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.’”
It matters that the Hassassin is an Arab. With the world watching his every step as he operates in public places in the middle of a media frenzy in Rome, he is at enormous risk. But he is driven by a psychotic frenzy and ancient hatreds. In the movie, Howard doesn’t bother telling us anything about the killer’s motivation, his background, or his identity. He’s coolly played by Danish actor Nikolaj Lee Kaas, who speaks fluent Italian and English. With his rimless glasses he looks as threatening as the assistant manager of an Italian coffee bar.
Every so often we see the killer fiddle with a computer that tells him payments are being processed into his bank accounts. So this bland nobody is putting his neck on the line with the world watching and carrying out a scheme of bizarre torture-murders because … he’s getting a paycheck.
The film of The Da Vinci Code — a sluggish adaptation of a cracking good yarn — posited a massive Catholic Church cover up of a line of direct descendants from Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Pure entertainment, Howard claimed. The thing wasn’t to be taken seriously. Fair enough.
In Angels & Demons, the film isn’t about Church-sanctioned misdeeds, and Catholics shouldn’t find it particularly offensive. But (minor spoiler at the end of this paragraph) just as being unwilling to offend Catholics would have taken the heart out of The Da Vinci Code, being unwilling to offend Muslims presents Howard with a problem he never quite solves. A thriller has to have an interesting bad guy, but Howard’s serial killer is such a nonentity he turns down a chance to murder some of his pursuers because he says he isn’t getting paid for that. What self-respecting James Bond villain would be so blasé?
Howard becomes annoyed whenever a self-proclaimed spokesman for the Catholic faith huffs about being offended or murmurs something about a boycott. What ought to offend all of us, though, is that Hollywood is so craven and out of touch as to rule out of bounds any attempt to show bad behavior on the part of even one Muslim.