Friday 24 February 2012

Film: The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (TDVC) is probably one of the most famous and also the most notorious novels of the last decade. The former for its huge international sales success, the latter for the clunky writing style and the fact that the author pretended that some long-discredited theories about the basis of the Catholic religion were true. As I posted in my review of his 2009 book The Lost Symbol, "I read TDVC when it first came out, before all of the public furore, and while I didn't think much of the author's writing style I was intrigued by the plot. This was obviously a mixture of fact and fiction and had me guessing as to which was which. It seems it had the author guessing as well, since he took literally a fictional source, but that didn't hurt sales."

I watched, with rather mixed feelings, the film of TDVC shortly after its release. When it came up on TV recently I decided to give it another look. I won't comment on the religious and other controversies which accompanied both the book and the film, except to note that the principal character, symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), displays a rather more sceptical attitude to the main plot elements than he does in the book. I also won't describe the plot - it's very well known, and anyone who doesn't know it can easily find a summary on the internet. Instead, I'll just concentrate on it as a piece of film-making.

It starts off rather badly in the Louvre, with a man receiving an eventually fatal gunshot wound. He survives for long enough to write a series of coded messages in various places (using an ink only visible in the ultraviolet), then undresses and decorates his body with symbols before finally expiring. I couldn't help wondering why, if he had so much time, he didn't just call an ambulance. That rather set the scene for the rest of the film, a series of more or less improbable set-pieces flying past with such speed that there was scarcely time for more of a response than an occasional "But…" or "Hang on a minute…".

To be fair, the film makers had a problem in that the book is just the same. Furthermore, they couldn't really miss much out without making the story even more confusing. They set themselves the impossible task of covering a long and action-packed novel within the time limitations of a single feature film. Even with a bladder-testing running length of 2.5 hours, this was nowhere near enough - they should have split it into at least two films (or a TV mini-series) which would have given them enough room to improve on the book by developing the characters beyond two dimensions.

Despite all of this, it is a just about watchable if decidedly frantic film (provided you keep hitting your "yes, but…" alter ego on the head) and I found the penultimate scene, in which the heroine (Audrey Tautou) discovers her origin, surprisingly moving.


Bill Garthright said...

I haven't seen the movie, Tony. But I was just astonished at how bad the book was. That was a best-seller? "Clunky" is being generous, I'd say.

Anthony G Williams said...

The book was a triumph for selecting content to appeal to many: a mystery to be unravelled, a giant centuries-old religious conspiracy, lots of real places and real information merged seamlessly with the invented.

Then package it all in a large number of short chapters, each ending on some cliff-hanger to keep the reader hooked.

With all of that going for you, the lack of characterisation and other elements of good writing don't stop the public from lapping it up.

Bill Garthright said...

Well, that content should have been perfect for me, too. The idea behind the book was really wonderful. It could have been lots of fun.

But the execution of that idea was so poor - in my opinion - that I was just astonished. If that's a best-seller, I really have to wonder how much experience people have with other books.

Anthony G Williams said...

I suspect that it was bought by a lot of people who buy "airport blockbusters" to read on a flight or on the beach, but don't read many novels at other times.

As I recall, it was heavily promoted in glowing terms at all sorts of sales outlets, not just traditional booksellers. That's why I picked it up, anyway - it just looked interesting.

Of course, just because people bought it doesn't necessarily mean that they enjoyed it. Having said that, an awful lot of people went on tours of all the sites mentioned in the book, so it clearly had a legion of fans.