Da Vinci Code: Collision or Convergence of Politics, Religion, Art, and Commerce

“Da Vinci Code,” Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel offers a unique case study for film critics. It’s a rare Hollywood movie in which politics, religion, art, and commerce collide, but the question is: Will these forces converge

French director Jean-Luc Godard once predicted that one of the effects of globalism–which for him meant American hegemony–is that moviegoers would want to see ONE movie a year. In 2006, this movie is “Da Vinci Code,” an event that approximates Marshall McLuhan’s metaphor of the world as a global village.

“Da Vinci Code” is undoubtedly this year’s most eagerly awaited film. Serving as opening night of the 2006 Cannes Festival should boost the international profile of the picture, which opens two days later, May 19, on 4000 American screens and in many other countries.

In what’s a peculiar combination, various social forces, such as the novel’s best-selling status, the controversy of the book’s issues, the secrecy of the production, the star power of Tom Hanks, the clout of the international cast, Sony’s marketing savvy, the world premiere in the prestigious Cannes Festival, have all jointly elevated “Da Vinci Code” into a media event.

Veil of Secrecy

The movie has been shrouded in secrecy ever since it went into production a year ago, and has remained so during post-production; even Sony’s execs didn’t know where the movie was being edited. Moreover, with the exception of few test screenings of the rough-cut to test groups, no one has seen the finished film until May 5, when it was shown to select distributors.

Redefining Hollywood’s Event Movie

If it’s good or even decent, “Da Vinci Code” should emerge as the film event of the year, but event not in the sense of Hollywood tentpole movies, such as “Mission Impossible 3,” or summer popcorn flicks like “Poseidon” or “X-Men: The Last Stand.” No, “Da Vinci Code” goes beyond the real of film–it’s what communication scholars call a global media event.

Literary Cache

Mention the literary cache of Brown’s book as a positive factor and you may get a cold shoulder in Hollywood. Last year, Sony’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” also derived from a best-seller, didn’t meet box-office or Oscar expectations. However, few execs are willing to admit that “Memoirs of a Geisha,” or “Cold Mountain” for that matter, were compromised adaptations and mediocre movies.

Yet there are literary renditions that do work, and work well. Brown’s novel is not a great book, but it’s a page-turner. Hence, in terms of visibility and potential commercial appeal, the movie could yield similar results to “Harry Potter” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

Controversy, Hype, and Anticipation

There is a tremendous anticipation due to the controversies that the book had stirred ever since it got published. The book unfolds as an intellectual conspiracy and a lot of the anger is targeted at its central issue, the intersection of religion and politics.

Brown realizes that people are interested in his conspiracy book for different reasons, and that they are influenced by it in various ways. Some readers dwell on the religious aspects of the conspiracy, while others single out the provocative questions of history and mythology, or how history is created.

However, Hollywood has witness different kinds of controversies over its religious epics. Case in point: Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which was a commercial flop, versus Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” a box-office bonanza domestically and internationally. It’s worth noting that, unlike “Last Temptation” or “Passion of the Christ,” the protests of various Christian groups have mostly been targeted at the book.
Considering that the book has sold north of 40 million copies, the scale of protests has been moderate. Moreover, protests may have boomerang effect making the movie all the more commercial.

Brown’s Trial

In April, Dan Brown emerged as a hero in London’s High Court, when he fought allegations from historians Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh that he stole “the whole architecture” of their research. The authors wrote the 1982 nonfiction book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail,” which examined the theory that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child and that the Catholic church has been trying to suppress the bloodline ever since. Brown has acknowledged the influence of Baigent and Leigh’s research, but argued that his book is a work of fiction. Later, Sony rejected the absurd demand by some Christian groups to place a disclaimer that the movie is not based on facts.

Hollywood’s Conspiracy Genre

Based on the reel I saw, “Da Vinci Code” has dark look and somber mood that befit the textnoir in color. Howard insists that his main motivation for directing the film is his love of the Hollywood adventure thriller. The novel has the style and suspense that make the story entertaining in a very Hollywood-like way.

Hanks and the Star System

It’s hard to think of a more suitable actor for the lead role of Harvard symbology professor than Tom Hanks, America’s favorite son and two-time Oscar winner. In the book, the character is described as “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed,” which is not the first image that comes to mind when thinking of Hanks.

Is Howard the Right Director

The producers think Howard is the right choice for this project, because he is not a political provocateur, unlike, say, Oliver Stone. John Calley, who owned the movie rights and joined forces with Brian Grazer as producer, thinks Howard is skillful, intelligent, and moderate in the best sense, because he has no specific agenda to promote.

