The argument over which is better - a book or a subsequent film adaptation - is generally won by the books in question. There are, of course, a couple of exceptions (see, for example, what Francis Ford Coppola did with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness when creating Apocalypse Now) and one should always be wary of the fact that normally the more enjoyable will be the one which you encounter first (which is also the case with many remakes, despite the excellence of the originals), so it takes a particularly special movie to out-do a book, especially when the book has obviously been considered good enough to adapt in the first place. Dan Brown found international success with his popular thriller The Da Vinci Code and it was inevitable that a movie interpretation would be made. Unusually for such a famous production, I watched the movie having not read the book and not knowing what all the fuss was about. So is it any good or is it just playing on the success of the novel?
There's been a murder in the Louvre and the French police decide that they need outside help to decipher the markings left on the body by the murderer. They call upon Professor Robert Langdon, an expert in such symbols. When Langdon gets involved, however, it is not long before things spiral out of control and he finds himself in the middle of an age-old religious war. Partnered up with a French special agent and cryptologist, Sophie, he goes on the run from the police and from a splinter cell faction of the mysterious group called Opus Dei, who appear to be trying to kill him before he uncovers the truth.
Along the way he discovers many puzzles, locked within the artistic work of Leonardo DaVinci, all tied in with the search for the Holy Grail. For Centuries the Knights Templar have been trying to protect the Holy Grail, but now this fanatical sect of Opus Dei appears to be wiping out the remaining Knights with a view to getting the Grail. But why? The answer could determine the future of the Catholic Church and The Vatican itself.
Apparently The Da Vinci Code, in its book form, was an intriguing, enveloping thriller where things were revealed slowly and tauntingly to keep you on tenterhooks right until the end. Many characters were not who they initially appeared to be, but when the truth was revealed, it really was a surprise because the characters had been built up. Or so I've heard. The film is a very different story. Directed by Ron Howard (whose filmography contains a series of compelling movies like Backdraft, Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind, and includes a couple of other Tom Hanks hits - Splash and Apollo 13) the movie clocks in at nearly two and a half hours in length, but the story that it appears to tell feels like it warrants a 10-part mini-series rather than a feature film.
Characters are thrown at the viewer from the outset, like the overly zealous French Police Captain (apparently a part written for the underused Jean Reno, one of Luc Besson's favourite actors - starring in many of his movies, including Nikita and the superb Leon) and the bank official played by Das Boot's Jurgen Prochnow, and you simply do not know who to trust. Within seconds of their introduction, their integrity is thrown into question, but are they really good guys or bad? And do you really care?
Ian McKellen's friend and fellow expert is slightly more developed. A reliable, noteworthy actor (probably most recently famed for his X-Men and Lord of the Rings work), he is good here as well, but even his character is not sufficiently developed. And what about Alfred Molina's (Spiderman 2, Identity) dubious Bishop and the albino rottweiler monk he has running around doing his dirty work, Paul Bettany (Wimbledon, Firewall, Master and Commander). They too are desperately one-dimensional in nature. Hell, we don't even know much about the two leads, Tom Hanks (looking quite haggard, but at least trying a role that he's never going to get an Oscar for, irrespective of who is bribed) and Audrey Tautou (who reached acclaim after the lovely Amelie). We know Hanks' Langdon is claustrophobic, but little else, and Tautou's purpose is glaringly obvious to any half-intelligent viewer right from the first act, but how she got so far without noticing herself is beyond me.
As a thriller in its own right, The Da Vinci Code is of some worth to an audience. It paints an interesting, if unnecessarily convoluted story (the whole plot surrounding its controversial questions on the foundation of Christ-based religion is a little belaboured) but the development of the plot is distinctly by-the-numbers. Characters are shallow, scenes are played fast and loose for kicks rather than depth and the whole thing feels like it is being acted out in monosyllables catering for the lowest common denominator of viewer. It is patronising and predictable and when you get to the end you feel like shouting “I could have told you that at the outset and saved you all a whole load of hassle”.
As for the pointedly controversial aspect of the story, it is far too contrived to have any lasting effect on the viewer. Unlike books or movies where there is a religious subplot (like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), or those that build on but don't tend to destroy people's beliefs (like The Last Temptation of Christ) Dan Brown appears to be trying purposefully to attack the foundations of Christianity, having his characters often not only lack belief, but also spout forth about the 'truth' as if it was obvious amongst the intelligent elite. As a result, devout believers will find it little more than annoying tosh and agnostics/atheists are unlikely to care a great deal about a storyline focussing so much on Christ anyway (or, at best, start to say 'I told you so' as if this fictional work is new evidence damning the Bible itself). And above all this, you get the feeling that Brown was only trying to gain success through intentional controversy, something which has clearly had the right result. After all, there's no such thing as bad press is there? I heard rumours that, back in 2001, Brown was chased with regards to adapting this as the story for the third season of the ever-excellent Kiefer Sutherland series 24. I can only imagine what they could have done with this but I suspect that it would have been a better effort than what we have here. So, once again, the book reigns supreme over the subsequent film interpretation.
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