Perhaps too faithful

Readers pored over Dan Brown's clues. Film viewers have no time to plumb the possibilities. Hit the pause button?

Published May 19, 2006

The genius of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code was that it made its readers feel smart.

The downfall of producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard's movie adaptation of the novel is that it makes its viewers feel stupid.

Shot in constant dim light okay, the story takes place mostly at night, but do we always have to be shrouded in darkness?, the movie's action is impossible to follow. And I already knew the plot. Even the grainy flashbacks, meant to provide the backstory of this tale of religious intrigue and historical mystery, only added to the confusion.

Not that the movie doesn't follow the same twists and turns as Brown's novel did. Aside from a few added scenes that seem designed to soften the impact of Brown's shocking thesis that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had a child, Akiva Goldsman's screenplay is remarkably faithful to the book.

Perhaps too faithful.

Last winter when Brown told Newsweek that "moviegoers will come out of the theater feeling like they've just watched the novel," he meant it as a compliment. But reading long monologues on bizarre yet intriguing theories of art and history is one thing. Watching them is a real yawner.

In his novel, Brown piles on improbable scene after improbable scene. He trots out outrageous cardboard characters, from Silas, the murderous albino monk who flays himself in imitation of Christ's passion, to the enigmatic Sir Leigh Teabing (played by Ian McKellen), a handicapped scholar obsessed by the Holy Grail, characters who merely serve as plot devices in service to his tall tale.

But Brown, the consummate storyteller, employs two very clever techniques to keep us glued to his pages: short chapters that leave us hanging and eager for more and a myriad of puzzles for symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) - and readers along with them - to solve that provided enough smoke and mirrors to cover up any plot flaws.

Alas, in the movie version, all those wonderful codes, symbols, word plays and anagrams fly by in quick succession. Only occasionally - when Teabing literally shines a light on Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper while expounding his theory of the Holy Grail, or when Langdon is trying to figure out the word that will open the keystone and his thoughts of planets and other orbs are literally projected on the screen - is the excitement of Brown's novel captured on film.

Instead, we are served up car chases, bloody flagellations, and boring speeches about Opus Dei, the Knights Templar and Grand Masters that never quite make sense.

Dan Brown's novel will never be mistaken for great literature. As novelist Salman Rushdie has said about The Da Vinci Code, it's "a book so bad it makes bad books look good." But, according to conventional wisdom, bad books are supposed to make good movies. So what happened here?

Perhaps the moviemakers were intimidated by the success of The Da Vinci Code - with more than 40-million copies in print, it has been on the bestseller list since March 2003, a publishing phenomenon comparable to say, the Bible. Perhaps they were spooked by the controversy over its controversial content, which one Christian group called "blasphemy on steroids."

Or perhaps they just took the story too seriously.

A treasure hunt should be a lot more fun.

Margo Hammond can be reached at (727) 893-8768 or hammond@sptimes.com.