Making and Breaking the Code

Making and Breaking the Code

Can Ron Howard\'s film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code hope to inspire the passion aroused by the no

By Stephen Hunt 02/16/2006

RUE DE SEVRE, PARIS. St. Sulpice Church lies at the end of a street filled with high-end boutiques, boulangeries and bistros in the heart of the Latin Quarter, one of the more legendary neighborhoods of Paris. The Latin Quarter was Hemingway’s Paris neighborhood back in the 1920s and ’30s; these days, it’s full of boutique hotels such as the Bel Ami and Montalembert, and couturiers such as Prada and Isse Myaki.

There’s only about one novelist left who could afford to live around here, but Dan Brown doesn’t. He just immortalized the place in The Da Vinci Code, the No. 1 best-selling novel of all time (36 million copies in print, an estimated 25 million sold).

The church of St Sulpice, itself, is undergoing some sort of medieval makeover: On a drizzly, overcast mid-April Wednesday afternoon, scaffolding hangs off its 400-year-old exterior like so many pick-up sticks. One might speculate that St. Sulpice, to paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, is getting ready for its close-up.

One would be mistaken.

Since its publication in 2003, The Da Vinci Code has aroused passionate debate — among readers, clergy, academics and pundits — like no book in recent memory. Readers loved it. Doctrinaire Christians were mortified by it. Two years after it came out, the Vatican denounced it as nothing but — to paraphrase Tennessee William’s favorite heroine, Blanche Dubois — lies and mendacity. If the novel had been dead as a form of cultural communication, The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter books — both middle-brow genre books told from an unabashedly pagan point of view — resurrected it.

Now a high-profile Sony Pictures adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, directed by Oscar-winner Ron Howard and starring multiple Oscar-winner Tom Hanks, is in production in Paris, London, Italy and Scotland, and it seems that all anyone could talk about through 2005 was The Da Vinci Code, which doesn’t open (in 69 countries around the world) until May 17-19, 2006.

Question: Can Ron Howard’s film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code hope to inspire the passion aroused by the novel, or is it destined, like many a literary sensation before it, to end up just one more $100 million-plus tentpole movie so watered down from its original source material that even its enemies feel more sorry for it than enraged?

The ardor with which scholars, book lovers, pagans and Christian bloggers have debated the novel has been focused anew on two new subjects: the reactions of the various locations to requests from the producers for permission to shoot scenes there, and new revelations, following a New York Times article in early August, that Sony Pictures may have \"softened\" some of the details in the novel in an attempt to woo the same conservative Christian moviegoers who flocked to see The Passion of the Christ in 2004.

The Louvre, Chateau Villette, Paris’s Ritz Hotel and Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland all allowed Howard to shoot on location; Westminster Abbey and, most notably, St. Sulpice, did not. Their reasons echo many of the complaints offered by critics of the novel, who claim that it is a pile of fanciful rubbish and not sound religious history.

According to a story published July 28 by Bloomberg News Germany, a sign hung in St. Sulpice says that \"contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel, this is not a vestige of a pagan temple. No such temple ever existed in this placement.'' The sign goes on to say that \"the letters P and S in the small round windows at both ends of the transept refer to Peter and Sulpice, the patron saints of the church, not an imaginary ‘Priory of Sion,' \" as Brown wrote in The Da Vinci Code. (Paul Roumanet, the rector of St. Sulpice, was on holiday and unavailable for comment.)

One morning, an ominous-sounding email arrived in my inbox from Westminster Abbey with a disclaimer as long as the Ten Commandments: This is an email from Westminster Abbey. This e-mail contains information which is confidential to the addressee. You should not disclose the contents to any other person, nor place any reliance upon it, or copy, produce or forward all or any of it in any form. If you are not the intended recipient and/or receive this email in error, please accept our apology. We should be obliged if you would immediately telephone us or email and then delete the message from your system.

Glad they cleared that up. Sufficiently warned, I clicked open an attachment called \"the Da Vinci Code statement.\"

“Although a real page-turner, The Da Vinci Code is theologically unsound and we cannot commend or endorse the contentious and wayward religious and historic suggestions made in the book. It would therefore be inappropriate to film scenes from the book here.”

At least it didn’t say the message would self-destruct in five seconds.

The Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland allowed the producers to shoot there in exchange, it was reported in the Scottish Times, for £7,000 a day. The novel suggests that the Holy Grail was once hidden at Rosslyn and that descendents of the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene — among the novel's most explosive premises — can be traced to the Gothic chapel. This decision drew the wrath of one of the descendants of the family that founded the chapel

\"As far as I’m concerned, it is a load of rubbish,” Dr. Andrew Sinclair told Scottish Times reporter Karen Goodwin. “It’s appalling. What it says about the grail and Rosslyn is absolute invention. The fact that St. Sulpice has refused to allow anything to be filmed there because of the attack on the church is correct. Westminster Abbey has also refused. But Rosslyn has accepted and I think it’s a wrong decision. I would not lease the chapel, even for £7,000 a day, for anything so terrible for the reputation of Rosslyn as The Da Vinci Code.”

Even locations that stand in for others are under siege: A 61-year-old nun knelt in prayer outside Lincoln Cathedral in Lincolnshire, England — it was standing in for Westminster Abbey — to protest the filming of Da Vinci Code.

“My view is that the book isn’t blasphemous, it doesn’t denigrate God, but is speculative, farfetched and heretical,” said the Very Reverend Alec Knight, who reportedly accepted $180,000 from Sony to permit filming. Hearing this, the nun, Sister Mary Michael, said, “I think he is sitting on the fence with this arrangement.”

Then on Aug. 7 came a New York Times article that rumored that the novel was being tinkered with. According to the Times’ Sharon Waxman, the studio has made three major changes from the novel: diluting, or “softening,” the central premise, which not only alleges that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a son together but that this resulted in a massive cover-up by the Catholic Church that resulted in the deaths of thousands; removing the name of the group Opus Dei, a secretive sect of orthodox Catholics who serve as the novels’ arch-villains; and amending errors in the book’s description of the religious elements in art.

All novels that are adapted into films go through changes, but, if the rumors are accurate, Sony is trying to have their cake and eat it, too: making a staunchly anti-Catholic suspense thriller even as they hired conservative Christian movie consultants to advise them how they might tap into that audience, which Hollywood had no idea even existed until Mel Gibson’s Aramaic epic grossed $900 million (worldwide) in 2004.

“The phrase I heard several times was ‘Passion dollars,’\" Barbara Nicolosi, a Christian screenwriter who consulted with Sony on Da Vinci Code, told Waxman. “They’re wrong,” Nicolosi said. “They’re thinking they can ride the Passion wave with this Da Vinci Code. And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ \"

Amazingly, the rumored changes don’t make sense either to those who love the book or to those who hate it.

“What are they going to turn it into, a movie about a nutty albino serial killer?” said San Diego attorney and real estate agent Susan Friedland, who loves the book. (Quick! Someone get me an albino movie consultant! Could we change it to \"an extremely pale\" serial killer?)

“The premise is all-or-nothing,” said Carl Olsen, author of The Da Vinci Hoax, in a phone interview. “Either you present the premise or take it out. If they take it out, they’ll tick off a lot of people.\" Sony can't \"have it both ways,\" Olsen said. \"Appeal to Christians or fans of the book. There’s no way you can attract both groups. You have to choose your audience and go for it.”

Olivia Tsu Decker, who owns Chateau Villette, a central location in the novel, granted the filmmakers permission to film there, which they did for eight days in July. In an emailed reply to a question, she said she doesn’t see what the fuss over the proposed changes is all about.

“Like the fun of going to Paris to look for truth and fiction, you should enjoy the intrigue of finding out what's in the movie when it comes to a theater near you rather than trying to find out what's in it now. Besides, over 35 million books have been in circulation and the story is certainly not a secret that would compel Sony to make big changes to please one group or the other. This is not about red states or blue states. My opinion is: Sony will make a movie the best they can possibly make as a movie goes. If the Vatican wants to ban it, that’s too bad.”

Following publication of the New York Times article, The Da Vinci Code movie became a news cycle item of its own, like the war in Iraq or the battle over Supreme Court nominees. Various Da Vinci debunkers — Nicolosi, Olsen and Amy Welborn — outlined a media schedule that would make a Washington politico weep with envy. Welborn did CNN and Paula Zahn (in addition to being in the Times). The rumored changes were the subject of a segment on Nightline, a topic of conversation on MSNBC and fodder for coffee talk on The Today Show.

All this for a movie that wasn’t going to be released for nine months? You couldn’t have gotten more publicity if Tom Hanks got engaged to Tom Cruise.

