When Sony Pictures, the production company behind the hit film The Da Vinci Code and its new sequel Angels & Demons, reached out to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN management saw a high-profile teachable moment for science.
They rolled out the red carpet for director Ron Howard and his fellow filmmakers, just as they had opened their doors to Dan Brown years earlier when he was writing Angels & Demons (the predecessor to The Da Vinci Code, though the film versions reverse the order). Establishing shots were filmed at CERN’s Geneva campus, where part of the story is set, and CERN physicists consulted on the script, helping to gloss over gaping holes in Brown’s dodgy quantum physics as well as his fanciful descriptions of the CERN campus and culture.
This past March, CERN hosted a press event for the studio, which I attended. Journalists from around the world converged on Geneva to view early footage from the film and to interview Howard, Tom Hanks—reprising his role as protagonist Robert Langdon—and costar Ayelet Zurer, who plays Angels heroine Vittoria Vetra. Afterwards, the press continued on to Rome to tour important ecclesiastical and other sites in the story, such as St. Peter’s Square, Santa Maria del Popolo, the Pantheon, and Castel Sant’Angelo.
In Geneva, CERN also made available a number of its own physicists, who did their best to talk up the story’s science while at the same time debunking two myths regarding which both Sony and CERN wanted some protective distance from the book. The first was the “antimatter bomb”—a key plot point, but one that everyone except Brown wants to reassure the public is strictly make-believe. The other was the supposed mutual hostility between science and belief in God—a crucial theme in the book, but one that CERN scientists all dismissed, and which the filmmakers suggest is treated somewhat differently, perhaps less polemically, in the film version.
“In the adaptation that tension, particularly from the scientific side, is actually not dealt with very much,” Howard said at a CERN press conference. “It’s not excluded on some kind of philosophical level, but just in the narrative that we have constructed out of the book, that’s not a central idea…. It’s one of the areas where the novel and the movie differ to a degree.”
One thing seems clear: where the film version of The Da Vinci Code dutifully sought to incorporate as much of Brown’s tendentious, anti-ecclesiastical speechifying as possible, the big-screen Angels & Demons is by all accounts a much freer adaptation that puts the emphasis on action and keeps speeches to a minimum.
Still, following its source, the new film posits a murderous, ancient feud between the Catholic hierarchy and the “Illuminati,” reimagined not as the historical late 18th-century political secret society, but as a covert pre-Enlightenment scientific fraternity. “The Illuminati were a secret society dedicated to scientific truth,” Langdon declares solemnly in a shot seen in the trailer. “The Catholic Church ordered a brutal massacre to silence them forever. They’ve come for their revenge.” In another scene, camerlengo Carlo Ventresca (Ewan MacGregor), chamberlain to the late pope, tells the assembled cardinals in conclave, “Since the days of Galileo our Church has tried to slow the relentless arch of science.”
On the other hand, at the press conference Hanks mentioned a “magnificent” pro-Church line, added by the film’s screenwriters, for the head of the Swiss Guard, Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgård), who seems to be a fairly sympathetic and devout character. As Hanks paraphrased the line,
Richter tells Langdon: “My Church feeds the poor, feeds the hungry, takes care of the needs of the poor. What has your church done? Oh, that’s right— you don’t have one.”
In a similar vein, the film reportedly includes a scene in which the sympathetic dean of the College of Cardinals, who may be a more traditional figure in the film than in the book, says to Langdon in a climactic scene, “Thank God he sent you to us”—and, to Langdon’s diffident, doubtful response, reaffirms, “Of course he did.”
There are indications, too, that the film may undermine the machinations of an unbalanced ecclesiastical figure, in general putting the Church in a more positive light than in the book and certainly than either version of The Da Vinci Code. Where Brown’s Angels & Demons has the entire College of Cardinals fall prey to the villain’s subterfuge, the film reportedly deals with this in a way that allows the cardinals to save a little face.
