[9 August 2006]
This spring and summer The Da Vinci Code was everywhere. From creator Dan Brown’s legal battle over plagiarism claims with the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail to local church sermons challenging the theological hypotheses in the book, people have been talking about his 2003 novel and the subsequent film adaptation for months.
Recently, on a flight out of Santo Domingo, I was reaching into my carry-on bag for my copy of the book when I realized that the woman sitting next to me was reading Brown’s Angels and Demons (a sort of Da Vinci prequel). Then I saw that the guy sitting directly across the aisle was pouring over his copy of The Da Vinci Code. And, believe it or not, in the row ahead of me, a man was surveying a newspaper article commenting on whether Mary Magdalene was a saint or a sinner.
With all the hype surrounding Brown and his book having finally died down a bit, I decided to buckle down and see the film adaptation. Since blockbusters like Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest were still stealing the spotlight in my local theaters, I had to travel quite a bit to find a cinema that was showing it. This, to me, is a definite sign that the movie is on its way out. After all, I live in an area where movie theaters are almost as rampant as Starbucks.
In all honesty, I really wasn’t looking forward to the experience. My preferences would be to see something other than a hyped up summer blockbuster that got dismal reviews. And besides, I felt like I’d already seen the movie. That is because reading The Da Vinci Code is just like seeing a film. It moves fast, has lots of visual action sequences, and is filled with characters that seem like they just walked out of a screenplay. As I read it, I felt like I was actually sitting in a theater. A part of me even wanted to make some popcorn and grab a package of Twizzlers while I turned the pages. When Ron Howard and Columbia Pictures snatched the book up for adaptation, it was unsurprising and probably a little unnecessary.
The book and movie are essentially a treasure hunt in which famous Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) race to find the ‘Holy Grail’ before the French Police and a host of villains including crazed Opus Dei members can find them and the clues they possess. Ron Howard translates Brown’s bulky page turner very literally, yet tries to do in a mere two and a half hours what would probably require at least four. The effect is like “seeing” the book all over again, but with diluted characters, tacky special effects, and a poor handling of the story’s pacing.
Even though the book is miles away from literature, it’s a quick, fluffy, and often fun thriller. One of the writing skills Dan Brown has mastered is the ability to deliver a quick paced plot without losing the reader’s focus or leaving out key details. This is where the movie screws things up. Howard’s version feels recklessly sped up. As I sat there in the theater, I wondered how it would be possible to follow the knotty narrative if you hadn’t read the book first. Conquests like solving tricky puzzles and cracking codes that were carefully and not so easily pulled off in the book are solved instantly and seamlessly in the film. On the big screen, necessary explanations of key plot points like conspiracy theories and religious terminology come across as wordy and rushed. In the book, sufficient time is given to these necessary, foundational details.
There were other moments throughout the movie where I found myself thinking, “yeah, right” usually whenever Langdon and Neveu squeezed their way out of yet another tricky situation just in the nick of time. One scene in particular, which takes place in the Louvre toward the beginning, is worth noting for its improbability. Just after security guards have swept through a gallery looking for the two, Langdon and Neveu walk around the same area, speaking in regular tones, seemingly unworried about getting caught as they try to crack a code. In the book, even though some of the lucky escapes are a bit inane, they’re justifiable because there is a lot more tension and close calls involved in each getaway.
Unlike the characters in the book, those in the film are about as interesting as pocket lint. In the novel, Langdon has much more charisma and a real sense of humor. Likewise, we get to know much more about Neveu and her complex family history. In the movie, neither character is what you would call ‘fleshed out’, and there is never really a point where we really feel like we “know” them. But since The Da Vinci Code is a thriller, we can forgive Brown for making them somewhat flat in order to keep the action moving along.
In a film, I typically like to care at least a little bit about the people running from the bad guys. But in the big screen version, Hanks and particularly Tautou are both so emotionless and dour (and by the way, have absolutely no chemistry between them as a couple), that I didn’t really care by the end if they found what they were looking for or were picked off by one of the many people chasing after them. The only characters I ended up liking were the nutty Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) and the creepy albino monk, Silas (Paul Bettany). At least they had some personality.
Ron Howard’s Da Vinci Code is nothing more than a choppy, watered down translation of Brown’s pulpier novel. As a filmmaker, he followed the story so literally and in so small a space that he lost any chance of making a fresh cinematic adventure out of Brown’s otherwise mainstream material. If you’re interested in The Da Vinci Code, read the book and skip the movie. Unfortunately, there’s no prize at the end of either ‘treasure’ hunt.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/makowsky060809/