I had a screenwriting teacher in college who spoke about the art of adapting a script from another source. He said that ultimately the writer owed nothing to the original material except for retaining its spirit. Aside from that, characters, plot points, objects and certainly dialogue could be freely changed as long as the soul of the source material remained. Of course, freely making changes or this nature to a beloved and best-selling novel is more difficult to do as the studio and the public know what film they want and it’s a visual version of what was written in novel format. Cuts and trims will always have to be made to ensure a decent runtime, but that’s understood even by the film-going public. Angels & Demons is one of those films where changes could be only minimal and what little they were didn’t hinder the result.
Angels & Demons is the follow-up to mega-grossing, but critically disappointing The Da Vinci Code. Although the book by Dan Brown was written and released before “The Da Vinci Code,” it’s treated as a sequel in the cinematic world. The film follows Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist, fresh off upsetting the Catholic contingent with revelations about Jesus Christ. Langdon is called upon by Vatican City officials when a CERN scientist is killed and a canister of antimatter is stolen and hidden somewhere in the city limits. An amigrammatic logo for the Illuminati, a secret society long thought to be extinct, is left at the scene of the crime and Langdon is the Vatican’s only hope for discerning the meaning of the crime and to help find the antimatter.
As if the threat of instant annihilation via the megaton bomb antimatter has the potential to become wasn’t enough, the city and the Catholic world has lost its pope. The cardinals are to meet in the Vatican and deliberate over who their next choice chosen pope is to be. The four preferiti, considered to be the odds-on favorites to gain the position are kidnapped and hidden somewhere in Vatican City. The kidnapping is determined to be the work of the Illuminati and instructions are received stating each preferiti will be killed an hour apart, at 8, 9, 10, and 11 p.m., with the battery for the antimatter canister – the only thing stopping it from going off – set to fail at midnight.
Langdon is looked at to be the only person who can detect the hiding places of each preferiti and stop the antimatter from triggering. He uses all of his acquired knowledge and the human resources around him to aid him in the process. He enlists the help of Vittoria Vetra, the lab partner of the murdered scientist at CERN, who possesses the ability to change the antimatter canister’s battery if they can get there in time and also Camerlengo McKenna who was the pope’s right-hand man and is the interim pontiff until a new one is elected. Together, they must act quickly to decipher the Illuminati clues and codes in order to save the preferiti and the fate of Vatican City.
Although as the viewer you fall prey to Langdon’s knowledge of ancient symbols in order to crack the codes set forth by the Illuminati, he lets you in on exactly what he’s thinking as it comes to mind. It becomes a game of “riddle-me-this” that although you don’t have any real knowledge of how to solve it, you feel your brain churning as you attempt to figure out the path while Langdon lays it in front of you. It’s a cool trick that allows you to become an active viewer, almost participating in the revealing of the mysterious hiding places, although you had no prior knowledge of the layout of Rome or the ancient Path to Illumination Langdon must follow.
When this project was announced right after the release of The Da Vinci Code, the studio made it a point to lock up the same writer, director and star, which they did. What I find interesting is writer Akiva Goldsman shares credit with David Koepp (Panic Room) in this installation. That would mean Koepp was brought in, most likely to right a wrong. The Da Vinci Code caught a lot of flak for having too much exposition. Perhaps that could be blamed on Goldsman for being too faithful to the source material. Koepp was most likely brought on to condense the material and it was done successfully. Gone is the romantic subplot between Langdon and Vetra, which would have felt forced anyway. What the streamlining of the writing allows for is a brisker pace for which to tell this fast-paced story and it works to the film’s advantage.
Along with the script, the direction from Ron Howard is to be commended for making a less-talky, thrill-ride of a film this time around. I’ve always found it difficult to pinpoint a particular visual style for Howard, as he refuses to force himself upon his material and lets it play itself out. He employs CGI to show the creation of the antimatter much like you’d imagine David Fincher would. He’s also able to create moments of such great tension a page being torn out of a book will make you gasp aloud. In a way, he can be viewed as a perfect choice to helm this franchise as so much of the story power is encased in the content itself.
The film is far less blasphemous to the Catholic Church than its predecessor, as there aren’t many criticisms made, but rather a depiction of the process it goes through when electing a new pope. Dan Brown has a way of making history and learning fun, which may sound more like an attempt to get a child to read than an endorsement of the film, but it’s true. When adapting a novel, there are always going to be certain elements that are lost from the transition and I believe what was left on the cutting room floor only went toward helping the film. If you’re wondering why I have yet to mention the film’s star, Tom Hanks, to this point, it’s because he’s really not in it that much. Or least it didn’t seem like it. The story is the star of this film and if fast-paced adventure is what you’re looking for, you’ll find it in Angels and Demons.