Had enough Dan Brown lately? Well, that’s just too bad. The critically lampooned film version of The Da Vinci Code is still raking in big money, particularly in Europe, even if it has slipped to fourth place in the U.S. And there are rumors that a Vanity Fair article on Brown may revive charges of plagiarism. But the especially good news for Dan Brown addicts is that Sony Pictures announced that they have already signed Akiva Goldsman, who penned the script for Da Vinci, to write a script based on Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, a sort of prequel to Da Vinci and the first book featuring Harvard scholar Robert Langdon. To paraphrase Mr. T., I pity the scriptwriter who has to turn that bloated tome into a film script. Angels and Demons makes Da Vinci look like a lean, dramatically unified, intellectually cogent book.
Langdon’s first adventure takes him to Rome to decode the complex symbolic plan of the Illuminati, a secret organization that, on behalf of science and art, has been at war with the Catholic Church for many centuries. Thought to have been extinct, the Illuminati, whose membership included men such as Galileo and Bernini, have arisen to seize upon the opportunity presented by the gathering of all the Catholic Cardinals at the Vatican to elect a new pope. The Illuminati plot includes a series of grisly murders and the use of a little known, and nearly undetectable, explosive made of anti-matter, the “ultimate terrorist weapon.”
Galileo’s writings figure prominently in the uncovering of the secret meeting places of the Illuminati. As Langdon and his female co-detective Vittoria Vetra scour the Vatican Archives for the clues Galileo embedded in his texts, Brown reminds us of some of Galileo’s achievements. Many as they are, they do not in fact include an accurate account of the tides or a proper mathematical description of the path of planetary motion. In fact, Galileo attributed the tides not to the moon, but to the earth’s path around the sun, and one of the reasons his own cosmology remained deficient is that he defiantly stuck with the perfect figure of the circle and ignored Kepler’s work on the elliptical paths of the planets. (For balanced, accessible introductions, see Jerome Langford’s Galileo, Science, and the Church, I.B. Cohen’s The Birth of the New Physics, and, for an attempted historical reconstruction that reads like a mystery novel, Pietro Redondi’s Galileo: Heretic.)
The caricature of science vs. religion even enters the background story, accounting for one character’s animosity toward the Catholic Church. As a young boy, afflicted with a serious but treatable illness, he was left crippled because his parents refused medical assistance on the ground that it conflicts with faith. One wonders — at what point did Catholics become Christian Scientists?
The best parts of the book are the murder scenes featuring an amusingly creepy culprit; in these sections, the book reads like a script for a campy horror film. The murderer, a man on a mission, resembles John Doe from Seven, only with more personality and a bit of European flair. One might object to Brown’s dreadful penchant for interjecting serious ideas into the midst of his camp, were it not that he seems blind to just how campy his murder scenes are. He also seems oblivious to the unintended comic effect of the preposterous nature of the book’s culminating final action scenes, with nuclear-style devices being anxiously carried from the Vatican by a helicopter and his hero landing safely in the Tiber after using a tarp as a makeshift parachute in the very midst of the nuclear explosion.
Even more incredible is Brown’s way of resolving a brewing scandal about a pope who fell in love with a nun and desperately desired to have a child with her. As alarmed clerics fret over the pope’s breaking of his vow of chastity, they are assured that, although he had a child with the nun, he never broke his vow. How, you ask, was he able to pull this off? By a miracle of modern science: artificial insemination. The scene is laugh-out-loud funny, but the joke’s on Brown. As if we needed yet more evidence, the scene reveals the depths of Brown’s ignorance of the Church.
That the sort of temptation experienced by that particular pope could be fulfilled by the glories of modern science tells us as much about Brown’s rather odd and dispassionate view of romantic passion as about his adulation of science. Although the Gnostics do not figure as explicitly in this book as in Da Vinci, one wonders whether this view of sex — the fulfillment of desire without any bodily contact — isn’t the perfect remedy for the 21st century Gnostic.
Even on the topic of sex, one shouldn’t expect much in the way of consistency from Brown. In fact, his views of sex are all inside out and upside down. Brown transforms ordinary sexual desire into a disembodied affair of pure spirit, while he turns Bernini’s famous statue of
St. Theresa in Ecstasy into pure pornography. The confusion regarding sex may help to explain why the brief treatments in his books of sexual desire between human characters are so flat and un-erotic. Consider the ending of Angels and Demons, when Langdon finally has time to be alone with Vittoria: “Langdon did not need to be a symbologist to read the signs Vittoria was sending him. During dessert of boysenberry cream with savoiardi and steaming Romcaffe, Vittoria pressed her bare legs against his beneath the table and fixed him with a sultry stare.” After dinner, she inquires about why he’s never had a religious experience. Then, “Vittoria slipped off her robe. ‘You’ve never been to bed with a yoga master, have you?’”
Adopting throughout the sardonic tone of that last line might be the only hope for Goldsman to avoid having critics howling in laughter at this film the way they did at the Cannes’ release of Da Vinci. Pure spoof is the best bet. For inspiration, he might dust off a couple of old Monty Python movies and hire Kevin Klein to play Langdon. At least then Goldsman might have a chance of having audiences laughing with rather than at the film version of Angels and Demons.
—Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing
<title>Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown</title>