Angels & Demons—Facts & Fictions: Kind of a Book and Even Less of a Movie Review
Don’t waste your time with the book Angels & Demons. See the movie instead.
BEAR IN MIND: SPOILERS AHEAD!
In 2003 or 2004 I remember walking into Barnes & Noble. Out front on display I saw a book that caught my eye: The Da Vinci Code.
Curious, I thought. Da Vinci? As in…Leonardo da Vinci? The great Renaissance artist, sculptor, scientist, mathematician, anatomist, and inventor? And now he’s associated with some…code? I picked it up. Thumbed through it. Fiction. With a cunning marketing name. Not so curious anymore.
Shortly after, however, I heard more—in conversation, on public radio, seemingly everywhere. All positive. Next thing I knew, little Opie Cunningham’s turning it into a feature-length movie starring Forrest Gump. Well damn, I thought, I’d better read it…lest I be left out.
So I did. And enjoyed it. ‘Twas suspenseful.
But the next question was how much of it was based on reality. Yes, the copyright page says, “All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” But Dan Brown, the author, placed a page in the front of the book headlined as “FACT.” Among those listed: the European secret society the Priory of Sion, with Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci listed among its more illustrious members. He ends this with, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
Okay, so the characters are fictitious, but what about everything else? Are these “facts” really facts? And if so, are the fuzzy connections Brown makes in his story between the so-called facts…plausible?
I didn’t have enough free time to personally research all these questions. So I was grateful 60 Minutes did. At least they covered the biggest question, that of the authenticity of the Priory of Sion with those renowned members. I mostly trust 60 Minutes as good journalism because they have a track record of basically asking hard questions and expecting good evidence before they draw conclusions. So their conclusion? Well, admittedly they didn’t give a hard conclusion, more of an implication. Which was? The evidence for the existence of the Priory of Sion is not compelling.
I was satisfied with that. (I’m simplifying, of course, as I did a little independent research which verified this.) I felt a bit betrayed by Dan Brown and his publisher for misleading people with their “facts” since for something to be designated as such it should have extremely compelling evidence. But my betrayal was not deep as there are far greater slights in this world. I mostly see the book as what it really is: a work of fiction. And as such, it is a compelling, suspenseful read (which didn’t translate well to the big screen, says I, and the lion’s share of movie critics).
With all this in mind, it turns out Dan Brown wrote another novel with the same protagonist, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (a.k.a. Tom Hanks), called Angels & Demons. He actually wrote (or published) it in 2000—three years before The Da Vinci Code. (As such, it is technically not a “prequel” even though Brown seems to think so according to his 2006-edition “Dear Reader” page.) But now, nine years later, since it, too, is being made into a feature-length movie, again with the power duo of Howard and Hanks, it is growing in enormous popularity.
My dad read it before I did and told me that, in comparison to The Da Vinci code, it was “just as good,” but added it’s “more violent.” Excellent, I thought. So I finally read it this past month wanting to beat the movie. (I partly anticipated the same lackluster translation to the silver screen, but having now seen it, this is not the case, in my humble opinion, regardless of what the film critics are so-far saying. More on that later.)
Here’s my assessment on the literary quality:
Frankly, I think this is the kind of book that would largely be ignored if not for the hype surrounding a high-profile movie and a more popular book by the same author, which is exactly the scenario that has played out before our very eyes. I felt like I was reading the rough draft of The Da Vinci Code. True, it is more violent, and true, it largely takes place in Rome rather than Paris, but the characters, the plot, the twists and turns, the surprises, the red herrings, and the all-around feel is rather similar. As such, the twists and turns were not so twisty and turny for me. The surprises were not much of a surprise. And the red herrings were not so red (or whatever red herrings are supposed to be.) What’s worse, the narration and dialogue at times were rather lame. Was it a total lousy read? Not totally. It was subtly different enough to be a tad suspenseful. I mean, it isn’t really the rough draft of The Da Vinci Code. That’s just a rhetorical analogy I used because it had that ambiance. If you have not read The Da Vinci Code, though, then that’s not likely to be an issue for you. But the cheesy dialogue and narration should be.
And so should the fact that some of the story’s plot are highly suspect of their believability. Particularly a scene near the end where our hero Robert Langdon jumps out of a helicopter some two or three miles above Vatican City with only a windshield tarp clenched in his hands to slow his fall. A windshield tarp! Clenched in his hands! Seriously? He lands in the Tiber River and survives virtually unscathed. True, he is knocked silly and taken to a hospital. But within hours he comes to with no broken bones or any serious physical damage and goes about saving the world (or the Vatican) as if the fall had never occurred. AS IF IT HAD NEVER OCCURRED! (Thank the Lord this nonsense scene was excluded from the movie.) When I got to that point I realized the suspension of reality was being invoked much as it would have for such absurdly, unbelievable characters as the sequels to Rocky, Rambo, and every James Bond movie ever made. But that’s strictly an entertainment issue. Lots of persons enjoy absurd unbelievability (i.e. escapism) in their entertainment. I can, too, if the story is consistently unbelievable while remaining intriguing. But when the story vacillates between believability and unbelievability I find it blatantly, internally inconsistent and thus annoying. I enjoy my fiction the most when it’s as firmly entrenched in believability as is practical, from beginning to end. But that’s a personal artistic choice.
