The Unattainable Grail

The Da Vinci Code

Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, and Paul Bettany star in a film based on the novel by Dan Brown, written by Akiva Goldsman, and directed by Ron Howard.

Reviewed by Matt Kettmann

Turning bestsellers into blockbusters is always risky, and usually pays off only when a filmmaker digests the written word and reinterprets it cinematically. But that makes book purists cringe, which is perhaps why, when tasked with making a movie out of one of the world’s most popular books ever, director Ron Howard didn’t reinterpret. To do so, presumably, would have made enemies out of the nearly 100 million people who read the book. But by keeping the film as fixed as possible to the book’s lofty, historically rich plot, Howard instead made enemies out of the film-watching public, millions of whom last weekend watched the film trip into the typical boring pitfalls of a book-cum-movie.

The Da Vinci Code, if you haven’t heard, is the tale of two protagonists — a Harvard professor of ancient symbols played dully by Tom Hanks, and a French forensic cop/important granddaughter played prettily by Audrey Tautou — who, after a murder in the Louvre, find themselves on a dangerous and high-profile search for the Holy Grail. To understand their plight, the reader/watcher is given a lesson in Christianity’s evolution, including everything from the Crusades and the Inquisition to Mary Magdalene and the Last Supper. Along the way, the two characters find friends as foes and foes as friends, their most vicious enemy being Silas, a murderous Opus Dei monk played perfectly by Paul Bettany (who should’ve had a larger role, so creepily convincing was he).

The primary problem with the film is that the book relies on crisp, information-heavy dialogue to convey the history required to understand the story. In Dan Brown’s book, that works. Each tiny chapter ending on a cultural cliffhanger, each nugget of ancient knowledge jaw-dropping. But in the film, this leads to flat, forced dialogue full of way too much information. The resulting bungle of jabber undercuts an otherwise compelling tale whose implications — even if one-tenth true — do call into question the whole institution of Christianity. It would be great to believe that these are solely complaints of someone who first read the book. But at the Arlington last Sunday night — where, in a crowd of a few hundred, probably no more than half had read the book — no one let out the slightest gasp when the revelation of all revelations is revealed and only about three people clapped at the end.

It’s not a total loss, however. There are some cool, ghostly layering techniques to blend onscreen events with historical ones and to subtly highlight the necessary symbols for the audience. And, for the most part, the film isn’t laughable or embarrassing. It’s just not that exciting, which is surprising given that the book was such a page-turner.

Perhaps Howard should have digested one of the story’s foremost messages: Most quests for the Holy Grail end in failure. That’s a truth that needs no reinterpretation.

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