How all of this will come together in the finished film remains to be seen. What no amount of revisionism can overcome, of course, is the sheer fact that Angels & Demons remains part of the Da Vinci fantasy-verse, in which Christianity is seen as a long, bloody cover-up, Jesus’ divinity and resurrection are lies, and Jesus’ true legacy is the offspring of his marriage to Mary Magdalene. Hanks acknowledged as much at the press conference. “If you’ve seen the first one,” he said, “you realize that Langdon has inside himself this very powerful truth. He’s got it. He saw it through The Da Vinci Code. He found it, he interpreted it…. So there is great weight to him walking into the Vatican— there’s a lot of communication that goes on between his eyes and the eyes of anybody who is in authority in Vatican City because of this shared truth.”
Given the lie of this implicit “shared truth,” response to the film project from Church authorities at the Vatican and in Rome has understandably been very different from that of CERN management. Stung by the roaring success of The Da Vinci Code, officials at the Holy See prudently judged the sequel a hopeless cause, and have declined to participate in any way.
The film shoot was denied permission to stage key scenes at St. Peter’s Square and other Vatican locations as well as churches in the diocese of Rome featured in the story. “Normally we read the script,” Rome diocese spokesman Father Marco Fibbi commented at the time in an eminently quotable sound bite, “but this time that wasn’t necessary. The name Dan Brown was enough.”
As a result, the shoot was obliged to make do with a mix of external establishing shots, non-ecclesiastical locations (such as the Royal Palace of Caserta, which stood in for interior shots at the Vatican), Hollywood sets, computer- generated imagery and possibly— Howard has repeatedly hinted—some covert filmmaking (“cameras can be made really small”).
When the press junket came to Rome, the studio had another set of options. For some time, between the Da Vinci phenomenon and the coming film fueling enthusiasm for the other Robert Langdon story, Angels & Demons has become such a sensation in its own right that tourists in the Eternal City have their choice of any number of competing Angels & Demons–themed tours, all more or less following in Langdon’s footsteps as he deciphers 450-year-old scavenger-hunt clues supposedly left by Galileo in a rare manuscript in the Vatican archives.
There’s the Angels & Demons “Official Tour” (originally offered by Dark Rome, now conducted by AD Travel), subtitled “The Path of Illumination” (i.e., the via Illuminati). Another tour, offered by Through Eternity, apparently reinforces some of Brown’s most lurid lies (the tour’s website claims that “Over the centuries countless people were tortured, hung, or burned at the stake by the Vatican merely because their inquiries into the mysteries of the world went against church dogma”). On the other hand, the self-styled “Unofficial” tour—reportedly the first Angels & Demons-themed tour, operated by Three Millennia—promises to “separate fact from fiction,” including a long laundry list of Brown’s historical, architectural, and art-history blunders.
On the “Official” tour, occasional sops to reality were allowed to subvert the story’s pretensions to accuracy; more often, we got the Dan Brown version. In St. Peter’s Square, our guide admitted that the “West/Ponente” marker in the square pavement, presented in the book as an all-important clue left by Bernini pointing the way to the next location on the path, is actually one of 16 markers aligned to the points of the compass, forming a circular rosa dei venti or “wind rose”—i.e., pointing in every direction.
At the same time, we were told that the English word “west” in the Ponente tile indicated, in Bernini’s day, a disreputable Anglicism—English in the 1600s being, in Brown’s mythology, “the one language the Vatican had not yet embraced” and “did not control” (whatever that means). In reality, the wind-rose markers aren’t Bernini’s work at all. According to StPetersBasilica.org, they were added three centuries later, under Pius IX.
The prospect of a continuous stream of tourists flowing into Rome in order to experience the Caput Mundi through the hopelessly muddled lens of a mediocre, sensationalistic potboiler is certainly sobering, not to say depressing. Although the subject matt er is less directly subversive to Christianity than The Da Vinci Code, the sett ing at the heart of Western Christendom, during the convocation of a papal conclave, represents an eff ort to absorb the taproot of the life of the Church today into the Dan Brown worldview.
