Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

There’s no safe way to adapt one of the best-selling and most controversial novels of all time to the screen. Having said that, I applaud Ron Howard for his fairly solid result. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has caused more furor than any book since Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988. As far as I know, the Vatican hasn’t put any bounties on Dan Brown’s life, but still; conservative Christians everywhere are furious. Everyone seems to either love Brown’s book or despise it. Interestingly enough, most people who despise it haven’t actually read it.

The film remains faithful to the novel in most respects. A famous symbologist named Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) gives a lecture explaining the power of symbols and the plethora of possible interpretations. Langdon shows a picture of men in white hoods and asks the crowd for one-word responses. Audience members quickly shout words like, “hatred,” and “racism,” to which he responds, “They would disagree with you in Spain where these hoods are worn by priests in religious ceremonies.” Immediately after his lecture, the French police escort Langdon to the Louvre Museum where renowned art curator Jacques Sauniére (Jean Pierre Marielle) lies dead on the floor, surrounded by mysterious symbols written in blood. “Why would anyone do this to him?” Langdon asks. “You misunderstand,” the officer tells Langdon. “Monsieur Sauniére did that to himself.”

So begins the epic quest to solve the mystery and unravel the secrets of Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings. Other key players are Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a beautiful, young cryptographer who assists Langdon, and Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), a history buff who offers his expertise to help unlock the code. At this point, I’m not quite sure how to proceed; if you don’t know the true focal point of the plot, I don’t want to ruin it for you. Also, if you don’t know it, you really should read the book first. However, if you’ve been alive for the past three years you’ve probably heard something of it by now. The true secret of the murder concerns a quest for the holy grail and a revelation about Jesus that could topple the Church’s power forever.

The film establishes the proper mood through eerie cinematography and music. The film has great intensity at times, especially during one scene of self-inflicted torture that almost transcends its PG-13 rating. However, the intensity is sometimes misplaced. On the whole, fans of the novel will find themselves experiencing many of the same feelings Brown’s original narrative conjured up, which is what you hope for from an adaptation. Ron Howard’s film does an excellent job consolidating the novel’s vast amounts of historical data into a typical movie timeframe, but it doesn’t cover all of it; it’s just not possible. Because of this, The Da Vinci Code as a film doesn’t carry the same level of believability and confusion as the novel does. The premise of the film feels slightly more absurd at times than the novel ever did, but we must remember that the mediums are different. Howard’s film achieves as much as it can in the realm of believability, and no more should be expected. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t always meet its potential for overall intrigue and excitement.

There are times where the overload of explanations almost grows monotonous, but again, was this avoidable? I don’t know; with such explosive subject matter, the film could’ve benefitted from a greater sense of danger. The story was explained craftily and the film was well-paced, but at the end of the day my palms just weren’t sweaty enough, nor had I spent enough time on the edge of my seat. As for the performances, some have already criticized the lack of chemistry between the principal actors, Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, but I submit that the two have the same level of chemistry as the characters have in Brown’s novel. The frequent moviegoer, dulled by age-old formulas, will no doubt expect a romantic connection to develop between the two, but I’ll go ahead and spoil this aspect of the story by saying that romance isn’t on the film’s agenda. The novel barely dabbles in a pseudo-romance between Langdon and Neveu, and the film version purposefully avoids it. When the credits roll, these characters haven’t gotten together, and that’s OK. In fact, I found it slightly refreshing.

Tom Hanks works as the story’s smart guy. Symbology isn’t the most adventurous field of study, and even within that field, Robert Langdon is no action hero (don’t think of Indiana Jones’ “archaeology”). The character of Robert Langdon embodies the biggest difference between The Da Vinci Code as a novel and as a film. On screen, he has a great hesitancy about everything happening around him. He doesn’t seem excited or vindicated that his years of study are now proving useful. The film version uses Langdon’s character as a means of responding to some of the novel’s criticism. He periodically reminds Sophie/the audience that these are just theories and that Christians shouldn’t be in an uproar about all of this. The novel had no need to defend itself, but the film’s use of Langdon’s skepticism in the face of controversy effectively responds to the very people who will be boycotting the film. In the film’s final moments, he tells Sophie, “In the end, it’s about what you believe.” I don’t know if people will be pleased, disappointed, bored, encouraged, or outraged by The Da Vinci Code, but if people take anything from it, I hope they heed Langdon’s final advice.

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