In all probability more people have read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in its Farsi translation than have read all my publications put together. No wonder. It is splendid junk, and I mean that as a positive remark, sort of. Brown has a flawless sense of his genre, and the book delivers exactly what he and the readers want. It has no pretensions about being Moby Dick. The prose might read like an exercise by an E.S.L. dropout, but with 105 mini-chapters plus an epilogue, in 450 pages, he realized that his target audience has the attention span of suicidal fruit flies.
With an uncanny instinct bordering on genius, Brown sweeps together the leavings of history, theology and mythology, the stuff that everyone has heard of but few people really know very much about. He boils these ingredients together to create a spicy gravy that cloaks the pedestrian narrative and wildly improbable revelations with an aroma of importance, if not pretension. Almost effortlessly, he leads the reader into a suspension not only of belief, but of intelligence. And millions of us love every minute of it.
Brown has mastered the technique of the beach novel. With breathless urgency, he concocts one desperate crisis after another, leaves it hanging, cuts off to a different plot line in another three-page chapter, then does a high speed U-turn, to resolve the first crisis. In film, it’s called parallel editing, or alternating scenes of action taking place in two or more places at the same time. You know, the “meanwhile, back at the ranch” syndrome. It works every time. It creates suspense with a paint-by-numbers certainty. We have to find out what happens; we read another chapter, or two or three, and then realize it’s two or three in the morning.
Like any good pulp novelist or screenwriter, Brown knows that heroes rise in stature in direct proportion to the villainy of their adversaries. Great comic books and adventure movies always involve hostile aliens out to conquer the universe with their all-powerful death ray or, likewise, some grotesque children of mother earth: Godzilla knockoffs, like Trumposaurus Rex, who emerges from the sewers of Manhattan determined to eat the Chrysler Building unless stopped by some superhero with his own miraculous powers. Sometimes the villains are organizations. James Bond had SMERSH; Dr. Strangelove his madmen in the basement of the Pentagon. Dan Brown has Opus Dei and its psychopathic hitman, an albino “monk” named Silas, who divides his time between chastising his own flesh for sins unspecified and icing enemies of the opposition at the behest of a jowly bishop who bops around Europe in a private jet with a suitcase full of euros. What is at stake is not the survival of the universe or the Chrysler Building, but the future of Christianity.
This last point has made this book the undisputed sales giant in the pulp fiction world and will undoubtedly make a blockbuster movie out of a mildly entertaining but eminently routine caper film. Spook stories sprinkled with religious imagery can’t lose, and Catholics have the best and most familiar images to work with. (Bram Stoker put enough communion wafers in Dracula to supply an outdoor Mass at the Los Angeles Coliseum.) The P.R. squad at Columbia Pictures knows how to bring the pundits of church and media onto their team by billing their new product as a “controversial film” that challenges the very foundations of Christianity. Really? The film is as controversial as cold toast, and has just as much substance.
Why give a second thought to this illustrated novel (a term bookstores now use for comic books)? Given today’s state of ignorance about all things religious, some well-intentioned church people fear that people might mistake this limp thriller for a valid critique of Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. I’d be tempted to dismiss their fears as paranoid, except for the fact that sometimes religion-based fiction can have far-reaching effects that extend way beyond the sacristy door. For example, millions of people have read the “Left Behind” novels, with their mishmash of fantasy and apocalyptic scripture, and actually believe “The Rapture” is at hand. To hasten the reestablishment of the Kingdom and the damnation of all infidels after the ravaging of the earth, some of these readers are convinced it is their duty to let the environment go to hell in a Hummer.
The Da Vinci Code provides no howling demons or cataclysmic earthquakes that free the spirits of the damned. Brown takes his raw material from the nightly newscasts: the Vatican Bank’s alleged connections with the Mafia a few years ago, alternative versions of early Christianity provided by the Gnostic gospels and the shadowy workings of Opus Dei. Especially Opus Dei. In an earlier age, playwrights would have evil alchemist monks making pacts with the devil in their dank laboratories hidden behind the dungeons of their monasteries, or sinister Jesuits poisoning half the courts of Europe to consolidate their vast wealth and political control over the royal households. Now we’ve O.D.’d on O.D.