In The Da Vinci Code, Brown’s central thesis is built on a preposterously revisionist, esoteric misreading of history, upending the fundamental tenets of the Gospel and replacing them with a neopagan-feminist aesthetic of the sacred feminine. Compared to The Da Vinci Code, Brown’s Angels & Demons is still ramping up to this thesis statement. While Angels & Demons does offer revisionist esoterica around, among other things, the supposed Illuminati connections of Copernicus, Galileo, and Bernini—all of whom died well over a century before the historical Illuminati was founded—its central thesis is not a conspiracy-theory revelation, but a popular anti-Catholic master myth.
That master myth is the implacable, irreconcilable mutual hostility of biblical faith and scientific inquiry. According to Angels & Demons, “religion has
always persecuted science”—not just over certain revolutionary notions, such as heliocentrism, but in principle, inasmuch as any rapprochement of faith and science would have “nullified the church’s claim as the sole vessel through which man could understand God” (italics in original).
Crucially, Brown claims that “outspoken scientists like Copernicus” were systematically “murdered by the church for revealing scientific truths,” and Galileo himself was “almost killed.” In reality, Copernicus, a cleric (a canon) and a bishop’s nephew, was never at odds with Church authority, and died of natural causes. Even Galileo—almost the only scientist of his day, if not in history, whose work brought him into confl ict with Church officials—suffered nothing worse than house arrest, and was certainly never in danger of execution.
Some of Brown’s loopier religion/science flash points are almost touchingly daft. Even in academia, we’re told, fundamentalist anti-scientism is so potent that half of US schools “aren’t allowed to teach evolution”; and Brown has Harvard’s Divinity School—that bastion of religious rigidity—marching on the Biology Building to protest genetic engineering (a spectacle that can only appear surreal to Catholics scandalized by Notre Dame’s VIP overtures toward President Obama).
In one of the book’s most hilarious disconnects, a CERN official, dismayed to learn that the US Senate is cutting funding for a particle super-collider, exclaims furiously: “One of the most important scientific projects of the century! Two billion dollars into it and the Senate sacks the project? Damn Bible Belt lobbyists!” (italics added.) Because, you know, Bible-Belt types are forever fulminating against godless particle physicists and their super-colliding abominations.
Brown freely imputes to Catholicism the distortions of other religious groups—repudiation of modern medicine in favor of faith-healing, youngearth “Creationism”—and even those of men of science. With breathtaking mendacity he claims that Galileo’s troubles began when he proposed the notion of elliptically orbiting heavenly bodies, contravening the Church’s insistence on the “perfection” of the circle. In reality, it was Galileo himself who esteemed the perfection of circular orbits, and rejected the notion of elliptically orbiting heavenly bodies.
While many of Brown’s defenders (along with the filmmakers) routinely cite the “It’s only a story” defense, Brown has never wavered in insisting on the solid factual basis for his stories—and many of his more credulous fans have no idea just how much he routinely gets wrong. In a pseudo-interview posted on his website, Brown writes (in a comment recently highlighted by Carl Olson in This Rock), “My goal is always to make the character’s [sic] and plot be so engaging that readers don’t realize how much they are learning along the way.” Or how many misconceptions and confusions they’re absorbing.
Both of Brown’s Langdon books begin with above-the-title pages proclaiming as FACT (in all caps) propositions riddled with problems. Angels & Demons adds an “Author’s Note” stating, “References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual (as are their exact locations). They can still be seen today. The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual.”
Besides the ungrammatical last sentence (statements may be “factual” or not; an institution or entity may be or not be historical, or accurately depicted, but in any case can’t be “factual”), the import of the “Author’s Note” is simply false. Brown is no more reliable on art and architecture than on anything else.
