Devil in the Details


The reviews for Angels & Demons are out, and the majority seem to harp on the same set of expected and slightly tedious tropes. Chief among them: Vatican in "not blasphemous" shock, Ron Howard recreates Rome in Hollywood (this is noteworthy? That sets are used instead of real places? At this point in cinema history?), story preposterous, Dan Brown not very good writer. All of which, to me, seem to miss the point.

If you're going to see this film, you're likely under few illusions; this is not, nor was it ever meant to be, two hours-plus of visceral film-making that will redefine cinema and alter your life. It's a diversion, an entertainment, and its success or failure can only reasonably be considered in that light. For me, it did its job - it rattles along in a way The Da Vinci Code didn't (despite a similarly breathless source narrative) and tells its (better) story with greater fluency. There are some painterly set-pieces, many involving the college of cardinals - one scene where the arriving clergy make their last mobile phone calls and hurriedly gasp down a final few cigarettes before being locked in the Sistine Chapel has the feel of a documentary - and one where Tom Hanks' Robert Langdon first meets Ewan McGregor's Camerlengo McKenna is lit like a Caravaggio, its noirish chiaroscuro feeling quite daring for a mainstream movie. If it was on the telly on a Sunday night, you'd watch it and feel it had repaid your decision to not watch whatever was on the other side. Which might sound like faint praise, but certainly isn't.  

But what's happening as the critical consensus forms around the film goes beyond that. There's nothing wrong with criticism that seeks to be incisive, but too much of what's been said and written is informed by a rather tired and increasingly irrelevant set of distinctions between "high" and "low" art. Brown's books are routinely derided, though few commentators ever say why (respect, as so often, due to Mark Kermode, who clearly explained during a 5 Live review his irritation with Brown's habit of having characters over-explain plot points in lengthy chunks of dialogue, a tendency that quickly becomes patronising). It's now become an accepted truism that "Dan Brown" is a synonym for "rotten prose", and it is assumed that readers share that view. Tom Clancy is another who gets the same treatment, yet whose books continue to top every bestseller list and spawn lucrative film franchises. It's almost like we have to accept that these writers are hacks because their books are successful - that anything popular is automatically going to be of low artistic merit; and from there we're quickly into the perilous territory where we bein to prize inaccessibility, and confuse communication with compromise. Slagging off the movies or the books becomes an exercise in patronising the audiences - of reinforcing the distance between critic (who seem to see themselves as educated, nuanced, able to clearly discern the difference between shit and Shinola) and the people they're speaking to (who aren't). That that then becomes less about the worth or value of the work under discussion, and more about the ego of the reviewer - about their own belief in how they're perceived. This feeling may well have been informed by the dialogue I've been having recently with Everett True on the nature of criticism, so apologies if I'm drifting off point. And maybe that's all a bit unfair; I know all too well that sometimes you just write what you can come up with to fill the space you've been told to fill, and that there may be expectation from editors to talk about big releases like Angels & Demons in ways that dovetail more neatly with the zeitgeist - or, at any rate, to cover the same bases your competitors are covering, just to make sure you don't look out of step. I just think it's a shame, as there are number of other, more specific, and I believe more valid, ways of critiquing this film than I've read about so far.

One of the reasons for its deficiencies is less specific and more systemic. Just because Angels & Demons - or for that matter The Da Vinci Code - were best-selling books doesn't automatically mean they're going to work as films. Hollywood thinks in terms of franchises and properties, and looks to piggyback onto established success in other areas. It's rare that a filmmaker gets the chance to admit that a particular piece of source material may not actually yield that good a movie (I'm thinking of Adaptation here, a film that excited me because it challenged those notions and delighted in its flouting of convention). Both Brown's hits are books about people reading books/looking at paintings/thinking about art - not naturally the stuff of thriller movies. They derive their suspense from the turn of the page, from the intellectual challenge of puzzle-solving. Yes, there's murder and chases and explosions, but they're not conventional thrillers, and there's little of the usual action movie staples for a director to grab hold of. While I'm actually quite heartened to see films doing well where the hero doesn't fire a gun (except to break glass in an emergency), where chase sequences end with the anguished shout "We have to get to a library! And fast!", and where the plot revolves around brains beating brawn, I'd be the first to admit that it doesn't make for great cinema. But the huge sales of the books meant that the films became inevitable - I suppose we should actually be relieved that Langdon hasn't been kitted out in combat fatigues, given a bazooka, and played by Vin Diesel.

And while I'm happy to defend Brown's writing - anyone who's got an ability to keep you turning the pages, hoping for delays on the train so you don't have to put the book back in your bag before you reach the next pulse-point in the narrative, can't really be as "clunky" as his detractors maintain - you'll not catch me making any great song and dance about his flair for characterisation. We learn very little about Langdon over the course of the two books, and I'm not expecting pages and pages of back-story and introspective catharsis in The Lost Symbol. They're all about the plot, and never claim differently. The lack of literary pretence is what stops them being dull. But that presents serious problems for actors, who have precious little to work with beyond the script. (That said, it has an unforseen up-side: the lack of on-screen chemistry between the leads is actually quite in keeping - you really do get the feeling that these are complete strangers thrown together by extreme circumstance who haven't got time to waste with all that getting-to-know-each-other guff.) 

