Based on a true swindle

Monday, 6 October 2008 — 4:05am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, Literature

So I’ve succumbed to curiosity and watched The Da Vinci Code. This may surprise those of you who mention Dan Brown in my presence at parties for the sole purpose of provoking me into entertaining you with an explosion of cleverly phrased invective against what is surely one of the worst novels I have read. All the same, I tried my best to see it with an open mind; good films have sprung out of bad books before, and I respect Ron Howard as a reasonable director of mainstream Hollywood pictures. This is, after all, the same Ron Howard who gave us the excellent Apollo 13 (a study in how to do a straightforward “based on a true story” dramatization well) and the admirable, if conventional A Beautiful Mind.

The Da Vinci Code is inherently an interesting case study in film adaptation, since the “novel” on which it is based is so incompetently written that the most charitable thing a reader can do is think of it as the first draft of a screenplay proposal by a ninth-grade kid who once got molested by a priest. And then there is the further gamble of handing it to the most erratic screenwriter in Hollywood—Akiva Goldsman, who wrote two of Ron Howard’s better films (A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man) but also has his name on the likes of Batman & Robin and I(saac Asimov is rolling in his grave), Robot.

Ron Howard, at least, has a track record that assures us he is literate in the art of cinema, which is not something we can say for Dan Brown’s grasp of written English (grammatical enough to be published, but only that). To film The Da Vinci Code in a manner that reflects the quality of its prose would require a handheld camcorder and a monk costume from the corner shop. That the adaptation is in the hands of professionals at all is enough to assure us that the delivery is an improvement—and it is.

Less expected is how the film manages to expose some of the serious defects in The Da Vinci Code‘s story structure that the book’s breakneck pace sweeps under the rug. Dan Brown’s novel is many execrable things, but one thing it is not is boring. (It’s like Sarah Palin that way—fitting, because Dan Brown’s America is Sarah Palin’s America in so many respects.) Ron Howard’s film is boring, and it is Dan Brown’s fault.

Many filmgoing citizens unfamiliar with the language of cinema cling to the correlative-not-causative mantra “the book is always better than the movie” and expect that the role of the movie is to be as faithful to the book as possible. (You know who you are, you odd ducks who inexplicably prefer the first two Harry Potter films to the far superior Prisoner of Azkaban.) In the case of a book like The Da Vinci Code, I would maintain that it is the responsibility of a filmmaker, to the audience and to the storied history of the craft, to fix the original work.

Howard and company manage this to some degree, though they do not go far enough—I, for one, would have liked to see them redact Robert Langdon’s title (Professor of “Symbology”) to reflect what he actually is, a scholar of Religious Studies or Art History. Fortunately for educated audiences, gone are the majority of Dan Brown’s endless expository insults to the intelligence of anybody who knows anything about anything.

Nobody has to be told what the Fibonacci sequence is. There are no digressions about how Walt Disney rose from the dead to insert subliminal Grail imagery in The Little Mermaid or how the female-to-male proportion of bees in hives works out to exactly the Golden Ratio (an irrational number impossible to express as a ratio of integers). Nowhere does Langdon indulge in fond flashbacks about lecturing clueless and gullible students who gasp at every earth-shattering, life-changing revelation he presents. Nor is Sophie’s estrangement from her grandfather solely reduced to seeing him do something naughty and being scarred for life; instead, that event is the culmination of a gradual course of exclusion that sours her very relationship with history. On the whole, the characters exclaim less, and there are fewer dumb contrivances.

Somehow, The Da Vinci Code still manages to hit a running time of 149 minutes, making it the rare book-to-film that takes longer to watch than read. (I am told that in some regions, there is an extended cut of 168 minutes in length, which encroaches on the territory of the shorter historical epics.)

Say what you will about Dan Brown’s fluffy little caper—I know I have—but one thing it does have going for it is a constant sense of forward motion. It flows like a pot of gravy poured down your throat—it goes down while it’s hot, but it’s best not think about it afterwards. (Nota bene: I haven’t tried this, and neither should you.) In part, this is because the writing is so thin. Brown is an author of limited visual imagination, and his idea of character development seldom extends beyond, “He’s claustrophobic and he looks like Harrison Ford.” And that’s the main character we’re talking about. Ergo, the character work is incompressible, and there is nowhere to go but up. Brown’s characters are not people: they are data points who know only what it is convenient for them to know, and they are always in a hurry.

Howard’s film redresses some of the book’s deficiency of character, but too often at the expense of time. Neither the book nor the film understand that the way to reveal character without seeming digressive is to test and change the characters as the plot unfolds rather than crystallize them in backstory. The book skirts around the task of making anyone seem interesting at all; the film stretches too far to give its cast something to do.

Thus we go from a handful of appreciable moments where Tom Hanks expresses Langdon’s trepidation at entering enclosed spaces with an anxious look and a “Do we have to go in there?” (good), to overt revelations that he fell in a well as a boy (that’s it?), to a series of grainy and overexposed flashbacks depicting his time in the well (redundant, redundant, redundant). Goldsman’s screenplay tries to salvage this in the final scene between Langdon and Sophie, where the former brings up his claustrophobia to make a point about how there’s no escaping our history—trite, perhaps, but appropriate to the theme that Goldsman develops to prop up Sophie’s characterization as a woman afraid of but not incurious about the past. This is an invention of the film’s; Dan Brown is not a writer who knows about themes.