Now my assessment on the fact claims:
Yes, Angels & Demons is a work a fiction. But once again (though actually the first time since this came out before The Da Vinci Code) Dan Brown and his publisher have added a page headlined as “FACT,” in which he talks about the international science institute CERN making antimatter that could conceivably become “the most deadly weapon ever made.” And there is a proceeding page titled “AUTHOR’S NOTE” in which Brown claims that, “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.”
Regardless of the personal artistic choice of wanting believability or unbelievability of the characters, their dialogue, and their actions in this story, the next big questions that arise in my mind (and I suspect arise in many readers’ minds) are: are these “facts” really facts? And if so, are the fuzzy connections the author makes in this story between these facts …plausible?
After all, his story does take place in real-life locations: Harvard in Massachusetts, CERN on the Franco-Swiss border, and Vatican City and Rome in Italy. He does not list those locales as facts. Why should he? Most persons already recognize them as such. So when Brown goes on to describe these places in finer detail and what goes on inside, the demarcation line of what is real and what is not is blurred. I suspect this was deliberate. It fuels more interest in the story. It reminds me of how the producers of The Blair Witch Project marketed the movie in such a way as to guide the general unsuspecting public into thinking this fictional movie was, just maybe, possibly, a documentary under the guise of fiction. When people hear phenomenal stories and are led to believe they are, just maybe, possibly, real, it sparks enormous interest, and hence generates great financial profits.
So what is real and what is not? The movie, fortunately, really tightened up the story and cut out a lot of the crap that is in the book. But the movie, alas, still had to leave in the two biggest gripes I have with the book’s fact claims. I don’t blame the movie makers for keeping these, though. If they’d cut those out as well then it would not have been Angels & Demons but a totally different story altogether. So while there are dozens of gripes I have with the book, to keep this brief, I’ll focus mostly on the main two that remained in the film.
First, the issue of CERN, antimatter, and potentially the “most deadly weapon ever made.”
The quick answer is: Yes, CERN (or the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, a.k.a. the European Center for Nuclear Research) is a real science facility with a real particle accelerator (the LHC, or Large Hadron Collider, even though it is not yet fully operational), and yes, CERN has created antimatter (as well as has other science research institutes such as Fermilab in Chicago). But no, there is no bomb or even the reasonable potential for one. The production of antimatter is so slow it would take an estimated several billion—billion, with a ‘b’—years to create enough to have the energy of a typical hydrogen bomb, of which several thousand already exist. Considering the Universe itself has been around for about 13 to 14 billion years then we’re quite safe from antimatter bombs for now. To put it in another perspective, if CERN or Fermilab could somehow assemble all the antimatter ever created (which they can’t) and annihilate it with matter, it would be just enough energy to power one incandescent light bulb for a handful of minutes. Turns out CERN was kind enough to dedicate a page on their website to illuminate on these very issues brought up by the novel.
Second, the issue of this claim that “The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual.” Well, this is a very general statement commingled with some very specific details in the actual story. Where is the line of reality and fiction drawn? Technically, Brown is correct that the Illuminati is factual. But his specific description of them in the story and who some of the illustrious members are (Galileo Galilei, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini) does not seem to be rooted in fact. What’s more, Brown fails to clarify that there are multiple organizations who call themselves “Illuminati,” most of which are not associated with one other.
Without going into detail so I can sum things up, I will quickly add some bullet points of other gripes I have as well as potential issues I question:
· Brown’s claim that “References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual.” Entirely?
· The hermetically sealed vaults at the Vatican archives.
· As an advocate of science, though I’m glad popular attention is being brought to CERN because of this story, I felt Brown’s narration and dialogue describing that community was in places inaccurate and sloppy. (I’m glad, though, Ron Howard actually filmed parts of the movie at CERN cleaning up some of Brown’s inaccurate descriptions of the place, as well as making the scientists and scholars seem more the part).
· I was particularly agape in astonishment at Brown having scientists make the non sequitur logical fallacy by claiming the creation of antimatter proves the existence of the Christian God (or any religious “God” for that matter).
· Brown’s description of the placebo effect is grossly exaggerated and based on urban legends.
· His claim that the Swiss Guard uniforms were designed by Michelangelo is a common misconception as the current uniforms were designed by Jules Repond in 1914.
· His astonishment at the Illuminati ambigrams should not be so astonishing, especially considering they are not actual Illuminati symbols but designs his typographer friend John Langdon created (and who the protagonist Robert Langdon was named for).
· His use of the HSCT (High Speed Civil Transport) is based on a NASA conceptual aircraft that ended the year before the novel was published. The concept plane was designed for Mach 2, not Mach 15 as in the book.
And if I put more effort into it I’m sure I could come up with others. But I’ll leave it at that.
Don’t waste your time with the book. But see the movie. (Pretty much the opposite of how I feel about The Da Vinci Code.) Yes, the story is basically the same. But the movie-makers took the liberty to make some changes by basically removing some of the absurdities, re-writing more convincing dialogue, then executing it with fine acting, beautiful cinematography, and apropos music. Other than the big problems with the antimatter and the existence of the Illuminati’s Path of Illumination (and maybe a few others), the movie feels more believable. I probably wouldn’t put it in my top 50, but it was worth watching.