Hanks gets some stick for his haircut, for his obvious lack of resemblance to Brown's Langdon (who is described in one of the books - in as many words - as looking like Harrison Ford), but the main problem with the casting is that this is essentially a two-dimensional character. He's not lacking for motivation, but aside from the reason/religion thing and the construct, facilitated by changing the order of the books, that the Catholic Church has beef with Prof Bob, there's nothing there. More troublingly, we're used to seeing Hanks playing essentially ordinary characters thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Forrest Gump aside, he's at his best exploring that duality, whether as Castaway's Chuck Nolan or The Terminal's Viktor Navorski, or even in Charlie Wilson's War, where he gave the sense of the playboy Congressman as a bewildered innocent suddenly having to find his feet in a new and suddenly strange world. Langdon is much more like an intellectual Jack Bauer, a kind of SEAL of the mind; parachuted into an incipient crisis he has minutes to avert, he's instantly able to get a handle on things, always one step ahead mentally even if he's two minutes behind on the ground. It's not that Hanks isn't up to it, more that we expect him to be someone different. It sets up an uneasiness that never quite dissipates; the question really is whether or not that's going to bother you. 


"Fire" ambigram detail from press screening flyer; image (c) Sony Pictures


I started a whole blog ( that attempted to get to the heart of why The Da Vinci Code works, despite the fact that it's so badly written; gave up in exhaustion before the half-way point. The question is: do people like Brown, Clancy etc in spite of the style (passive tolerance - literary style is simply something that fails to register when they read a book)? Or do they actively like being told that a key character is 'renowned' in the first sentence?

posted by: Tim Footman: 20 May, 2009 08:23:15

Honestly, Tim? I think that people just get carried along by the story - wanting to know what happens next trumps every other consideration. Where Brown and Clancy also score big is in taking things from the real world, which people can visit and observe and/or read about in the news, and incorporate them into their plots. Brown does that to make his fantasies seem more real and his conspiracies feel embedded in the world we inhabit: Clancy has things happen that play on our geopolitical fears, that seem just the other side of today's news but could be tomorrow's, so you feel like, if you let yourself go with the flow, you're getting a head-start on what might happen next in the real world. Lots of people are intrigued by occult history or conspiracy theories, even if they're inherently sceptical; and lots of people would like to think they have an inside track on current events.

posted by: Angus: 20 May, 2009 08:36:34

Well I thoroughly enjoyed both of the books (The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons), maybe because most of my reading is what might be considered "high". They were rattling good reads, kept me turning the pages, involved in the tale and all that good stuff.

I wonder if this type of "low" storytelling might be compared with the way that traditional folk tales, fairy stories and myths work?

I mean, when you look at the Greek Myths (or any myth cycle, come to that) there's not a lot of characterisation, back story, motivation explained, and their are plenty of anomalies and holes in the plot and narrative, contradictions between one version and the next... but they are gripping, and they have stood the test of time.

posted by: Crissi: 20 May, 2009 16:30:29

I take exception to the phrase 'badly written'! In an effort to nail my colours to the mask, am I a Dan Brown fan? Yes. Why? Because his prose flow with elegance and vivacity? I cannot answer that. The reason I cannot answer, is that I genuinely do not know. I have rarely picked up a book and had the overwhelming feeling that it was beautifully written, but I merely concede the point of enjoyment. The classical belief that perfection of prose equals a good damn read is outmoded and wholly irrational. The same is true of music. Pop music, rock and roll, blues etc is a rough form of music, technically imperfect. Opera, for example, would be considered more technically perfect, but the majority would prefer the former since it invokes your imagination and you can enjoy without the need for analysis and reasoning. Entertainment in purity. Dan Brown is easy to put down (as a writer as opposed to his books) because of his technical imperfections, and what a wonderfully easy criticism to make – Angus, a cricket analogy you like would be Kevin Peterson. All the Lords members are often heard to be moaning and groaning about him not playing straight, ignoring the text book, slogging etc but wow, what entertainment! And that’s what we want in our books. If someone can entertain us, keep us on the seat of our pants, yearning for more, then for me, that makes him a good writer.

So, in response to ‘The question is: do people like Brown, Clancy etc in spite of the style (passive tolerance - literary style is simply something that fails to register when they read a book)? Or do they actively like being told that a key character is 'renowned' in the first sentence. My answer would be that it fails to register since it is such an un-important part of the entertainment package. What are the ears like on Kylie Minogue? I frankly do not know and I do not care, and will certainly not look out for them the next time I see her either.

Hmmnnnnn – did not quite expect to end with Kylie Minogue’s ears when I started writing!

posted by: Craig Holson: 20 May, 2009 18:19:32

Thanks, Crissi and Craig. I think you both kind of back up the point about narrative being the most important thing for most readers.

I've read all four Brown books and am definitely looking forward to The Lost Symbol. Admittedly, in part, I'm keen to know whether he's used Steven Knight as background in the same way Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was used in DVC. I gather it's set in the States so I don't suppose he'll be getting into Ripper stuff, but there's still plenty of other aspects of freemasonry that Knight talked about which I imagine Brown would have a great deal of fun with. I remember reading that when I was a student and checking out some of what seemed the wilder claims, but no - there was the plain door and the brass plaque in Duke St St James saying only "Supreme Council", and their listing in the Yellow Pages, no further info, next to a dry cleaning firm. It got you thinking about the invisible secret world going on around you unseen, which I think is what I enjoy most about Brown and Clancy, even though these days I view it as escapist entertainment rather than psuedo-documentary.

posted by: Angus: 21 May, 2009 09:23:04

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