THE DA VINCI CODE
It may well be that future analysts of pop culture of the 2000s will look back on Da Vinci Code madness with something akin to the way we look back on the fad for Ancient Astronauts that we had in the 1970s following the publication of Eric von Danikens Chariots of the Gods (1968). There von Daniken liberally interpreted artefacts from antiquity as proof that he claimed demonstrated that aliens had visited the ancient world and influenced the course of human development. Von Danikens nonsense inspired a fad and numerous imitators built upon his thesis. There is a good deal of similarity between von Daniken and Dan Brown both offer up radical interpretations of history; both twist history out of shape and give it cryptic symbolic meaning to argue their case; both have been derided for their inaccuracies by historians; and both have created an enormous fad that has verged on a religious following. (If nothing else, one can celebrate The Da Vinci Code for having made history, architecture and classic art something sexy with the general public again).
Dan Brown is teacher from New Hampshire who, up until the mass success of The Da Vinci Code, had pursued an unsuccessful career as a songwriter. Brown had written three earlier novels Digital Fortress (1998), Angels and Demons (2000) and Deception Point (2001) that had enjoyed only middling success (but became bestsellers upon subsequent reprinting). Most of Dan Browns books centre around a fascination with cryptology and puzzles (as a child, Browns father would create treasure hunts using cryptic trails of clues for he and his siblings on birthdays and Christmas) and secret societies. Though a British court cleared Dan Brown of plagiarism charges just before the film opened, the bulk of The Da Vinci Code was taken from an earlier non-fiction book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) by authors Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. Baigent et al laid down the notion that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene, that they founded the Merovingian Dynasty and that Christs descendants live in present-day France, that this union is the real meaning of the mythic Holy Grail, that the secret has been kept throughout the ages by the Priory of Sion, and that the Catholic Church has attempted to stamp out the truth and protect the notion that Christ is divine. Whatever the outcome of the case, Dan Brown has undoubtedly borrowed the thesis from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail he even signalled his plagiarism by naming the books central Grail scholar (played by Ian McKellen in the film) Leigh Teabing by borrowing two of the names of the authors (Teabing being an anagram of Baigent). Not that their outrage at having their idea stolen stopped Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln from reissuing The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and Michael Baigents follow-up The Jesus Papers (2006) as the book(s) that inspired The Da Vinci Code.
Baigent, Leigh and Lincolns work came under considerable historical ridicule. This went into overkill following the The Da Vinci Code. Among other things, experts have derided Dan Browns claim in his foreword that The Da Vinci Code is completely accurate in its depiction of artworks and historical detail. Most art scholars agree that it is not Mary Magdalene depicted in Leonardo Da Vincis The Last Supper like the small fact that Leonardo only has twelve figures in the painting, meaning that one of the disciples would have to be absent for it to be Mary who was present. There are numerous other details that there is no chair in any such a field as symbology at Harvard (nor any other university); that Brown wildly overstates the Emperor Constantines involvement in the formation of the canonical Gospels; and that most of the claims concerning The Knights Templar have been bent out of shape. The real Church of Saint-Sulpice has been forced to issue denials to tourists that it is on any Paris meridian or Rose-line. Most importantly, it has been conclusively shown that the idea of the Priory of Sion was fabricated by French monarchist and anti-Semite Pierre Plantard in the 1950s, wherein Plantard created hoax documents in order to claim that he himself was a descendant of the Merovingian line. No wacky idea seems too far out for Dan Brown to include. Like Erich von Daniken, Brown sees symbolism to fit his case in everything everything that has a V or curved shape, from the blank space in The Last Supper to the arches of Gothic cathedrals is clearly a symbol of the womb thus evidence of a suppressed fertility cult.
You also wonder, if Christ was divine rather than merely a man why would he set up something like a bloodline? The whole point of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is a symbol of sacrifice, that he died for the whole worlds sins etc etc and that if he is that, which Brown and the film seems to sit on the fence as to whether he was or not, why should he concern himself with a lineage? What Brown does not seem to see is that the notion of a lineage, the belief that power is carried by the head of a family, is a modern Royalist one. (This also waters the concept down this supposed lineage requires each of the descendants over the last 2000 years to have improbably had only one child, because the more they have the more the bloodline is diluted and spread around, meaning that otherwise there could be thousands of families with Christ heritage in their veins). Although the bottom argument for any idea against a secret history of Christianity is this there is no independent evidence outside of The Gospels that Jesus Christ ever existed. (References in the contemporary Jewish scholar Josephus is widely believed by historians to have later been fictitiously added by Christians). And so to claim a secret history of The Gospels is surely a double hypothetical leap in that it purports to interpret secret meanings of a religious text that nobody has conclusively proven to be factual in the first place.
