The Da Vinci Code’s sin: killing the novel’s suspense

By John Frame

Mary Magdalene gave birth to a baby girl shortly after the crucifixion of Christ. Her name was Sarah. Her father was Jesus Christ. The Holy Grail, thought to be the chalice from which the 12 disciples drank during the Last Supper, is really Mary Magdalene, who also appears as the figure to the left of Jesus in Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The chalice does not appear in the painting, but the “V” shape (the symbol for woman) appears between Jesus and Magdalene. “Imagine that Christ’s throne might be continued by a female,” says Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan).

The story revolves around Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a Harvard symbologist, and Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a French cryptologist. They must crack the code left by Jacques Saunière (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who has just been murdered by Silas (Paul Bettany), a devotee of Opus Dei, a religious group endorsed by the Catholic Church to protect the secret that Magdalene and Jesus were lovers. Saunière was the last living member of the Priory of Sion, a group that claims to hold that secret.

Howard’s film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code does not possess the same suspenseful quality as Brown’s engrossing novel. Although Brown’s writing is nothing special, he does have a knack for great storytelling and keeping his audience on the edge of their seats. The Da Vinci Code is a page-turner. Howard’s film is entertaining, and, perhaps if one has not read the novel beforehand, it may achieve what the first read-through of the book conveys so well: suspense.

One of the problems with the film is casting, particularly the protagonists Langdon and Neveu. To Howard’s credit, in Brown’s novel, both characters were used as one-dimensional plot devices. Tautou is beautiful yet artificial. I imagine Howard cast her primarily because she is the biggest female French movie star in the world. He was not blind to the lack of chemistry between Hanks and Tautou. Despite his dry work here, Hanks is still one of the greatest living film actors. In moments where he is called on to decipher codes, he is contemplative and effective. But he is not well suited to the urgency the plot requires and thrives on.

Does Howard make a great adaptation of Brown’s novel? No. But is it a good attempt? Yes. This is partly achieved by Hans Zimmer’s score that tries—and sometimes succeeds—to build suspense in a film that lacks it for the most part. Inventive cinematography by Salvatore Totino and cool special effects fit well in moments where the camera brings us into Langdon’s thought process. Although we could never believe that Audrey Tautou can man-handle a Smart Car to outrun the police (as she does in one scene), the film is no less engaging because of it.

The most effective performances come from Ian McKellan and Paul Bettany. As an albino monk, Bettany embodies the contradictory nature of Silas, who has professed his loyalty to Christ and Opus Dei but remains a murderous sinner. With excruciating agony, he continues to ask for forgiveness for his sins by flogging himself daily. We believe, with a great amount of sympathy, in his invisibility. McKellan has the right amount of charm and rage to portray the obsessed Sir Leigh.

A lot of controversy swirls around The Da Vinci Code. Critics claim that Brown’s novel depicts Opus Dei as a brain-washing, coercive organization more interested in making money than in spreading God’s Word. The film does well to side-step this. Sir Leigh produces a disclaimer at one moment by saying that Opus Dei is not sanctioning the murder of innocent people; there are simply a few bad apples in the bunch.

Christians will likely disagree wholeheartedly with Brown’s implausible speculations, but they are vastly outnumbered by the many people who recognize the power of a good story. Over 40 million copies of Dan Brown’s novel have been sold worldwide, making it the all-time bestseller second only to the Holy Bible. Oh, the irony.

Upon leaving the theater, I overheard a few of those naysayers. The idea that history can affect the present brings about the notion that in order to better understand the present, we must engage with the past. “What matters is what you believe,” Robert tells Sophie at the end of the film. If only those protesters had managed to understand that before they took a day off of work to stand outside a movie theater.