Da Vinci Code: Book and Movie Review
I am going to have to "spoil" the story in order to talk about what I think is wrong with it. So, if you do not want to know anything about the story until you read the book and/or see the film for yourself, you had better stop reading now.
The ultimate problem with the book is that the plot is self-negating. What I mean by that is this: the story builds up the idea that Jesus was not of divine origin, but very much a man --- a man who was not only not born to a prostitute called Mary Magdalene --- but was married to a prominent woman from a prominent, royal-related family, named Mary Magdalene; who, after the death of Jesus, moved to France, where she had his child, by the name of Sarah; and we are told that Mary and her offspring and their descendants merged into another royal line, the French Merovingians.
Okay, got all that?
Now, we are given to understand that this "truth" about the true nature of Jesus (and Mary) will have revolutionary consequences on a global scale, if and when, it is "revealed" "to the world." We should understand that these revolutionary consequences would touch just about every area of life: gender relations, politics, religion, etc.
Still with me so far?
Ultimately, the book has a way of saying, in effect, "never mind" to these supposed revolutionary implications. I will come back to this point.
Now, we are given to understand that this "truth" about Jesus is the cause of a grand, stirring adventure: One that involves the Catholic Church furiously pursuing our hero, symbologist Robert Langdon and police cryptologist Sophie Neveu, in order to prevent the "truth" from ever being revealed; and it is one that involves an arch-conservative Catholic organization known as Opus Dei, who want to claim the secret knowledge for their own unfathomable purposes.
There is a murder mystery at the center of this story... or, rather, the murder mystery should be at the center of this story.
The book manages to take these elements, as well, and effectively say a great big "never mind."
That is to say, the Catholic Church didn't do it. And Opus Dei didn't do it.
Let me pause and back up a little bit.
Da Vinci Code is a representative of what I like to call a conspiracy-uncovering story. I introduced this term, previously, in a film review: Soylent Green, a 1970s science fiction picture starring Charleton Heston.
My review pronounced Soylent Green a failure, because it is a "conspiracy-uncovering" story which fails to achieve something I consider to be critical to its dramatic effectiveness.
In my view, a conspiracy-uncovering story needs to achieve something I call the point of accumulated dramatic friction, in order to be dramatically effective.
- What is a "conspiracy-uncovering" story?
- It is simply a story in which a hidden secret is unearthed.
- What is the "point of accumulated dramatic friction"?
- It is the revelation of this heretofore hidden secret in the most immediate, real-time, mass-disruptive, dramatically impactful way possible.
So, in my opinion, Soylent Green is a failure, as a film, because it is a conspiracy-uncovering story that does not achieve the point of accumulated dramatic friction.
Question: I still do not understand what in Sam Hill the "point of accumulated dramatic friction" business is all about.
Suppose you (whoever "you" may be) and all your friends and family were sitting around eating watermelon.
Got that image in your heads? All the multitudes?
Now suppose that I run in and say something like: "Stop! You all don't know what you're doing! That watermelon is not watermelon! It's rats intestines!!!!!!"
Now imagine the consequent mass of red pulp flying out of mouths in shock and horror.
What I have done there is this: I have dramatically and rather breathlessly offered a radically (and disgustingly) different interpretation about what a mass group of people are doing --- in real-time --- as they are currently doing it.
Stay with me.
In Other Words...
What I am saying, in other words, is that: I have rather dramatically and breathlessly offered a radically (and disgustingly) different interpretation about what a mass group of people are EXPERIENCING --- in real time --- as they are currently EXPERIENCING it.
I want you to keep that word ("experiencing") in mind.
In the Soylent Green review I gave two examples, of what I consider to be, conspiracy-uncovering stories that successfully achieve the point of accumulated dramatic friction.
The "To Serve Man" episode of the Twilight Zone television series.
- The point of accumulated dramatic friction is achieved when one of the main characters is boarding an alien spaceship, thinking that he, like millions of other humans are, in the belief that they are engaged in an exercise of peaceful, congenial cultural exchange. This belief comes from the title of a book, one of the aliens left behind, upon his first visit to the United Nations: "To Serve Man" sounds quite noble. However, as the linguist department has worked further on the book, she runs out and yells to him: "'To Serve Man.' It's a cook book!"
- The John Carpenter film, They Live, achieves the point of accumulated dramatic friction, in my opinion, when our heroes take control of the communications installation, and then use it to show the public, quite graphically, something of the fact, and true depth and breadth of the alien infiltration. What?! You mean America's favorite news anchor, Jonathan Teleprompter is an alien?!?!?
Stay with me
Now here is my question: How can such a story, as Da Vinci Code, reveal a radically different interpretation (as in the "truth" about Jesus) about what a mass group of people (either a majority of the world's Christians, or significant pluralities) are "experiencing" (meaning Jesus) in real time, so that the revelation is dramatically effective, in that it achieves the point of accumulated dramatic friction?
Does that make sense?
If you see what I'm getting at, your answer should be: Yes and No.
I hope that you understand the argument I am making. And of course, I hope that you see that the proposition I have put forward is nonsense.
Question: How does one "experience" Jesus?
Answer: For all intents and purposes, Jesus, "The Savior" is not "experienced," per se.
Question: How can a radically different interpretation of Jesus cut across the grain of how he is experienced, for at least tens of millions of people, in any dramatically impactful way, that causes some kind of shock and awe, or something like that?
Answer: Unknown. Nothing comes to my mind, at any rate. The feat is likely narratively impossible. One thing is certain: Dan Brown was not able to answer this creative challenge, which, again, is why the story builds up the premise, outlined previously, and then ends the book by saying "never mind" to that very same premise.
