Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Da Vinci Code (Movie Review)

For admittedly juvenile reasons, I had no desire to read the book that prompted this movie.

In short: if something receives too much publicity, either good or bad, I lose interest. It's like hearing a song played on the radio over and over again... no matter how good it is, there's a chance you may grow to resent it.

I felt that way about Dan Brown's bestselling hit, The Da Vinci Code (2003). Everyone I knew seemed to be reading it. It was all over bookshelves, bus stops, train seats. Even my father tried to get me to read it, at which point I almost complied.

But I just couldn't do it. Da Vinci's popularity had reached such proportions, I threw Brown in with a variety of pulp writers (including Danielle Steele) I refuse to read. I felt somewhat guilty about this, having spent much of my younger years wondering why the "Stupid Academy" kept giving out Oscars to artsy films I wasn't allowed to see, rather than the "good ones that people actually watched."

My adult persona is often at odds with that childhood observation.

As I "grew up" and immersed myself in academia, I realized there are actually quite a few people out there who refuse to read certain books or watch certain movies on principle alone. And when it came to The Da Vinci Code, I was one such person.

[And, yes, I haven't failed to recognize the hyprocrisy inherent in my intense love of (and appreciation for) the similarly-despised Harry Potter series.]

So when the film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code was released, I decided I'd watch it as a compromise of sorts. I know screen adaptations are seldom (never?) as good as the book, but this was the best I could offer.

Having never read the book, I thought I was in a good position to enjoy this Ron Howard rendition of Brown's story (2006). I mean, I wouldn't know what was missing... right?

Suffice it to say, it didn't take me long to realize this book didn't translate well to film. Instead of developing characters and building up suspense, I spent the first half of this film laughing at the blatant placement of all those quentessential plot devices. I mean, there's even a poisoning you see coming a million miles away, and you can't help but wonder why — on earth — the victim didn't see it coming too. Afterall, hasn't just about every mystery book known to man contained a similar situation?

But the fact remains, I did find Brown's analysis of the Da Vinci paintings as well as the resultant cryptology — and Howard's visual representation of both — to be fascinating. I also enjoyed the second half of the film substantially more than the first. It seemed to actually get interesting after the first in-depth look into Da Vinci's Last Supper.

Even so, the film never becomes a real nail-biter for me. This is where I suspect the material works better in book format: it's hard to build up suspense and keep people guessing when you present something in 30 seconds that would've taken 20 minutes to read. For this reason, it becomes easy to "call" the outcome of each scene sometimes before it even begins.

Watching the film also caused me to wonder why the book was difficult to keep on the shelves whereas the Illuminatus Trilogy (1975) has only a cult following. Illuminatus, much like Da Vinci, deals with conspiracy theories, codes, the Knight's Templar and other secret societies — all intertwined with actual events that have occured throughout the world up to the time the books were written. An intriguing story, though difficult to read (for multiple reasons).

But back to the film, whose actors I've thus far avoided: I had a tough time "buying" Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou in their lead roles, again, until about halfway through the film. But I'm not sure that's entirely their fault. I mean, it's difficult to "solve" riddles on screen — or relay events from the past so as to fill in narrative gaps — without sounding like you're reading from cue cards.

Not to mention, Hank's hair was entirely distracting. Was the brush-back mullet really essential to character development?

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At the very least, the film did give me some idea why everyone went gaga over the book. I just hope it's better than the movie.

(I suspect it is.)



Winter said...

I can honestly say I've done both. I enjoyed the book completely, the movie wasn't where I thought it should be, but I did enjoy it as well.

Mollie said...

T, you aren't missing much from the book either. I had to read it for Book Club, back in the day. I did not like it at all; thus, I had no desire to see the film. Your description of Hank's hair makes me fear to see it!

Academic Advisor said...

I agree with Mollie. I don't think you would get more from the book. I understand what you mean about feeling irrepressible disdain for wildly popular works of art, in any form. However, I tend to want to experience them for myself. Partly because they become cultural capital, like it or not, and I don't want to be left out of things. It's the insufferable know-it-all in me. But also because I want to be able to disdain them for legitimate reasons instead of mindless prejudice.

So, I read the book and saw the movie. In fact, as I read the book, I kept thinking, this would be a good movie, but it's not a very interesting book. The characters are as shallow as in the latter as they are in the former, and the plot is nearly as telegraphed. The story is full of cliches and over-done devices in both media. However, it does provide a veneer of erudition, which enables the masses to feel like they are acquiring secret and profound knowledge. People, especially Americans, are suckers for that, which accounts for the popularity.

As for why Illumniatus isn't as successful, it may not be as transparent and hackneyed. It may be the real deal. I don't know; I am not familiar with it. It may also be an issue of the right timing.

But I confess, like Winters, DaVinci did provide me some enjoyably mindless entertainment. That's what I watch action flicks for, anyway.

disgruntled world citizen said...

You are right when you lump it with the throw away literature of Grisham, et al. It was a book that was fun to read. I read it in about a day and half. It was a page turner and, if you like suspenseful-esque books and are able to turn off the "disbelief meter" in your head its actually a pretty good read. (I also read Angels and Demons and prefer that one to DC, but that's neither here nor there).

As for the movie, well, I'd say a C- minus is pretty accurate. Okay, I might be able to give it a C, but that's about as far as I can go.

As I watched the movie (and I paid to see it in the movie theatre) I kept saying to myself "why, amalie, why did you do this film?"

In short, the film is what it is.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see the movie. I did read the book. I thought the book was kind of pointless. There are other books out there that cover the subject matter and do a better job. Illuminatus! is just one. (I think the reason Illuminatus! isn't as well known is it is a hard read. Most people can't handle it jumping around like it does.) The only movie I ever saw that was better than the book was Silence of the Lambs.

All Hail Eris!

Anonymous said...

I was foolish enough to listen to the 70 odd people who told me to read this book. I think it's the first mystery/detective/page-turner I've read in 15 years or so, and I usually read a new book every week or two. I got a little enjoyment out of the book. some of it was 'ok.' the movie was maybe a little better than what I expected. but I still only watched about half of it. I thought the direction was pretty boring and once I've decided that, most movies don't hold much for me. later


Vicky said...

Good words.

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