Ron Howard has managed to perfectly illustrate where Hollywood divides popcorn entertainment from the intolerable and the inflammatory. He has shrugged off the risk of insulting a billion Catholics. When it comes to Muslims, though, he has a very different policy: hands off.
Howard’s choices on how to adapt Dan Brown’s novel Angels & Demons speaks more loudly than anything in the film itself. (Incidentally, Angels & Demons takes place before and was written before Brown’s first blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, although in the movies the order of the two stories is reversed.)
Brown’s novel, clumsily written as it is (“So we meet yet again” is a typical line of dialogue), gives characters deep backgrounds and ample motivations. The girl in the book, for instance, is a scientist who is out to find who killed her colleague and father. In the movie, the murder victim is simply her lab partner. Simplifying the book and eliminating characters is necessary, but there is no reason for Howard to de-Islamify the book’s central killer.
In Brown’s pages we learn that the anti-Catholic group the Illuminati inspired a cult of crazed killers with a fanatical hatred for the church known — after their fondness for hashish — as Hassassins. (Strike the H and the word is still in use.)
Their modern agent is a man Brown clearly designates as an Arab and a Muslim. A witness to one of his crimes says he’s an Arab. He speaks Arabic. It is his precision-timed killing spree of four high-ranking cardinals (each of whom is to be dispatched at a designated spot among symbolic Illuminati sites in Rome) that Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is trying to foil. In the midst of his rampage, which he expects to end with the destruction of the entire Vatican, he pauses to raise his eyes to the dome of St. Peter’s. Writes Brown, “‘Your final hour,’ he said aloud, picturing the thousands of Muslims slaughtered during the Crusades. ‘At midnight you will meet your God.’”