Before going any further, I want to say that I don't think Dan Brown is a bad writer, at least based on this novel.
He did the best he could with an unmanageably abstract premise. I do not believe that any other writer could have done any better with it. The book is competently written, and makes for a rather brisk read under the circumstances.
Now, having said that, let me say that the failure of the book (which is a "conspiracy-uncovering" story) to achieve the point of accumulated dramatic friction is the sickness; the dull, meandering, plot-exposition journey of the story is the symptom.
- The book is approximately 450-pages in hardcover. It seems to me that it forgets that it is supposed to be an action thriller for at least 375 of those pages.
- The book feels the need to reveal "out loud," as it were, exactly what characters are thinking. That is to say, the exact wording of their thoughts is reflected in italics script. It's not a big deal; but on the other hand, this can be interpreted as the book trying too hard to create a sense of TENSION..., which, admittedly, is rather lacking in the Da Vinci Code. Oh no! I've sprained my left index finger! If it doesn't feel better soon, I'll have to reschedule my piano lesson. How much will this set me back in my musical development?!?!?!?
- By the way, proof of the lack of tension in the novel is, to my mind, reflected in the film version's sad attempt to manufacture some. (I will come back to this point).
- The book has something of a "know-it-all" characteristic, that, if personified, would be Cliff Clavin from the television sitcom Cheers, you know... "where everybody knows your name. And they're all just glad you came."
- Those of you, reading this, of a certain age will know what I'm talking about. The character of Cliff Clavin was the quintessential "know-it-all." He was a man, who decided that the way he was going to get people to like him was to become a fount of information (of course flawed information that he would call "knowledge").
- With anything that was referred to incidentally, Cliff would always be there to supply the phrase, "You know its a little known fact that ...." Fill in the blank. That was his shtick. That was his reason for being. He was always quoting "facts," figures, statistics, in an obviously desperate attempt to be interesting.
- The novel is like that: First, in a desperate attempt to create... tension, I suppose, we see the exact wording of everyone's thoughts broadcast "out loud," as it were, which I have mentioned; and Second: we see Robert Langdon, the book's hero, of sorts, constantly thinking things like: "It's a little known fact that...," or "Most people don't realize...," or "The average person would never suspect that...," and on and on throughout the novel.
Now let me make something very clear....
The reason that the bullet points above are a problem, is because these features serve as a commentary OF THE NOVEL UPON ITSELF!
For example, take the last bullet point. I see that feature as a desperate attempt of the novel TO CONVINCE ITSELF that it is interesting, intriguing, and all that.
In other words, a genuinely interesting person, who generally says interesting things, does not need to preface everything he says with dramatic phrases such as: "It's a little known fact...," or "The intriguing part is...," or "Most people don't realize that..."
A genuinely interesting person simply gets about the business of being interesting without preamble. He feels no need to constantly -- if ever -- announce beforehand that something he is about to say is "interesting."
Once again, let me repeat that I do not consider Dan Brown to be a bad writer. Its just that all of these things I've been discussing are, in my view, simply a function of the unmanageably abstract nature of the book's premise.
Oh Yeah... The Film!
Let me say a few words --- and I mean a few words --- about the film starring Tom Hanks.
The first thing to say is that if you are a high school student with an upcoming test on the Da Vinci Code novel, you will be able to pass it strictly by watching the movie, starring Tom Hanks.
I'd say you could score at least a 70%; it is that faithful to the source material.
Now, there are very minor differences that I suspect most instructors wouldn't even bother trying to trick students with.
For example, those of you who saw the film know that Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) seemed to have a very, very, very minor academic squabble over the finer points of the whole Da Vinci-Sacred Female-truth-about-Jesus story --- perhaps in recognition of the complete lack of tension in the novel itself.
But I assure you, in the novel there is none of that. There is no debate, argument, or even semblance of academic disagreement between Langdon and Teabing. Every time Teabing said something, Langdon would turn to Sophie Neveu and say something like: "There is substantial scholarly evidence of that...," or "There is actually a strong degree of academic consensus on that...," or "That is a hypothesis strongly supported by extensive documentation...," Blah, Blah, Blah...
Leigh Teabing is another person that Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu turn to for help in the pulse-pounding intrigue and mystery, in a desperate race against time in search of the truth. Blah, Blah, Blah.... He has certain expertise, as a scholar of the "Holy Grail," that is useful to them.
There is also another very, very, very minor point of difference --- that I can be bothered to recall --- between the novel and the film, in terms of tension. I won't go into it because this is a review, not a plot recap. Suffice it to say, that it strikes me as yet another recognition by the filmmakers of the lack of tension in the book; therefore they must stir up some in the film.
As I said, Dan Brown does not appear to be a bad writer. I believe that the premise he was working with was unmanageably abstract. The Da Vinci Code is a conspiracy-uncovering story that is unable to deliver the "point of accumulated dramatic friction," as all such stories must do in order to be dramatically effective.
This is a book that builds up an abstract premise, which we are given to understand is of paramount importance to the world. It is driven to a point before the book, effectively, says "never mind" to it; this is aided and abetted in no small part by the fact that there is no dramatically effective way to deliver the "truth about Jesus."
Frankly, I believe this is a story (had it been properly structured as a conventional whodunit murder mystery) that could have been easily taken care of with a two-part television episode of "Murder, She Wrote," starring Angela Lansbury.
At most, it should have been a two-and-a-half-hour "Murder, She Wrote" television movie, with limited commercial interruptions. This story did not need to be a 450-plus novel in hardback; and it did not need to be an expensive multiple tens of millions of dollar big screen blockbuster, starring Tom Hanks.
What I am saying is that the actual story beneath the "hype," if you will, is much, much, much simpler than this project makes out.
Thank you for reading!