappointed that it didn’t get as superlatively silly as the book). The settings are, of course, beautiful, and the music is grandiose (I personally would have preferred a circus organ to the earnest choirs). In the end, however, it turns out to be a lot of sound and fury signifying–you guessed it–nothing.