Hurtling along the tunnels of the Hadron Collider and into the inner sanctums of the Catholic Church, the new Ron Howard film is a well-paced rollercoaster ride through the centuries-old clash of religion and science. |
But there is a shadowy figure at the heart of Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons that you won’t see this year on the silver screen. In the film adaptation opening this week there is instead a racial controversy avoided, and perhaps a lesson learned.
Adapted by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman from Brown’s 2001 novel, the central themes of the streamlined plot contain only one major change: a different type of clash that was present in the book has been axed, namely the “Clash of Civilizations”. According to some, the book includes a stark portrayal of the infamous discourse on the incompatibility of the West and Islam, which in the film is conspicuously absent.
“The book is stunning in its outright hostility to Muslim culture and to the Arab world,” said Dr. Melani McAlister, Associate Professor of American Studies and International Affairs at George Washington University. However, she said, it was not uncommon for movies to “tone down the racism and radical politics in the novels on which they were based.”
In Angels and Demons, the Vatican is threatened when an explosive new technology – a small quantity of highly unstable antimatter – falls into the hands of a man with a penchant for medieval torture and an assignment to exact revenge. In the book, this villain is an Arab terrorist-for-hire, a Crusade-avenging Muslim vigilante called only “the Hassassin”.
In the film however, this villanous role is filled by the mysterious Mr. Gray, whom Danish actor Nicholaj Lie Kaas portrays with subtlety and menace. Speaking in an accent that sounds more American than anything else, Mr. Kaas stalks the streets of Rome in a crumpled yet stylish suit and rimless spectacles. He expresses distaste for the sadistic acts he has been instructed to commit, saying “It’s a sin to kill with pain, to kill without reason” and refuses to attack the film’s unarmed heroes. He is nondescript. He is mercinarily motivated. And he is white.
This is a stark departure from the villain as written by Dan Brown. In the book, the Hassassin is described as having “mahogany skin” and “eyes black like oil”. His longing to destroy Christianity is only slightly stronger than his desire to subjugate and ravage independent Western women – having to tear himself away from the latter to complete the tasks at hand. Not just a ruthless killer, he is a sexual pervert whose “greatest aphrodisiac” is to see terror in a woman’s eyes. Also, he calls his employer “master.”
There is nothing subtle here. This is a character in blackface,and his absence from the film raises a number of questions. After all, many action movies have been unabashed in showing characters just like this one. Whether firing on a U.S. embassy in Rules of Engagement, or threatening to blow up Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies, the “evil Muslim” stereotype has been presented in cinema again and again since the 1980s.
During cinema’s first fifty years however, the Middle East was seen largely through the lens of the belly dancing slave girl, the sexy sheikh, and Salome provocatively shedding her seven veils. From the romantic Rudolph Valentino abduction films of the 1920s to the biblical epics of the 1950s, the “exotic east” was depicted as far less threatening. But as relations soured with former U.S. allies in the region after the oil crisis, the Iranian revoluion, and the first Iraq war, themes evolved to represent the terrorist bent on mass destruction and the misogynist religious tyrant (read: Not Without My Daughter).
If the Hassassin can be seen as a personification of an old political doctrine, does getting rid of him signal the entrance of a new era of East-West relations? Or are we merely bored with the same old device?
Dr. McAlister thinks that it might signal a change. “This is overt and profound racism,” she said of the original character. “The makers of Angels and Demons could have figured out a way to still make him the assassin, but have an additional character, a good Arab,” a strategy, she says, that has been employed by other filmmakers in recent years. “Instead they have chosen to just skirt the entire issue. People are more self-conscious now, and that’s a good thing.”
Indeed, more filmmakers are choosing to avoid this cardboard cutout depiction of Arabs and Persians, and are reaching out to experts and rights groups like the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Council to help them do it.
When George Clooney began production on Syriana, he called Professor Jack Shaheen, a former Middle East affairs consultant for CBS news, to help him with the script.
“The terrorist thing has been done a million times,” Dr. Shaheen said. When working with producers, he flags dialogue or scenes and says what is not acceptable, why, and what would work better. “I always have constructive suggestions. I’m not really looking to eliminate stereotypes so much as make a better film,” he explained.
Many stereotypes take a long time to wither away however, as Dr. Shaheen pointed out. “Look how many years it took us to shed the stereotype of African Americans? Now you’d have the NAACP all over you.”
If the studio made Angels and Demons’ main villain a Dane instead of an Arab in order to avoid controversy, or just to freshen up a stale storytelling device, they aren’t telling.
When asked to comment on the character change, Mr. Brown’s agent would say only that the book was “written over ten years ago” and that “many characters have undergone changes in nationality.”
A spokesperson for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Council said they had not been aware of the Hassassin character, but identified the decision to eliminate him as a brave step.
“From a civil rights perspective, this is something that needs to be applauded,” he said. In the past the ADC has struggled to reach out to moviemakers, but in recent years as awareness has increased, those moviemakers have been contacting them.
After all, once a stereotype becomes too controversial, it detracts from the mindless fun typically sought from a summer blockbuster. Despite its academic hero and high-minded premise, this is what Angels and Demons ultimately is. The film’s conversations about art and religion take place inside speeding cars, as the protagonists screech up to old churches, which are quickly engulfed in flames.
As Ron Howard said of the film recently “It’s a thriller, not a crusade.”
Summer Brennan is a freelance writer and artist based in New York City. She works part of the year with the United Nations as a political writer covering the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Special Political and Decolonization Committee, and other UN bodies. Ms. Brennan has also consulted on Middle Eastern and Islamic issues for the private sector. She holds a Bachelor’s from Bennington College and a Master’s from New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, SMITH Magazine, and other publications.
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