The oddest thing about all the publicity was that the only folks not talking were the filmmakers and the studio. No one was allowed onto the set. No one was allowed to see a script, and anyone who did anything remotely connected to the film was required to sign a confidentiality agreement promising not to talk about what they knew.

This is as far as this intrepid reporter got: \"The set of THE DA VINCI CODE is closed to all press and we are not facilitating any interviews at the moment. However, please send me your request and I will look into setting something up as we get closer to the release of the film. Best, Kari Tejerian, Sony Pictures PR.\"

The Times didn't get much further, quoting Sony's worldwide marketing president as saying, “There isn’t a hidden agenda, there isn’t any secrecy; it’s just because it’s so well known. They’ve got a job to do to make the movie. It was easier for everybody to just go make the movie.”

So we can't be sure how much tinkering is going on and that's the way Sony wants it. The question remains: Is the studio doing anything wrong, or even radical, by allegedly tweaking the central premise of The Da Vinci Code, or is this just (movie studio) business as usual?

Novels span enormous periods of time (100 Years of Solitude); movies compress it (Speed). Novels can abruptly switch tone, from absurd to violent to satirical to sweet (The World According to Garp, Bonfire of the Vanities) without alienating the reader; movies switch tones at their peril. Movies work best as genre pieces — like movie music that cues us how to feel, these genres are so well-worn and familiar, they’re as predictable as the conversation at a family barbeque and just as comforting for audiences. Novels can appeal to a narrow band of loyalists who buy every book their favorite author publishes. Movies, like presidential candidates, need to go broad and general, appealing to the casual moviegoer as much as to the die-hards.

A big studio movie like War of the Worlds — 2005’s closest comparable deal to Da Vinci’s dream team of Imagine Entertainment, Howard and Hanks — needs to gross $500 million just to break even. That’s a lot of casual moviegoers before you earn even a single buck. When a studio executive gets on the conference call to the head office in Tokyo about the demographics for the new religious suspense thriller, what’s so crazy about talking up those “Passion dollars”?

The problem starts when the money men start giving notes on the script.

“My guess is that if they ‘soften’ it at all, it will be a lot of smoke and mirrors,” said Olsen. “To a certain degree, it’s easier to soften the premise in a movie than in a book, which has to be a more boldly stated fact.\" In a film, Olsen notes, \"You can do it in the dialogue.\" Meaning that a potentially unreliable character — or characters — can state positions that may or may not ever be objectively presented. Even given that wiggle room, Olsen says, the film \"will have to keep [the premise] to make the whole thing work. Otherwise, what’s the point? They shouldn’t even call it The Da Vinci Code.”

In the old days, there was a Catholic Film Board. Priests would actually warn against certain films — everything from a vampire film called Lemora to The Life of Brian to The Last Temptation of Christ — in their Sunday sermons.

These days, the Catholic Film Board has been replaced by Christian bloggers like Welborn, Olsen and Nicolosi. A common thread on their blogs and in interviews I did with Olsen and Welborn is that Hollywood — and mainstream American media, by and large — is \"tone deaf\" when it comes to the conservative Christian community.

“Stop insulting us,” Welborn said in a phone interview. “Stop making the Christian character in your movies the hypocrite, the villain.” Welborn referenced, in addition to Da Vinci Code, the film Saved. “Saved was basically a satire of organized religion,” Welborn said of the 2004 comedy starring Mandy Moore, Jena Malone and Macaulay Culkin. “It made fun of Christians. And I heard from someone that marketing people in Hollywood thought that they could lure the same people who went to see Passion to see a movie which essentially mocks Christians. I don’t know what’s in their head sometimes.”

“I’m a little bit cynical about Hollywood’s approach to traditional Christians,” Olsen said. “Starting with the ridiculous reaction to Passion of the Christ. Now, with Da Vinci Code, everyone is saying, ‘It’s just a movie, get over it.’ Well, if that’s the case, why was everyone so wound up about Passion? In the case of Da Vinci Code, here we have a novel that is completely historically inaccurate ... and is bigoted towards Catholics. If these themes come out in the film, why shouldn’t we be upset?”

Olsen wasn’t completely dismissive of the film, however. “In one sense, the movie has to be better than the book. Ron Howard is a competent, pretty good director. Tom Hanks is a great actor. And the supporting cast is pretty good. Did you know Tom Hanks is a practicing Greek Orthodox? And Ron Howard has been a longtime member of the Presbyterian Church.”

