The Friday it opened I went with some of my friends from Drew to see the film Angels and Demons. It’s a movie in which I had a lot of interest since I’d used the book as a “text” for several years as part of a unit on science and religion. I’d had the students sort out truth from fiction in the story and then debunk the parts that weren’t true, discovering what the real truths behind the false facts were.
The good news and the bad is that the film has done some real editing and revising of the book. It escapes what I think is the major flaw of the novel—its going downhill in the last third of the story by getting more and more unbelievable. In the novel, for example, Brown has Langdon jump out of a helicopter that is very high up in the air without a parachute. Improbably Langdon manages not just to survive but to land safely and conveniently in a river that allows him to get where he needs to go quickly. The film eliminates that unbelievable situation with no cost to the basic storyline. Langdon just doesn’t go up in the helicopter at all. The ending seems a bit more believable because of such editing. (Of course, the whole book is unbelievable because antimatter wouldn’t provide any of the threat that the film suggests it does, but it’s easy to lay that fact aside in order to enjoy the film.)
Also in the interest of making a better film, a lot of the longer dialogues throughout the book are eliminated. That includes the dialogues toward the beginning of the book between Vittoria and the priest-scientist (who is also her father in the novel) who dies early on in the story and some of the dialogues between Vittoria and Langdon. Most of these dialogues are focused on the positive relationships that Vittoria sees existing between science and religion along with explanations of the ways in which the interweaving of the two have deepened and enriched her life. While the dialogues wouldn’t work well in an action film—they’d cause long “talking heads” scenes—they’re part of what I found that made the book rewarding for my students. Without them, the only relationship between religion and science that comes through in the film is negative one between Galileo and his colleagues and the Catholic Church. While my students quickly learned that—as Margaret Wertheim points out so clearly in her book Pythangoras’ Trousers—this understanding of what happened at the Galileo trial is one that was created in the 19th century but didn’t exist at the time of Galileo himself or for several hundred years afterwards.
The end result of all this editing is that the film makes for a better story than the book does. And for those of us who have been to Rome, it's also fun to revisit the various places as the actors race around Rome going from one Bernini work to another. But the film wouldn’t work as well for an interesting exploration of attitudes to religion and science over the centuries. For that, we’ll have to stay with the book instead.