Besides, Howard has improved as a filmmaker, and his recent movies (“Cinderella Man,” “The Missing”) have darker tone and deeper gravity to them. Yet some people still think of Howard as a light and populist entertainer, perhaps unable to forget his clean-cut image as Opie on TV’s “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Faithful Adaptation

Howard recruited Akiva Goldsman, who scripted “A Beautiful Mind” and “Cinderella Man,” for the daunting task of adapting the book. By the time production began, the book had gone from being a best seller into being a historical success that invaded global awareness. There was no need or desire to change the book, based on the filmmakers’ belief that the book is really good. Hence, they decided to stick to Brown’s novel as much as possible.

Even so, some changes were necessary. For example, there are two cryptex devices in the novel but only one in the movie, and they have made Hank’s character more of a “Hitchockian Everyman.” Throughout the shoot, the filmmakers conferred with Brown, who made himself accessible in the most collaborative way, totally accepting the fact that the script could not be a verbatim version of the novel. Brown continued to be an important resource by helping to interpret things that he discovered after writing the book, which were incorporated into the script.

Global Orientation and International Cast

Hanks is the only American actor in a film boasts a truly international cast: Gallic Audrey Tautou and Jean Reno, Brits Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina, and Paul Bettany, German Jurgen Prochnow. This cast makes “Da Vinci Code” a suitable selection for an international event like Cannes, still the most important fest in the world, and Sony is banking on Cannnes’ help for its massive global launch.

Promoting Tourism

Although several sets were built at Shepperton and Pinewood Studios, most of the film was shot on location in Paris, London, and Rome. The filmmakers themselves took the “Da Vinci Code” tour to the book’ sites, though the guide was unaware that they were making a movie. The film’s global success should promote the tour’s popularity but that’s a side effect, and other movies have boosted tourism as well.

Symbols and Characters

Hanks as Robert Langdon: Many of Langdon’s attributes are based on author Brown himself. Goldsman constructed the character as a thinking man’s hero who’s on a relentless quest to unravel the conspiracy mystery. The film gives the role a Hitchcockian touch, making Langdon a bright yet innocent everyman, driven by immense curiosity and maintaining his dry sense of humor while being pulled into the mysteryis he a modern version of Cary Grant’s character in “North By Northwest”

Audrey Tautou as Sophie Neveu: The name Sophie comes from Greek, Sofia for wisdom, and Neveu means descendent in French. Is she a descendent of Mary Magdalene Having such a strong female character at the center is unusual for a Hollywood movie of that caliber. Exploring the notion of the “sacred feminine” (you have to read the book for that), on one level, it’s the story of a girl who in her search for identity turns out to be far more than she ever imagined.

Ian McKellen as Leigh Teabing: As the sphinx of the story. Teabing is full of mysteries and serves as the engine in the book and movie. Much of what happens in the ever-changing yarn is due to this puppet master.

Paul Bettany as Silas: Since Silas is the novel’s most bizarre character, Bettany says his primary goal was to humanize the Albino monk. Silas is an alienated individual desperate for a father figure, and the first person kind to him is Aringarosa, who unfortunately uses his damaged psyche as a weapon. Silas’ father had called him a ghost, and Silas ended up in prison for killing him.

Jean Reno as Bezu Fache: The name Bezu is the location of a Knights Templar fortress in Southern France, and Fache means cross in French. Though Bezu is involved in the mystery, he’s first and foremost a cop trying to do his job well.

Alfred Molina as Bishop Aringarosa: Aringa means herring and Rosa means red. Is the Bishop a red herring

Summer Worries or Summer Wishes

Tom Cruise vehicle “Mission: Impossible 3” proved that A-list cast doesn’t always translate into stellar box office. An adult conspiracy thriller, with no children in the cast or many special effects, Howard’s movie is hardly conventionally mindless summer popcorn fare, but the movie should benefit from these attributes; the failure of “Poseidon” may be an indication that the public is tired of trashy effects-driven movies.

Even so, how do you please millions of readers who have read the book and have visualized its main characters and have high expectations of the movie version Howard has never worked on such a high-profile movie and has never been involved in a film that not only generates strong feelings but also stimulates intense conversations about ideas, facts, and myths.

Sony is holding the first screenings for critics in Cannes (and L.A.) on Tuesday night, May 16. Will the Cannes premiere mute or ignite even more the criticism of the book and movie

Stay tuned.