In Olsen’s view, the problem faced by a film like Da Vinci is that, if it truly strove to have an individual voice comparable to the book's, it would need to have been brought to life outside the studio system.

“If Passion had been made by the studios, by the time it made it through the system, everything that made it great would have been bowdlerized. They dilute it ... water it down. You just have so many hands in the pie. It’s only in independent film where you ever see a strong point of view. Now, I like a big popcorn movie as much as anyone, but it takes Mel going off on his own to get that particular point of view expressed.”

So will Olsen be attending the film?

“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” he said. “In fact, if I didn’t, my publisher would put a gun to my head. The week it comes out, me and my co-author (Susan Miesel) will be guests on the Eternal Word Network, talking about the movie.”

Clearly, there is something so undeniably compelling about Da Vinci Code that even some of its harshest critics simply have to see it. Paul Perry, the author and director of the documentary film Jesus in Egypt, which chronicles Jesus’ “missing years” in Egypt, has a theory.

“My work and Dan Brown’s both deal with apocryphal stories that didn’t get into the Bible,” Perry said. “There are 30 missing years (Jesus from the age of 3 to 32). [People] want to know what was going on.”

And what does author Dan Brown think of all this? He isn’t saying. Requests for comment to his attorney, Mark Rundell, went unreturned. One can only guess that, having made a deal with Sony that could bring him an estimated $5 million, Brown has had the same cone of silence lowered over him as has silenced the rest of the Da Vinci Code players. However, one can’t imagine that Brown would be particularly thrilled to see his novel watered down in an effort to lure conservative Christians into the theaters. Why worry about attracting the conservative Christian demographic when you’ve got 35 million fans of your own? They might be worshippers of the Sacred Feminine. They might be goddesses or pagans — but hey, even pagans need pop culture, too. On his Web site, Brown writes, “Two thousand years ago, we lived in a world of Gods and Goddesses. Today we live in a world solely of Gods.” He might be talking about Hollywood. Of course the suits have to tinker with the story — they need to make The Da Vinci Code more of a guy thing.

“I am sure Sony will be able to balance both the religious sensibility and be true to the book, as Dan Brown has visited the set in Paris during filming,” writes Chateau Villette owner Tsu Decker. “The movie will be one of the greatest movies in recent history, combining adventures of Indiana Jones, religious historical Passion of Christ and the global appeal of Harry Potter.\"

Tsu Decker can only hope it's that big. That's because The Da Vinci Code hasn't just spawned an entire cottage industry of books by writers refuting its central premise; it has become something of a tourist phenomenon as well. The story is basically an assemblage of various religious conspiracies that have purportedly been floating around for years among pagans, goddesses and religious radicals, all culled together into a page-turning suspense thriller that reads, in truth, more like a movie treatment than a religious suspense story. The epiphanies come fast and furious at the end of every chapter of Da Vinci Code.

Two thousand years of history gets unraveled over the course of about the length of the average American’s European vacation — a few days in Paris, a night drinking cognac at a gorgeous old Chateau on the outskirts of town, a pit stop in the mountains of Italy, some churches in London and Scotland, and back on the plane you go. Perhaps as a result, the novel has spawned an entire sub-genre of travel: Tens of thousands of Da Vinci Code readers have invaded Paris and London over the past 18 months to visit the locations in which the novel is set.

In Paris, David Mebane of City Walks of Paris prays — along with all the other tour operators who have been experiencing a boom in business since The Da Vinci Code was first published in 2002 — that the film lives up to the hype.

\"We are on a wave of popularity for Da Vinci Code tours right now, and I think the film will keep that wave coming and coming,'' Mebane, a 29-year-old Texan who moved to Paris in 1999 to set up a tour company, told Bloomberg News. \"Of course, it depends on the quality of the film, but I have trust in Howard.'' A second tour operator, Michel Madec, director of marketing at Paris Vision, a tour company that offers full-day Da Vinci Code tours, including a river boat lunch, for 155 euros ($186) a person, said, \"Once this film comes out, I think we have at least another two years of offering Da Vinci Code tours ahead of us.\"

Whether the passion that the novel produced will be slaked by the film remains to be seen. But if you happen to find yourself hanging out on the Left Bank, looking for a walk after enjoying a latte at one of those cafés frequented by Hemingway, Picasso and Gertrude Stein, the word on the streets of Paris is that, movie or no movie, St. Sulpice Church looks not a day over 200 years old.

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