If the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long and Dan Brown’s success was a flash in the pan, then he must have blown up the entire stove and burned down the building. I remember The DaVinci Code mania from my high school years. Growing up Catholic, we were probably at the center of the controversy, although my family didn’t condemn the book so much as just ignore it, shrugging and saying “Its fiction, whatever,” for which I am more thankful than I can say. What inspired me to take a look twenty years later? You’ve got me. Curiosity, although I don’t know what triggered it. It spawned a brief “conspiracies, poems, and puzzles” craze, best epitomized by Disney’s National Treasure movies. There were, I imagine, other knockoffs of which I am largely of ignorant, as well as a massive tourism industry. Brown himself got a franchise out of the deal, including a spike in sales of his first novel Angels and Demons, which I also read and will cover here, as well as other sequels and a streaming series, although frankly, these two were more than enough for me. The DaVinci Code was the rare blockbuster novel which got people who usually weren’t big readers to actually pick it up, which sounds good in theory, and its mega-controversy inspired all kinds of debate; scholarly, theological, historical, symbolic, etc. I don’t really have a dog in any of those fights, so much a simple desire to be entertained. The books and the films were panned by literary and film critics despite their monumental commercial success. And frankly, I can see why, but we’ll get to that. Although Angels and Demons was published first, it was retooled as sequel when the films came out. You can read them in whatever order makes you happy, but many people read Angels and Demons second, so we’ll go in reverse.
For those of you who don’t know, and if you were alive when the book came out, there probably aren’t many of you, given that it was all over the place, the complex plot of the The DaVinci Code revolves around a massive conspiracy and a series of chases. Our protagonist is Robert Langdon, a symbology professor from Harvard who winds up at the center of a battle between secret societies to hide or expose the secret of the Holy Grail. Why then, you might ask, was this so controversial? Because apparently, according to Brown’s story, the Holy Grail wasn’t a cup at all; it was womb of Mary Magdalene, who was Jesus’ secret wife and with whom he sired a bloodline which wound up in modern day France. Christ himself was not divine as the Church teaches, and as such, a secret Catholic organization sends a self-flagellating albino monk assassin (I am not making that up) to stop Langdon and a Sophie, a French cryptologist, from discovering this and revealing it to the world. In order to find these secrets, Sophie’s father, a member of another secret society, left a series of puzzles and riddles leading to the secret of where these descendants are now, and it’s a race against time to discover the “truth.”
Brown’s characters are stick figures, his reinterpretations of history are risible, his attempts and profundity regarding the relationship between science and religion say nothing, and the book buckles under the weight of its 500 page length. It does have one thing going for it apart from the controversy, which I can only assume is the reason it was so popular, which is that if rockets from one escape to the next as the character are nearly constantly in serial-style jams that they have to continually escape from in increasingly implausible ways. I guess this was enough to hook a lot of readers back in the day combined with the controversy, because I can’t think of any other reason it appealed. There may be a pulp potboiler buried in this someplace, maybe one with pretensions toward bigger ideas, but frankly, the final product is simply a dull, bloated, turgid novel.
Angel and Demons is mildly less dull, but not much. It revolves around another conspiracy, which this time attacks the Catholic Church and the Vatican directly. It’s plot is even more risible than The Da Vinci Code’s, which in a way works in its favors because parts of it are unintentionally funny. Langdon this time is called to CERN because a prominent scientist who was also a priest was murdered and his discovery was stolen. What is his discovery? He can create matter from nothing, thus “proving” the existence of God, but like the Bible says, good and evil come in pairs and he also created antimatter, which is destructive. The antimatter is stolen by members of a Satanic cult, the Illuminati, who hide it under the Vatican and send an assassin to murder various clergy members. It’s powered by a battery which suspends the antimatter in some sort of flux, and when the battery runs out, the antimatter will come into contact with normal matter and cause a massive explosion which will destroy the Vatican as punishment for their standing against science and reason for as long as they have. Langdon and the scientist’s daughter Vittoria must run around the Vatican solving riddles related to ancient history in attempt to find the antimatter with the help of the Camerlengo on the eve of the election of the new Pope.
Both books are complex and rely on nonstop plot twists, but are so thinly plotted that these revelations come across as deus ex machina devices (pun intended) by the author which come seemingly from nowhere each time. Complexity does not equal intelligence, and the final act of Angels and Demons is so ridiculous that it threatens to fold in on itself. There’s a central idea at the core of both books, particularly this one, about the rocky relationship between science and religion, and where a person’s faith begins and ends. Having a central character who was murdered be both a Catholic priest and a physicist is a particularly interesting idea on paper. But all of these characters and themes exist in the service of the plot rather than dictating it. Likewise, the near-constant descriptions of various symbols which figure into the plot quickly grow very boring. If Brown’s point is their universality and contemporary relevance, then again he’s missed the mark, as they exist only to move the plot forward and create puzzles for our heroes to solve; exactly why the Illuminati left a ridiculously complicated series of poems and symbols for our heroes to follow as opposed to just executing their plan, I do not know. The characters are likewise laughably one-dimensional. Langdon’s only character trait is his overwhelming claustrophobia, Vittoria just wants revenge for her father’s death, the Illuminati assassin kills for money, and that’s pretty much it. Both books also flirt with the idea of a patriarchy-Brown talks endlessly about the “sacred feminine-“ but again does very little with these ideas.
