The Da Vinci Code
Director : Ron Howard
Screenplay : Akiva Goldsman (based on the novel by Dan Brown)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Audrey Tautou (Sophie Neveu), Ian McKellen (Sir Leigh Teabing), Jean Reno (Captain Fache), Paul Bettany (Silas), Alfred Molina (Bishop Aringarosa), Jürgen Prochnow (André Vernet), Jean-Yves Berteloot (Remy Jean), Etienne Chicot (Lt. Collet), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Jacques Sauniere), Marie-Françoise Audollent (Sister Sandrine)
The Da Vinci Code is Exhibit A in how things that work on the page don’t always translate on-screen. Dan Brown’s book, which has sold some 40 million copies and shows little sign of slowing down, reads like a novelized screenplay, and most people burn through it no time. Thus, you can’t really fault Hollywood executives for snapping it up and spitting it out a slavishly faithful adaptation as fast as possible. Yet, the pacing and intrigue that makes the book so easy to devour becomes sluggish and dull on-screen, despite the strained efforts of director Ron Howard to make it exciting.
The thing about the book that makes it so popular and controversial is Brown’s canny incorporation of history, theology, and ages-old conspiracy theories into a mystery-thriller, which makes readers feel like they’re learning something profoundly meaningful. Of course, they’re not. The brilliance (or intellectual bankruptcy--take your pick) of Brown’s novel is that it makes half-baked conspiracy theories that have long since been discredited by reputable scholars seem not only legitimate, but brand new, as if they hadn’t been deployed in several books in the 1970s. The impact of the story’s “revolutionary” ideas relies almost entirely on reader ignorance of history and theology; it is thus easily digestible and exciting for armchair intellectuals who get their controversial ideas from mass-market paperbacks and regurgitate them wholesale at cocktail parties.
While the story’s mixture of thriller elements with pseudo-scholarly discourse makes the book insatiably readable, it is precisely what makes The Da Vinci Code so monumentally dull on-screen. Simply put, the film has to come to a screeching halt at regular intervals so that characters can lecture each other (and, by proxy, us) about history and theology and symbology and other -ologies that don’t lend themselves to mass-market blockbuster filmmaking. It works much better on the page where everything is prose to begin with; it’s not quite so annoying to suffer through all the exposition. In the film, which Howard directs with an air of arty gravitas the material doesn’t even begin to deserve, all the necessary exposition becomes endless speechifying that makes even the likes of Tom Hanks seem wooden.
Hanks, who was clearly cast for his name appeal, rather than his suitability for the role, stars as Robert Langdon, a professor of religious symbology at Harvard who happens to be lecturing in Paris when Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle), a curator at the Lourve, is killed within the museum’s hallowed halls. While dying, Sauniere used his blood to write out cryptic messages that Langdon might be able to interpret, or might implicate him as the murderer. Not long thereafter, Langdon finds himself on the run with Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a cryptologist for the French police who was Sauniere’s granddaughter. Pursuing them is both the French police, headed by the relentless Captain Fache (Jean Reno), and a murderous, self-flagellating albino monk named Silas (Paul Bettany), who is a member of the shadowy Catholic offshoot Opus Dei and is on a mission to protect a secret vital to the church.
The plot thickens (almost to the point of inertia) when Langdon and Sophie arrive on the doorstep of Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan, the only actor who seems comfortable in the film), an eccentric British scholar and expert on the Holy Grail. Teabing becomes the film’s primary source of information, as he lectures on the implications of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” the history of mysterious organizations like the Priory of Sion, and the bloody history of first-century religious wars.
Perhaps sensing that, despite McKellan’s strong screen presence, just listening to him talk might get a bit taxing, Howard envisions some of his lecturing in purplish imagery, which reaches a bizarre and laughable climax when he presents the Council of Nicea as a scene out of a campy Cecil B. DeMille spectacular. It’s not the only moment when Howard over-reaches in an attempt to enliven the film’s essentially static nature; he crams in as many eye-grabbing crane shots as he can (every new location is introduced by the same rising shot), as well as computer imagery to suggest ala A Beautiful Mind what is happening in Langdon’s cerebrum.
As most know, the mystery revolves around the supposed “greatest cover-up in human history,” which is that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and fathered a child, who then spawned a royal bloodline that has persisted into modern times. Not only that, but Christ was not divine, and therefore the Catholic Church has been purposefully sustaining lies for 2,000 years in order to maintain its power and control, which it wrested away from well-meaning pagans who worshiped feminine goddesses (thus, Christianity is also single-handedly responsible for the oppression of women). These are not exactly new ideas, as the have been bandied about by critics of organized religion for centuries, but The Da Vinci Code makes them seem fresh in the eyes of those who don’t know any better. What makes it all so insufferable is the way the film wraps its outdated sacrilege in a shroud of fuzzy pseudo-seriousness, culminating in an absolutely laughable final image that finds Langdon reverently bowing over one of the Louvre’s glass pyramids as the music swells ponderously.
Yet, it didn’t have to be that way. In a recent article in The National Review, John Wauck, a priest in Opus Dei, suggests that Dan Brown incorporated numerous overt hints throughout The Da Vinci Code to suggest that he is fully aware of how ridiculous it all is. As Wauck argues, “despite the copious ink spilled and still awaiting spilling, something that commentaries on Dan Brown’s work consistently overlook: its author’s self-deprecating sense of humor.” Unfortunately, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard join the ranks of those who missed that sense of humor, as well, which is perhaps why their relentlessly self-serious movie adaptation feels so stuffy and bloated. Maybe it should have been turned into a comedy.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2006 Columbia Pictures and Imagine Entertainment