'Angels & Demons' Latest of Many Films to Rouse Religion's Wrath

Ron Howard's new adaptation of Dan Brown's novel provokes Catholic criticism.

ByABC News
April 22, 2009, 6:51 PM

April 23, 2009 — -- When God's got a role, someone's bound to get upset.

Ron Howard's "Angels & Demons," his prequel to "The Da Vinci Code," is the latest film to rouse the Catholic community.

Last week, Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, accused Howard and "Angels & Demons" author Dan Brown of "smearing the Catholic Church with fabulously bogus tales" in a New York Daily News editorial.

Howard fought back this week via an article posted in The Huffington Post:

"Let me be clear: neither I nor 'Angels & Demons' are anti-Catholic. And let me be a little controversial: I believe Catholics, including most in the hierarchy of the Church, will enjoy the movie for what it is: an exciting mystery, set in the awe-inspiring beauty of Rome. After all, in 'Angels & Demons,' Professor Robert Langdon teams up with the Catholic Church to thwart a vicious attack against the Vatican. What, exactly, is anti-Catholic about that?"

His defense only stirred up Donahue, who rebutted Howard in a press release:

"Howard must be delusional if he thinks Vatican officials are going to like his propaganda -- they denied him the right to film on their grounds. Moreover, we know from a Canadian priest who hung out with Howard's crew last summer in Rome (dressed in civilian clothes) just how much they hate Catholicism. It's time to stop the lies and come clean."

Audiences will make the final call when "Angels & Demons" hits theaters May 15. But the feud between Howard and Donahue need not doom the film -- as past performances show, the free publicity from a religious controversy can benefit a movie's bottom line.

Below, ABCNews.com takes a look at four recent fiction-based films condemned by religious groups and how they fared at the box office:

On the surface, the pint-sized protagonist, frozen landscapes, talking polar bears and flying witches make 2007's "The Golden Compass" seem like little more than fantastical holiday fare.

But the film, co-starring Nicole Kidman and based on "His Dark Materials," a trilogy of books by self-proclaimed atheist Philip Pullman about a little girl on a quest to kill God, was of grave significance to Catholic advocates.

While New Line Cinema, the film's distributor, watered down the theme of the books for the big screen, critics argued that "The Golden Compass" would encourage movie-goers to buy Pullman's works.

"Our fear is the parents who don't know what's actually in these books and don't learn about it from the film may think [the books] are great stocking stuffers for their kids on Christmas morning," Kiera McCaffrey, the spokeswoman for the Catholic League, told ABC News at the time of the movie's release.

The Catholic League also called for a boycott of the film.

As with "Angels & Demons," "The Da Vinci Code," Howard's first film adaptation of a Brown novel, tested the tolerance of the Catholic community. The book itself was slammed for being anti-Catholic.

Religious leaders objected to the novel's suggestion that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene created the Holy Grail and to its depiction of the Catholic organization Opus Dei as a secretive, violent sect that smothers the truth about Jesus.

Even before the film opened, the Vatican launched a PR campaign against it, with Archbishop Angelo Amato calling for a boycott of the movie. Opus Dei requested that Howard and Sony Pictures add a disclaimer to the beginning of "The Da Vinci Code" stating it was a work of fiction.

Howard affirmed the movie was based on fiction, as Brown never claimed his novel to be pure history, but refused to honor Opus Dei's request, telling the Los Angeles Times, "Spy thrillers don't start off with disclaimers."

In the end, the frenzy led to the third biggest movie opening of 2006. "The Da Vinci Code" made $77 million in its first weekend and went on to gross more than $750 million worldwide, setting the bar high for the box office success of "Angels & Demons."

Mel Gibson said he wanted to inspire movie-goers with his 2004 epic about Jesus Christ's final hours, "The Passion of the Christ."

But before the film hit theaters, he offended scores of people. Allegations of anti-Semitism swirled around the film after the Anti Defamation League obtained a copy of the script.

"For filmmakers to do justice to the biblical accounts of the passion, they must complement their artistic vision with sound scholarship, which includes knowledge of how the passion accounts have been used historically to disparage and attack Jews and Judaism," the ADL said in a statement. "Absent such scholarly and theological understanding, productions such as The Passion could likely falsify history and fuel the animus of those who hate Jews."

Combine religiously questionable themes with a child-heavy audience and controversy can spin out of control. The "Harry Potter" books and movies have spawned a mini-movement of conservative Christians concerned with the series' depictions of witchcraft and morality.

In 2006, the Vatican's chief exorcist condemned J. K. Rowling's fictional boy wizard as downright evil.

"Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the devil," Father Gabriele Amorth, the Pope's "caster-out of demons," told Britain's Daily Mail, adding that the books and movies served as vehicles for children to develop interest in the occult.

But reaction to "Harry Potter" is varied across sects of Christianity.

In 2004, the Episcopal conference named "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" one of the 10 best family films of the year.

And while in 2000, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral refused to allow his church to be filmed as part of Hogwarts in the "Harry Potter" film series, when Gloucester Cathedral took its place, the dean of that church praised the "Harry Potter" tales as a " marvelous traditional children's story."

At the box office, fan enthusiasm has consistently won out over religious rumblings. The five movies in the "Harry Potter" franchise have grossed close to $1.5 billion worldwide thus far, and there are three more installments that have yet to hit theaters.