To cite a few obvious examples, Angels & Demons places Santa Maria della Vittoria at Piazza Barberini, a half-mile from its real location; identifies as “cathedrals” churches that aren’t; botches the rivers represented by Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain; and misattributes to Michelangelo the design of the Swiss Guard uniforms and the staircase leading to the Vatican Museums—which he calls the Musèo Vaticano rather than the Musei Vaticani.
Whatever the subject, Brown reliably garbles it. He mistranslates “Novus Ordo Seclorum” as “New Secular Order” (and ascribes it to the Illuminati) rather than “New Order for the Ages.” He floats the outrageous claim that Holy Communion was “borrowed from the Aztecs,” despite the chronological as well as physical obstacles (the Christian sacrament predates the Aztec civilization by over a millennium), and likewise misascribes to Buddhism the Hindu system of hatha yoga, which predates Buddhism.
He calls the Swiss Guard “the sworn sentinels of Vatican City” and has them patrolling St. Peter’s Square in plainclothes, though in fact the Swiss Guard defend the person of the Holy Father, not the Vatican city state (that’s the Vatican gendarmerie), and have no duties in St. Peter’s Square unless the pope is there. An exhaustive list would be nearly impossible; it is hard to find an unproblematic page of Angels & Demons.
Even for sheer popcorn entertainment value, while Angels & Demons offers a more engaging plotline than the turgid Da Vinci Code—and will likely make for a more watchable film—the sheer clunkiness of Brown’s literary mechanics make the book a chore to wade through. It would not be an overstatement to say that Brown’s writing is about the worst prose style I have ever encountered in a popular edition (possibly excepting Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series).
“Brown’s writing is not just bad,” writes Dr. Geoffrey K. Pullam, professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, in the first of a number of Brown-related posts at the blog Language Log. “[I]t is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad. In some passages scarcely a word or phrase seems to have been carefully selected or compared with alternatives.”
Pullam’s examples are from The Da Vinci Code; similar instances from Angels & Demons aren’t hard to find. On the first page of Angels & Demons, we read that “Langdon sat up in his empty bed”; two pages later, “Robert Langdon wandered barefoot through his deserted Massachusetts Victorian home….” But he’s still in the bed on the first page, and obviously occupying his Victorian home; one can’t sit up in an empty bed or wander through one’s deserted home, barefoot or otherwise.
This, of course, is Brown’s inept way of letting us know that Langdon lives and sleeps alone—which perhaps partly explains the author’s embarrassing eagerness, two paragraphs later, to establish his hero’s virility and attractiveness: “Although not overly handsome in a classical sense, the forty-year-old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an ‘erudite’ appeal— wisp of gray in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete.”
The next paragraph goes on to relate that Langdon’s friends “had always viewed him as a bit of an enigma”—a bohemian classicist who could be seen “lounging on the quad in blue jeans, discussing computer graphics or religious history” as well as “in his Harris tweed and paisley vest, photographed in the pages of upscale art magazines at museum openings where he had been asked to lecture.”
Literarily, the problem with this preoccupation with Langdon’s credentials as a fascinating, complex, virile, maverick man of the world is that in this scene Langdon is—as Brown has clearly if clumsily established—alone in his home; no one else is present to be impressed by his professorial sex appeal, etc. So what we have is either Langdon himself basking in his own mystique, or else the author transparently indulging his own, unmediated enthusiasm for his hero’s awesomeness, with the implication that readers also should be similarly impressed.
This would be embarrassing enough if Brown merely admired his hero—but in fact it’s pretty obvious that Brown views Langdon as a fictional version of himself. Five minutes into my first experience of Brown’s writing, a few pages into The Da Vinci Code, having read about Langdon’s “scholarly allure,” his voice that female students described as “chocolate for the ears,” and his general “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed… and Burberry turtleneck” look, I suddenly knew that if I flipped to the back dust jacket flap, I would find a picture of the author in tweed and turtleneck. Sure enough, there it was.
