Two of my favourite quotations from the film critic Roger Ebert concern The Da Vinci Code. The first is from his review of the film National Treasure:
I should read a potboiler like The Da Vinci Code every once in a while, just to remind myself that life is too short to read books like The Da Vinci Code.
The second from his review of Ron Howard’s adaptation of The Da Vinci Code:
They say The Da Vinci Code has sold more copies than any book since the Bible. Good thing it has a different ending.
Along with a love of cinema and a need to criticise it, Roger Ebert and I have something in common. We have both read and hated Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. In all honesty, I read the book after I had watched the film. I knew about Brown’s book, of course, but I had no interest in reading it. I watched the end of the film one evening and was intrigued enough to pick up a copy. Brown’s writing is horrible and his over-reliance on cliffhangers and their ridiculous solutions is just awful. I can see why people love it; it’s a mystery that is easy to read and, subsequently, makes people feel clever when they keep up with/solve it. It’s all just trite though. Brown made a name for himself thanks to a controversial and preposterous subject. He gained readers because of his short chapters that always end on a cliffhanger. It makes my blood boil. I swear, one Dan Brown chapter ends with the cliffhanger of what Robert Langdon will decide to have for breakfast. Over the years, I’ve had so many arguments with people about this book but I often find myself being slightly less harsh on the film. I’ve never thought it made much sense. Maybe Tom Hanks really is such a charming man that he can improve anything?
I mean, I’m under no real illusion that The Da Vinci Code is a good film. It has an utterly ridiculous narrative and doesn’t provide any depth. It’s basically a film of exposition where you sit and watch people solve riddles that nobody else has a chance of solving. Decent mysteries are supposed to allow you to keep up with, if not get ahead of, the characters on screen. With The Da Vinci Code you’re always, at least, one step behind. Thankfully, though, it doesn’t matter. Whilst Tom Hanks’s first outing as Robert Langdon sees him break almost illogical riddles at breakneck speed, The Da Vinci Code also gives us Audrey Tatou’s Sophie who constantly asks everyone on screen to explain it. Sophie, in this case, is the audience… except she also happens to be shit hot at solving these seemingly unsolvable mysteries when she needs to. What The Da Vinci Code boils down to, is a couple of hours watching Tom Hanks and co run through various European countries and spend hours sat around giving lectures on history and religious legends.
Yet, there is something about being adapted into a film that makes the narrative work better than in the book. On screen, the pace set by Dan Brown’s endless chain of cliffhangers and impossible escapes means that plot is always moving forward. Or at least always moving forward after we’ve spent the requisite amount of time watching a PowerPoint presentation or something first. Unlike reading the book, the film doesn’t really allow you to think too much. There is always something happening so you can’t really start asking yourself pesky questions like “why did that character not just make things simpler?” or “what are his motivations for doing this?” or “why does the ending essentially just make the entire film unnecessary?” Ron Howard has, quite cleverly, made a film that never allows you time to pick apart the glaringly obvious plot holes until after the credits, by which time you’ve already let yourself get carried off in the insanity on screen.
Which is, if I’m honest, what always happens. I can hardly say that I find The Da Vinci Code exciting. I’ve hardly ever been riveted by it. However, I can’t deny that, if it’s on, I find myself unable to look away. It’s the mentality that makes you look at a car crash as you drive past. The same one that means, despite my huge, burning hatred for it, makes me occasionally want to sit down to watch Mama Mia. Although, I suspect that’s more of a weird S&M fetish thing than this. Whilst the narrative doesn’t really interest me in anyway, I am always glued to the screen. It could very well just be Hollywood’s Mr Nice Guy, Tom Hanks, and his magnetic personality. Or it could just be that this film is so bad that it’s clawing its way back to good again. I don’t know.
I’ve never thought much of Dan Brown as a writer of novels but he is a writer who can construct an intriguing plot. Yes, it’s exactly the kind of stuff you’d find weird people in tin foil hats writing on a message board at 1 am but that doesn’t mean it’s not watchable. Dan Brown shouldn’t be a writer of books but he can make a fairly decent shit film. You won’t come out of this film having a changed view on religion or having a completely different opinion about society because that’s not the point. No matter how seriously this film takes itself. This film with drag you, kicking and screaming, into its nonsense world and, without letting you stop for breath, whisk you along with it before you realise what you’ve got yourself involved in. Maybe, once the credits roll, you’ll feel ashamed with yourself. That’s natural. What you can’t deny, no matter how much you might want to, is that, at the time, you were kind of happy to be on that ride.