The surprise about such nonsense, which under most serious examinations simply reveals itself as entertaining hokum but bad history and worse theology, is that people take it seriously. The worldwide opening of the film was greeted with protests from the Catholic Church, most notably Opus Dei who are understandably peeved at being portrayed as the villains of the show. (Although considering Opus Deis often cult-like activities and fascist leanings of its founder, this plea of blamelessness is a little hard to swallow). There were riots in India and the film was banned in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Samoa and released in censored form in some Christian countries. There were protests from NOAH (The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation) concerning the portrayal of albinos in the film, even from unlikely places such as some Islamic countries and with the film surprisingly being banned by the atheist China.
The film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code has ended up in the hands of director, former actor Ron Howard. Ron Howard has a directing career that began back in the 1970s and has become most known for films like Cocoon (1985), Far and Away (1992), The Paper (1994), Apollo 13 (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Cinderella Man (2005) and Frost/Nixon (2008). (A list of Ron Howards other genre contributions are at the bottom of the page). Howard is someone who has gone from a youthful actor The Andy Griffith Show (1960-80), Happy Days (1974-84) to a director of comedies Night Shift (1982), Splash! (1984) to films that have become increasingly more mainstream and bogged down by what at times feels like a painfully earnest effort on Howards part to be regarded as a Serious filmmaker. Regrettably, Ron Howards work has a constant blandness. While he seems driven by a desire to make serious messages and be a dramatist, this is something that Howard seems unable to deliver in anything other than feelgood clichés.
The Da Vinci Code novel made for a page-turning read. There were even calls for Dan Brown with his stilted and one-dimensional prose to be regarded as a great author. Alas the same cannot be said for the film. In Ron Howards hands, Dan Browns page-turner of a novel has become a plodding film that does little more than serve as an illustrated guide for those who have already read the book. Ron Howard, though he does a reasonable job of illustrating Dan Browns historical thesis, never gets inside the cryptographic games that Brown played all we see are words being illuminated and moving around the screen, but not the logical deductions that Tom Hanks makes.
In Ron Howards hands, some of Dan Browns plot devices emerge as absurdly far-fetched a bunch of academics manage to evade most of the police force of Europe and become stunt drivers; somewhat unbelievably no security alarms are triggered when Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou approach and touch various artworks in The Louvre; the breakout from the armoured truck by putting a shell case in the door jamb is singularly unconvincing; and the scene where the police somehow manage to neglect to search Teabings Rolls after his plane lands in England defies credulity (not to mention the fact that the plane lands and smuggles fugitives from the law into the country without ever seeming to have to go through a customs check). Most particularly far-fetched of all is the clunkily obvious revelation of the identity of The Teacher.
The roles in the film are one-dimensional (although here at least the film is being accurate to the book). The parts played by Audrey Tautou, Jean Reno and Alfred Molina could all have been played by anyone. Even Tom Hanks has what must be the most anonymous role he has ever played, where he fails to distinguish the part in any way. The only one who stands out is Ian McKellen who plays the whole nonsensical farrago with an impish sense of mischief.
Ron Howard and Tom Hanks reteamed for two sequels with Angels & Demons (2009), based on one of Dan Browns earlier works, which has been reworked as a sequel and features Langdon solving another cryptic puzzle concerning a murder mystery in The Vatican, and Inferno (2016) with Langdon racing around European artworks in search of a deadly virus that can wipe out 95% of the world population. The Da Vinci Code was parodied in Epic Movie (2007) and blatantly copied in The Da Vinci Treasure (2006). There have also been a spate of documentaries that deal with the so-called facts in Dan Browns book with Cracking the Da Vinci Code (2004), Da Vinci Decoded (2004), Breaking the Da Vinci Code (2005), The Real Da Vinci Code (2005) and Time Machine: Beyond the Da Vinci Code (2005).
Ron Howards other films of genre interest are: Cocoon (1985) about a meeting between geriatrics and extra-terrestrials; the George Lucas sword-and-sorcery collaboration Willow (1988); Apollo 13 (1995) based on the true life 1970 space mission disaster; the Dr Seuss adaptation How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000); and the supernatural Western The Missing (2003).
Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has also written the scripts for the Joel Schumacher Batman films Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), the big-screen remake of tvs Lost in Space (1998), the witchcraft comedy Practical Magic (1998), the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind (2001), I, Robot (2004), I Am Legend (2007), Insurgent (2015), The 5th Wave (2016), Rings (2017) and Transformers: The Last Knight (2017). He made his directorial debut with the fantasy Winters Tale (2014) and is next set to make the horror film Stephanie (2017). Goldsman has also produced Renny Harlins two genre outings the monster movie Deep Blue Sea (1999) and the serial killer thriller Mindhunters (2004), as well as the comic-book adaptation Constantine (2005), the paranormal investigators tv series Fringe (2008-13), the superhero film Hancock (2008), the supernatural Western comic-book adaptation Jonah Hex (2010), Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) and the tv mini-series adaptation of Arthur C. Clarkes Childhoods End (2015).