Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Ron Howard inverts the novel's message and winds up with one of the worst movies of the year
I can tell you exactly what Dan Brown is like.
Based on the many photos I’ve seen of the sprightly, geeky author, and also based on his proxy hero, Robert Langdon, I can tell you with great certainty that Brown is an animated, geeky, enthusiastic guy whose eyes no doubt twinkle in tune with his gestures when he talks about ancient history or whatever the hell he studies. That's what Brown is like in life, that's what Langdon is like in the book, and that's how he should have been portrayed in the movie.
Tom Hanks’ dour, drab, monotone performance as Robert Langdon, in contrast to my mental image of Brown, plods in tune with the dreary, disappointing film of The DaVinci Code, backed up by Hans Zimmer’s keening, plaintive, dirgelike disaster of a score.
But the disaster that is The DaVinci Code isn’t Hanks’ fault. Far from it. He was grossly miscast and did his best with a role that played to none of his strengths. No – blame for this monumental fuck-up falls squarely on Ron Howard and his creative team, who somehow manage to water down Brown’s good-natured salvo on Christianity while at the same time making the message behind his book sound and look ugly.
When Brown’s novel first hit, a friend (who hadn’t read it yet) asked me what I thought of it. I said that I liked how Brown laid out a critique of Christianity in a very good-natured way.
This friend asked, “So it’s a polemic?”
And I had to say no, that it wasn’t a polemic because it’s not an angry book. Yes, it makes a serious argument, yes, it has raised controversy – both qualities of polemical writing – but Brown’s book lacks a third key quality of polemical writing, in my opinion: anger.
And that’s the problem with the film. It’s a sad, dreary and often angry movie, when Brown wrote a happy book with a positive message. In his novel, Brown doesn’t attack Christianity so much as raise the possibility that a far more beautiful version of Christianity has been lurking just beyond the margins of history. The only finger-pointing Brown does in his novel is toward a world where Christianity glorifies women and the “sacred feminine” (Langdon’s and presumably Brown’s pet idea), and a world where Christianity embraces and glorifies sex as a beaufitul, natural part of life.
Here are the symptoms of this systemic problem:
The main one: In the book, the character Sophie Neveau (the always faboo Audrey Tautou) accidentally sees her grandfather performing in an admittedly bizarre sexual ritual, and it estranges her from him until his murder, which kicks off the action of the novel. But as Sophie learns her true identity (she’s the last living descendant of Jesus Christ), she comes to realize that this ritual was in fact a beautiful, happy glorification of women and lovemaking.
To wit, here’s a memorable passage from Brown’s book:
“By communing with a woman,” Langdon said, “man could achieve a climactic instant when his mind went totally blank and he could see God. (…) It’s important to remember that the ancient’s view of sex was entirely the opposite from ours today. Sex begot new life – the ultimate miracle – and miracles could be performed only by a god. The ability of a women to produce new life from her womb made her sacred. A god” (pp. 309).
Not only does Akiva Goldsman’s script omit this passage, but it also never shows Sophie’s realization that the ritual she saw was something wonderful. Instead it shows a flashback of the ritual in the same tired, cross-processed, grainy, blown-out footage as every other flashback in the movie – and leaves it at that. The only memory of this beautiful ceremony we get is a creepy flashback capped by young Sophie’s shocked expression.
Furthermore, Howard and Goldman’s script includes a ham-handed scene after the climax where Langdon asks Sophie whether the last living descendant of Christ should “destroy faith, or renew it?”
That bit isn’t in the book, and it inverts Brown’s message. Brown advanced the happy possibility that if all this kooky stuff were true – that the church had conspired to hide Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene and the identity of his lineage – that Jesus’ last living descendant could reveal their identity and the evidence of Mary Magdalene’s marriage to Jesus and help renew Christianity and transform it into a new and beautiful thing.
Other problems plague this film, though, and they bring to mind other trashy novels that made truly great movies. Now, most critics – me, included – have written a lot of self-satisfied prose about Brown’s trashy, clumsy and wooden writing. I’d like to ask all of them to give Brown a break and chastise myself for falling into the same trap, because I like Brown’s book. I like it a lot, and I wanted to like this movie despite its 17 percent Tomatometer rating.
