Exorcising Hollywood’s ‘Demons’

Dan Brown’s prequel to The Da Vinci Code stumbles extravagantly into the theaters, proving yet again that it is very difficult to bring a complicated novel successfully to the screen

TVR Books | Christopher Anderson | June 2009

The Camerlengo, played by Ewan McGregor, and the cardinals in the Vatican, a scene from Angels and Demons (Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

Perhaps I should not have read the book before the film. And I probably should not have gone to Rome, book in hand, trying to understand how Dan Brown managed to render ancient symbols into a hyperbolic action-packed novel. Otherwise, I might have enjoyed the film version of Angels & Demons.

But then I would have been left vulnerable to the bells and whistles of Hollywood film-making, the shuddering sounds and sweeping cameras that convey feeling whether the plot supports it or not. Believe you me, I really did want to enjoy the film. I knew the story inside out. But the faded disappointed memories of its predecessor The Da Vinci Code still somehow lingered. Thus, I held no great expectations.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Tom Hanks plays the role of Robert Langdon, a Harvard scholar uncovering a centuries’ old plot to undermine Catholic Church doctrine through a secret sect from within. Mentioned by Galileo, the Illuminati aim to usurp the power of the church through capturing newly-developed antimatter from the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, and use its explosive potential to destroy the church by kidnapping and killing the four preferiti, candidates for the position of Pontiff following Pope John Paul II’s death.

Perhaps all of this should have been explained with a scrolling text at the beginning, Star Wars style. Because, mea culpa, I had read both The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons (titles in German: Sakrileg and Illuminati, respectively), on both occasions before seeing the films. And on both occasions, I felt dragged through the plots like a dog peering a nearby tree, with little time to soak in the beautiful intricacies of the cliffhanging text.

The ambitions of the intricate plot are well elaborated in the books, rendering a highly readable novel that feels like an action thriller. Yet, like its The Da Vinci Code counterpart, the film version fails to fit the bill. Such writing lends itself better to action books, than action films. I felt sorry for those who were trying to understand the whole story, like my companion on this particular evening at Vienna’s Burgkino.

From the outset I had qualms with the choice of Hanks for Langdon. This is not the tireless, dependable captain of Saving Private Ryan, or the sui generis outcast of Forrest Gump. Indeed, he is much too dynamic an actor to deserve such a nerdy role.

Let’s face it, Langdon excels in one area of expertise, and both The Da Vinci Code’s Sophie Neveu and this film’s Vittoria Vetra know that it is not in the ways of the finer sex. Personally, I could imagine Richard Dean Anderson of MacGyver fame better suiting the role of the otherwise knowledgeable and furtive (and forever single) character that figures out the clues and arrives at the crime scene a bit too late.

So as with the first blockbuster, I was once again left with Tom Hanks’ cryptic facial expressions that seem to continuously say, "What am I doing in this film?"

David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman’s adapted screenplay cleans up the plot and makes the necessary cuts to suit the Hollywood mold. Langdon doesn’t wield a Folio 5 to carjack his way to Piazza Navona, nor does he rise high in the helicopter with the explosive canister (Hanks doesn’t seem bothered enough to do such drastic things). The villainous perpetrator is no longer the sexual predator of Middle Eastern decent, but a clean-cut, fulsome chap from Europe, played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas (so no gruesome rape attempt). There’s also a random but apparently required reference to anti-smoking, which is becoming more and more common in Hollywood-branded cinema these days.

Sadly, there is not even an inkling of a romance between Langdon and Vetra, the beautiful but hardly seductive sidekick played by Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer. In this version, which neither pretends to be a prequel, nor a sequel, she even falls slightly short of the also unconvincingly seductive role of The Da Vinci Code’s Neveu played by Audrey Tautou, of Amélie fame. Don’t expect a Bond girl or femme fatale here.

Such a whirlwind storyline leaves no room for emotion, much less time for a romance to develop between Vetra and Langdon. In such a restrictive script, Hanks is not required to act; there’s no room for it. Simply look perplexed, recite your lines in a stern sense of urgency, don an air of gravitas and the screenplay will dictate the rest while the production studio fills in the gaps. Ominous music and cinematography attempt to make up for what’s missing, giving you an artificial feeling of suspense.

One of the most action-packed sequences, no pun intened, involves the collision of two particles in the 2 kilometer-in-diameter underground accelerator at the CERN laboratory. Thankfully, no acting was required to render the scene.

Oddly enough for such a rushed film, Hanks manages to find enough time while traipsing up a staircase to explain an aspect of the plot. What happened to the urgency of an imminent murder of one of the preferiti?

The producers try to incorporate such famous faces as Ewan MacGregor, (Trainspotting) and Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting and just about any other Swedish film you might have seen). They are somewhat effective, because given their profile, all they have to do for the film is recite lines and maintain a stolid, cryptic expression that exudes the desired mystery, which says, "you never know who the real bad guy is. It might be me."

My original enjoyment of Angels and Demons was while standing on Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, admittedly, book in hand, marveling at how the three small arcs on the gateway didn’t live up to the image in my mind of Brown’s "triangular pile of stones" symbolizing a pyramid. In the adjacent Chigi Chapel, the two pyramids in bas-relief weren’t as "towering" as they had seemed in the book. Fortunately for the film, such exaggerations could be easily avoided, and the church interiors could be recreated in a studio, since the city of Rome, unhappy at being parodied a second time, forbade filming inside its churches.

Sadly, I must chalk up Angels & Demons into my personal collection of, "I read, I saw and I disliked the film version." No surprise. I still feel that certain books can never be well rendered into cinema, and that is why we’ll keep reading them. Cinema is still trying to catch up with literature. Perhaps we’re fools to expect a better film from a good book.

Maybe that is the redeeming aspect of the film: being reminded that literature will rarely be trumped by cinema.

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