by Pa Rock
This wasn't a great weekend for really devout Catholics. President Obama gave a kick-ass commencement address at the University of Notre Dame to numerous standing ovations - and Angels and Demons opened in theatres across the nation. The President didn't hide from the issue of abortion, but addressed it head-on in his speech, while three dozen pitiful protesters were arrested outside of the venue. Dan Brown, the author of Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, sees the Catholic Church as being two millennia of shadowy conspiracies. All in all, it was probably a good weekend for most Catholics to hit the beach!
I first read Angels and Demons several years ago, just a few months prior to the death of Pope John Paul II, and well before the election of his successor, the decrepit and intellectually dishonest Benedict XVI. That is significant, because this story centers around the election of a new Pope. Dan Brown, in the novel, goes into intricate detail about how the new Pontiff is chosen, and that portion translates well to the screen.
Angels and Demons was written before The Da Vinci Code, and it is the better of the two books. I read them in the order that they were written, not a must, but there are references to things in the latter that occurred in the former. Ron Howard, the director, brought them to the screen in reverse order, due undoubtedly to the fact that The Da Vinci Code sold like gangbusters and had the whole world talking. (According to Amazon.com, it is the number one selling adult hardback of all time.) People were so taken with Brown's book and his clever take on history, that they then went back and "discovered" Angels and Demons.
Both tales paint the Church in a bad light, undoubtedly the reason that the Vatican refused to provide any assistance to this current movie. The villains in The Da Vinci Code were members of Opus Dei, a secret order within the Church that Brown implied has enormous influence over the Church's operation. Brown put forth a tale of how the pregnant wife of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, was smuggled out of the Holy Land and to the safety of France, and that descendants of Christ were possibly still alive. The Knight's Templar became aware of this unknown royal line during the Crusades and hustled to protect the secret and the descendants. The Church rounded up the Knights Templar and murdered them for their wealth, but, according to Brown's version, a few survived. His Opus Dei, of course, was hellbent on finding these threats to the Church and snuffing them out.
The villains in the other tale, Angels and Demons, were the Illuminati, a secret order that were driven underground a couple of hundred years ago by the Catholic Church because they were too open to the notions of science. In this story, the Illuminati have returned and managed to infiltrate the Vatican where they are killing off the Cardinals most likely to become Pope and threatening to level Vatican City and much of Rome with a small vial of "anti-matter."
The hero of both stories is Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon, who was adequately portrayed by Tom Hanks. He had a quest in each movie that was accompanied by breath-taking action, pulsating music, and the obligatory pretty girl. Both movies are well worth the seven or eight dollars that it costs to see them, if for no other reason than the tours of Rome and (in The Da Vinci Code) London. But, sadly, neither movie captures the full magic of Dan Brown's work.
There is a scene toward the end of Angels and Demons (the book) where an evil priest, who happens to have a parachute, bails out of a helicopter a mile or so above Vatican City, leaving Robert Langdon and the chopper pilot to deal with the anti-matter bomb that is aboard the helicopter. In the book Langdon jumps from the helicopter, sans parachute, and uses his jacket like a parachute to guide his fall into the Tiber River. Apparently there were no stunt men in the stable willing to tackle that one, and the movie kept Professor Langdon safely on the ground.
Another thing that I found disappointing was that Langdon was flown to Rome in the book via a new experimental aircraft, one that I suspect exists, but Ron Howard left that alone and flew him to Rome in a Vatican jet.
I like Ron Howard, and have since he was running the streets of Mayberry, but I kept wondering what Steven Spielberg would have done with this material. Howard translated the basic stories to film, and he did so in a way that will sell tickets and popcorn, but he definitely did not push any boundaries or break any new ground.
And as for the Vatican's continuing displeasure with Ron Howard and Dan Brown - suck it up, boys. Brown's follow-up to these two fine tales, The Lost Symbol, another Robert Langdon thriller, will be in bookstores on September 15th - and the movie won't be far behind. (Maybe this one will explore the Nazi influence over the Church - that would certainly be timely!)