But I will concede and maintain that Brown’s novel needed some finesseing. Briefly, here’s a list of four other trashy novels that were made into fantastic movies, including what I think they needed to make them great:
The Day of the Jackal. Fred Zinneman took Fredrick Forsyth’s detailed but overwrought thriller and treated it like a documentary, focusing on the details of rendition, interrogation and old-fashioned detective work.
The Silence of the Lambs. Jonathan Demme took Thomas Harris’ cheesy, lurid melodrama and sat on it, forcing everyone involved in the production to underplay every word and every image. The result? A masterpiece of psychological drama.
The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy. Doug Liman stripped away the pseudo-bodice-ripping hamminess of Robert Ludlum’s source novel and infused it with modern raver martial arts hipness, pressing no less than Run, Lola, Run’s Franka Potente into duty as the love interest. Paul Greengrass did what he usually does – he treated the material like national tragedy, neatly matching the repentant tone of Ludlum’s second Bourne novel with his own jittery, dirty, grim, verite directing style.
That said, what do I think The DaVinci Code needed?
A director’s perspective. That’s it. Poor Ron Howard was forced into the same trap as Chris Columbus on the first two Harry Potter movies – both Howard and Columbus are moderately talented, hard-working directors who simply lack any spark of true genius. Both were charged with a very valuable literary property, and both did nothing more than put the book onscreen. Some friends of mine excused Howard on these grounds, but after the Lord of the Rings movies, we don’t have as much latitude to make that excuse anymore. Peter Jackson wrecked the curve and showed us all that valuable literary properties deserve great directors.
But to be more specific, all The DaVinci Code needed was joy. I don’t know who I would have cast as Langdon instead – Jude Law, perhaps – but whoever played the part should have twinkled, grinned and enjoyed himself as he raced through the occult scavenger hunt at the center of Brown’s novel. Hanks smiled maybe once in the movie, and I submit that Langdon should have been smiling his ass off as he realized the magnitude of his mission. He is that much of a geek.
Instead, Howard stuck us (and Hanks) with one of the hoariest and most useless devices in the realm of character development: the Fear.
Tom Clancy, a truly shitty writer, created a similar hero to Langdon: Jack Ryan. Both characters have a Fear: Langdon has a phobia of enclosed places, Ryan of air travel. Both authors operate under the delusion that this constitutes character development, when in my opinion, true character development involves three key steps:
1. A character must have a personality. After you read a book, you should be able to tell someone what that character is like.
2. A character should make interesting choices; and by “interesting,” I mean that their choices must make you say, “Why the fuck did he/she do that?!”
3. A character should have a backstory that informs his or her interesting choices.
Ryan and Langdon fail to fulfill my latter two requirements, but they have buckets of personality. Again, they’re both big geeks, and Alec Baldwin and Ben Affleck both realized that in their performances. Hanks did (or could) not, and instead was forced to slog his way through two interminably long scenes where Langdon almost freaks out in an enclosed place. Ugh.
You may have noticed that I haven’t discussed the veracity of Brown’s claims. That’s because I don’t care. Brown argued a lot of points, yes, but at the center of it all stood his central "argument": that Jesus Christ was not a supernatural, divine figure with magic powers. He made this argument through a rollicking novel with a goofy, tweedy, geeky hero, and he made it with a good heart and a big smile. In Howard’s movie we lose Langdon's aw-shucks goofiness in favor of Ian McKellen’s Leigh Teabing, a standard-issue angry atheist who wants to use the San Greal evidence to “bring the church to its knees.” Don’t get me wrong: that rhetoric is in Brown’s novel (and Ian McKellen’s energetic performance is one of the movie’s highlights), but Langdon’s good nature offsets Teabing's vindictiveness. Langdon’s good nature puts a happy, benevolent face on what would be a stunning paradigm shift, and Brown’s entertaining dramatization of Holy Blood, Holy Grail got more than 50 million people to look at – perhaps even consider – the possibility that Jesus was not a supernatural figure, and that sex is a miracle.
Howard’s movie does neither of those things. What a shame.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.