The sneers of literary critics, not withstanding, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. Brown, in an interminably long interview on the audiobook, says that he was reluctant to sell the film rights, but of course he did. Enter director Ron Howard, much-maligned Batman and Robin screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, and star Tom Hanks, sporting a horrendous mullet that looks like it belongs in a 90s Image comic book. Goldsman aside, there’s a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera. Howard’s career has had its ups and downs, but when he’s on form, he’s a solid pop filmmaker with strong commercial instincts, especially when he has a good script (Apollo 13, Rush, and Splash are all terrific films, and he even knows his way around basic special effects action in a movie like Backdraft,) and budgeted at $125 million, the movie hit while the iron was hot in terms of the novel’s popularity.
As with the book, it’s possible that there’s a pulp potboiler buried somewhere in this mess. The main issue is that in between the scrapes that the characters get into, the book primarily consists of them standing around explaining things, which simply doesn’t translate to cinema at all. Howard occasionally tries to spice this up with some medieval flashbacks, but it’s simply not enough. With the blasphemous overtones, there are vague shades of Verhoeven, and frankly, the movie could use someone like him or Brian DePalma to lean into the trashy aspects of the novel and construct a chase movie. Howard and Goldsman’s fidelity to the novel isn’t inherently a problem; rather the problem is the tone. It’s too portentous, too convinced that the book is some sort of sacred text, and at 150 minutes, that’s a long time to spend with uninteresting characters and a dull plot. With Paul Bettany playing a murderous albino monk wandering around in Darth Maul robes with murdering nuns while our heroes solve secret puzzles, this a plot which should be hilariously overwrought, overacted in pantomime, and rocketing ahead far too fast to stop and think how little sense it makes. Instead, nearly everyone speaks their lines in hushed whispers (half of them in French accents) and wanders around in the dark. Everyone, that is, except for a hilariously hammy Sir Ian McKellen, who seems to be treating the whole thing the way it should be, delightfully annunciating his overripe dialogue. Hanks’ usual Everyman charm is presumably supposed to keep the audience in the position of a frightened central character, but as the character is as thinly sketched as in the novel, it’s hard to much care. McKellen is hilarious, but he’s about the only thing in the movie that seems to realize it should fun. Audrey Tautou’s sole defining quality seems to be that her hair never goes out of place, and everyone else’s characters are so archetypal at best that the performances don’t really have any chance to register. Hans Zimmer contributes another repetitive score, tinged with portentous religious chants.
With a box office take of over $700 million-the second highest-grossing film of the year-the studio was more than ready for more, so they retooled the prequel, Angels and Demons, as a sequel and reunited the crew with Hanks (This time with a haircut, mercifully.) for another go-round. Film critic Mark Kermode quipped “There has been a radical reinvention of the formula! Now they run, point, and explain things all at the same time!” He’s got it about right. Having grown up Catholic, the film’s guided tour of the Vatican (Or a facsimile thereof, because after the controversy, they sure as hell weren’t on good enough terms with the Church to shoot there) is vaguely cool, but again, needs someone like DePalma who’s fascinated with architecture to make it visually interesting. Jokes aside, Kermode is partially right; Angels and Demons is slightly more visually interesting than its predecessor, but only slightly. It seems to be pushing to move faster, to be more of a thriller than a mystery, but even as Howard tries for more action, by the time that the Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor, sporting an accent which traverses entire continents in single sentences.) parachutes out of a helicopter like Arnold Schwarzenegger as antimatter explodes in the sky behind him (Let there be light!), it’s hard not to laugh. Initially produced right before the Writer’s Strike, Goldsman’s scripting is augmented by David Koepp’s, and this script tries a little harder to keep things moving, but in the end, Brown’s storyline only has enough narrative to move at the bare minimum speed. In an attempt to avoid getting on the wrong side of the Catholic Church, there are a few lip-service references which try to avoid getting on their bad side. Kermode again sarcastically noted that “Angels and Demons embraced the Catholic Church in a way that The DaVinci Code didn’t because, you know, there are hundreds of millions dollars to be made by not getting on the wrong side of one of the biggest religions in the world. In spite of this, one Catholic paper took against it without having seen it and wrote a negative review saying it was evil. Some critic wrote a counter-review saying ‘You are a man of great faith, for you believe, though you have not seen!’ Normally, people criticizing a film without seeing it might upset me, but in this case, it’s a funnier joke than anything that’s actually IN the film.”
In conclusion, I guess that some things from the 2000s should STAY in the 2000s, because whatever appeal these had is clearly confined to when they came out. Brown wrote at least two other novels in the series which I know of, one of which was adapted about five years later after the mania had died down as Inferno, again adapted with Howard’s team and another as a Peacock miniseries The Lost Symbol. There are also apparently extended cuts of both films, although frankly, the versions I watched were more than enough for me. As I said, I remember Dan Brown fever, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out why it was such a phenomenon in its day. Apparently controversy can take you further than l thought. I will confess that frankly, I just don’t get it. You want quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo, at least go The Omen route and make it overwrought fun. This doesn’t work as that or as a serious statement. It’s just boring.