Brown’s lack of restraint makes it impossible to ignore the glee with which he crafts the Church’s comeuppance. (Note: Spoilers follow.) The final two of the book’s four gruesome murders of kidnapped cardinals are capped by first-person descriptions of the cardinals’ last thoughts. One, slowly roasting while suspended cruciform, can only think that God has forsaken him and he is in hell. The other, drowning in Four Rivers fountain, at least manages an appropriate Christian thought—the sufferings of Jesus, who died for his sins—and even notes the kind eyes of Langdon, who tried to save him. Neither attempts an appropriate final prayer.
Then comes the camerlengo Ventresca’s speech before the cardinals, followed by his revolutionary televised mission statement, which could be paraphrased: “Religion to Science: You win. But you still stink.” Though he’s meant to be an ultra-conservative traditionalist, the camerlengo’s speech is in fact a thesis statement of modernist Catholicism: the Bible isn’t true, but we have to have faith in something, get morals from somewhere, have some sort of spirituality.
So mesmerized are the cardinals by this vapid speech that, following a convenient “miracle,” they spontaneously acclaim Ventresca as pope…after which it is revealed that Ventresca—not the “Illuminati”—has orchestrated everything: the kidnapping and murders of the cardinals, even the antimatter threat to Rome, a false crisis arranged by the camerlengo so that he could “providentially” prevent it.
Further scurrilous revelations follow. The late pope was poisoned by Ventresca for a sin the pope began to reveal to him, which turns out to involve the pope having fathered a son with a nun—by in vitro fertilization, so as not to break their vows of chastity. And then it turns out that the camerlengo himself is the son in question. Aghast at having unwittingly murdered his own father, Ventresca commits self-immolation—after which the stunned cardinals commence a new conclave to elect a new pope.
This outrageous subversion of the conclave process may be the most noxious structural element in the main action of the book. It’s worth noting, then, that the film reportedly follows a significantly different path on this point.
(Possible film spoilers?) While at this writing the final shape of the film isn’t known, indications suggest that the bigscreen camerlengo may be less successful in realizing his plans. In particular, a source reports that the cardinals may not be subjected to the indignity of electing to the Chair of Peter, however briefly, the villain of the piece, while the villain may come off as more isolated and less representative of the Church than Brown makes him, and may be exposed at an earlier point in the proceedings.
If this is correct, what accounts for this and other changes in the story softening the anti-Catholic punch of the book, especially compared to the more uncompromising Da Vinci Code? Partly, perhaps, it’s simply the increased confidence of following up on a successful adaptation—much as the second and third installments of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings departed further from source than the first, and later Harry Potter movies took more liberties than the first two.
Could controversy around The Da Vinci Code be another factor? Common wisdom holds that controversy merely helps sell a film, and certainly The Da Vinci Code made a huge pile of money. Yet most of that money was made overseas, where the film was less controversial; and, while the film’s domestic haul of $217 million is nothing to sneeze at, a $125 million film based on a runaway best-seller and starring the likes of Tom Hanks and Ian McKellen could certainly have done better.
Sony’s courting of the religious press suggests a desire to minimize controversy rather than exploit it for free publicity. It seems plausible that backlash against the first film was a learning experience for Howard and his colleagues, and the diminished problematics of the sequel may be a response to that.
The result is perhaps something of a muddle: a story in which the Vatican hierarchy is implicitly understood to be involved in a murderous conspiracy to hide the falsity of their religion’s foundations, yet is at the same time the somewhat sympathetic victim of a terrible plot, with the heroes racing to save the machinery of the Church itself from a grave threat (albeit a homegrown one).
Well, does it have to make sense? The reality is, Hollywood generally prefers a mushy muddle to a story with a potentially controversial point of view. It’s why New Line’s The Golden Compass was less overtly anti-religious than Philip Pullman’s book—and also why the Disney-Walden Narnia films are less overtly Christian than Lewis’ books.
Of course, the subsidiary effect remains in play: the more successful Sony’s Angels & Demons is, the more interest the book(s), as well as the original film, will enjoy.