Brown uses the popular conceptions of the organization to stand for the very worst images of Catholicism, while carefully explaining that the new pope and the mainstream Vatican officials actually wear white hats. In the popular imagination, the group is secretive, authoritarian, anti-woman, coercive and fanatical in its dedication to corporal penances, spooky superstitions, secret rites and the narrowest, most reactionary interpretation of Catholic doctrine. Much of this image may be lifted from the Taliban or Al Qaeda. For militant secularists, religion is scary as well as obnoxious, and Opus Dei fits their need for a villain.
The film script, by Akiva Goldsman, sticks close to the novel, perhaps at the insistence of co-producer Dan Brown. Too close. Much of the fun in the novel involves solving the illogical pattern of riddles that propels the plot. It works in the verbal medium of the printed page, but becomes deadly in the visual medium of film. Like the novel, the movie hip-hops from one crisis to another, with improbable, poorly staged escapes that would make Indiana Jones weep with embarrassment, but it drags along simply because the characters have to stop to explain what they are doing. Clinging by its fingernails to seriousness, it fails to generate the fun of a good action-adventure movie, which it might have been.
Although the principals rush about saving Western civilization as well as their own lives, they seem oddly disengaged from the action. Film actors, unlike stage actors, meld their own personalities with the parts they play. Tom Hanks is a fine actor, but he fails to project the intellectual depth to make a convincing Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of “symbology.” (Only Harvard would have a department of symbology.) He’s more the Jimmy Stewart type, playing the determined, resourceful and upright hero, as he did so well in “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and “Apollo 13” (1995). Even with his greasy, 1970’s long hair, he cannot make it as an academic, at least not at Harvard. Audrey Tautou has surely outgrown her lovable kook persona from “Amélie” (2001), but as Detective Sophie Neveu, the brilliant cryptologist working for the Paris police department, she embodies all the buoyancy of a concrete soufflé. Neither actor seems interested in the other—or in the film—and together the couple never strikes a spark. Fred and Ginger they’re not. “Knights of the Living Dead,” perhaps. Speaking of sex, would a sophisticated Parisienne be so upset at having caught her grandfather in flagrante that she would refuse to speak to him for 10 years? Don’t ask.
The villains do better, but they’re not enough to relieve the tedium. Ian McKellen, a wonderful actor trained on the English stage, realizes more than anyone else that he is being paid to entertain audiences. He takes his archfiend Leigh Teabing over the top as though he actually enjoys each delicious, lip-licking venture into villainy. Silas (Paul Bettany) runs around in his monk’s robes, scaling walls and assassinating enemies with all the vigor of Spider-Man’s evil twin after too many Starbucks double espressos. His miraculous escape from prison, thanks to a fortuitous earthquake, and arrival into the dark world of Opus Dei, rivals Superman’s arrival from the planet Krypton.
Those of us who took guilty pleasure wading through the palpable nonsense of Brown’s novel have a right to be disappointed in this mediocre film adaptation. What happened? In “March of the Penguins,” Morgan Freeman describes the eponymous hero as “a bird who thinks he’s a fish.” Similarly, director Ron Howard, Columbia Pictures, writers Goldsman and Brown were not quite sure whether this was fish or fowl. They followed the book and predictable movie conventions too closely, and as a result drained any wit, insight, originality or vitality from the project. They allowed themselves to succumb to solemnity and treated this promising potboiler far too seriously. Paradoxically, they fell into the same trap as their critics from the religion community. Audiences, critics and church people can forgive historical lunacy, theological distortion and academic atrocities, but the one unforgivable sin for Hollywood is a failure to entertain.