Until the rest stop at Sir Leigh Teabing’s mansion, the film actually moves along at a nice clip; it’s no North by Northwest, but it holds up next to your typical run-of-the-mill chase flick. It’s a little jarring to see the laughable anagrams Brown generated using Anagram Genius plastered all over a film that takes itself seriously, as they are barely a rung or two above the moment in the 1966 Adam West/Burt Ward Batman where Robin deduces that Catwoman must be involved in the villains’ treacherous plot because the Penguin’s submarine is in the sea, and “sea”/C stands for Catwoman. Nevertheless, the pace is fine, despite the occasional reliance on injections of artificial tension, like when Sophie slips her car between a pair of trucks—backwards—and narrowly avoids a hopeless future as the centrepiece of a French-cryptographer sandwich.

Then comes the pivotal exposition dump about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the part of The Da Vinci Code that made a lot of people angry—so angry that they turned Dan Brown into a millionaire overnight. Howard at least has the good sense to give us something pretty to look at, in the form of grainy and overexposed flashbacks (see a pattern?) of the Crusades, Constantine’s Rome, and the Council of Nicea. I wager that the millions spent on Templar costumes and lavish historical sets would have seen better use in a film that was actually about the Nicene Council; here, they only emphasize how pedestrian the main plot is, as our heroes hop from one popular tourist destination to another.

The tea party at the Teabing mansion reveals a fundamental flaw in Brown’s plot design, a defect well hidden in the book. It is this: Teabing tells Langdon and Sophie everything they need to know about the Grand Religious Conspiracy at the halfway point, and our heroes spend the rest of the story confirming it. Maybe my perspective is skewed by my prior familiarity with the book, but if it is my knowledge of how everything unfolds that spoils all the fun, that is a damning indictment of the quest itself.

If the only thing that keeps the audience engaged is the promise that the road must end—if the process of discovery and revelation is a series of puzzles that the reader is invited to solve before the “expert” protagonists do, and provides nothing else to enjoy on its own terms—if the characters simply follow a trail without having to make any tough decisions—then the audience speeds to the finish, but only to get to the finish. There is no reason to revisit the story, as the architecture of the mystery is nothing to admire. If it’s not worth seeing twice, it’s not worth seeing once.

It doesn’t help that in the eyes of a non-religious observer, the stakes of The Da Vinci Code‘s treasure hunt are comically low: to shed blood, sweat, and tears over a question of whether the Council of Nicea excluded certain apocrypha for unsavoury reasons is as trivial as an Internet-forum squabble about whether Star Wars comics belong to the Star Wars canon. It’s fiction either way.

Without the hook of leaving breadcrumbs for the audience to follow by themselves, the best the film can do is substitute visualizations of Langdon solving puzzles. In this respect Ron Howard was a natural choice to occupy the director’s chair: he calls for the same tricks as John Nash’s bouts of pattern matching in A Beautiful Mind, and coupled with Hanks’ performance, we get a much better picture of how people really go about solving anagrams (picking out clusters, occasionally mouthing substrings to latch onto associations by sound, until an epiphany snaps everything into place) than anything that is offered in the book.

It is still patently absurd that anyone accustomed to puzzles can have that much trouble figuring out a five-letter word for a falling object associated with Isaac Newton, when what Langdon and company should be agonizing over is whether the solution is apple or pomme, given that the puzzle-maker was French. But I suppose the film can only do so much. To a certain extent, the Grand Religious Conspiracy subgenre is crippled by design. While the detective story is an expression of a rational, empirical worldview where reason triumphs over the seemingly inexplicable, what the Grand Religious Conspiracy thriller asks us to do is trade one tattered article of faith for another one with even less substantiation.

What we are left with is a film that is watchable but dull, and full of talented actors struggling to make something of their paper-thin, typecast roles. (Jean Reno as an angry Frenchman named Fache? Seriously?) On the downside, Howard is too reluctant to cut their superfluous scenes, and the mundanity of the main characters is only more pronounced as we spend more unnecessary time with Paul Bettany’s self-flagellating albino henchman and Alfred Molina’s Spanish bishop.

And I’m not sure that would have fixed the pacing: Dan Brown’s story is such a one-gimmick yarn that, even with fewer flashbacks and tighter (dare I say more Spielbergian?) staging, I don’t think any film could salvage the page-turning excitement of reading The Da Vinci Code for the first time without a significant revision of the story’s meagre payoff. So dark, the con of Dan.

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One rejoinder to “Based on a true swindle”

  1. Meera

    Hmm, I read the book this summer and wasn’t impressed, although it did have the flow of a youth novel (which I like, it means I don’t have to think too much). Looks like I’ll have to watch the movie to get the full picture. 🙂

    I also linked to your page on mine, I like reading your posts.

    Tuesday, 14 October 2008 at 9:52pm

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