June 2006

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

A Good Case for Snobbery: The Da Vinci Code

Everyone talks about the various secrets and controversies of The Da Vinci Code, but here's the one they leave out: Dan Brown's gajillions-sold bestseller nearly drove me to murder.

For the past three years -- only three years has that book held its treacherous reign over our sweet fair Earth, can you believe it? -- I've looked down on Da Vinci with the self-important snobbery found only in people who secretly suspect that they might actually like the damn book if they bothered to read it. This is a sort of snobbery that I can't fully embrace -- who's to say, after all, that middle America can't be right sometimes? And making fun of people just because they like a certain popular book or movie gets stale quick -- unless you do the proper amount of research. So I decided to suck it up and see what all the fuss was about -- at the very least, so I could make better fun of the people who considered the book genius. (I am convinced that that motivation makes up for at least one quarter of the book's sales.)

However, I rarely have time to read good books. Making time for bad ones is hard on the soul. So the perfect solution seemed to be the unabridged audiobook, stacks of which were available at the library. The book was nineteen hours long, which meant that I could listen during my hour-round-trip commute and be done in less than a month. Since I'd be in the car anyways, it wouldn't really detract from my life in any real way. Multitasking! The way of the future.

Seemed like a good plan. But by disc 2, I found myself driving a little too fast on winding roads, wandering into other lanes. I started wanting people dead.

See, audio books go not at your pace, but at the pace of the performer. And it's nearly impossible to skim past exposition in an audio book without accidentally skimming past important plot points. Believe me, I tried. So when Professor Robert Langdon, hot on his
grail quest, would spend a chapter reflecting upon some interesting symbological significance brought up by some TOTALLY INTERESTING clue that had just been uncovered, I started wanting to take my frustration out on other people. Like, for example, the 300 million people who had read this book and made it into the phenomenon that thus motivated me to spend my precious life hours listening to a fucking HOUR-LONG LECTURE ON MYTHOLOGY when really I just wanted to find out if that crazy albino was finally going to put whiny Sophie Neveu out of her
misery FOR GOOD.

My theory was that if I killed five people, I'd get at least two of the fuckers responsible.

The problem of The Da Vinci Code is that it's too long, sloppily-written, and chooses to create narrative tension by switching from action mode to lecture mode the instant something interesting happens. But somewhere in the garble of prose, there is a decent action-adventure story: Indiana Jones in novel form. Just now, I wanted to follow up that sentence with "a more academic Indiana Jones" or "a more religious Indiana Jones," but the problem with that is Indiana Jones is those things. Hell, Indiana Jones already found the Holy Grail back in the '40s. And he had Nazi broads to contend with, too!

But I'm a sucker for Indiana Jones, so it was the thought of fedoras and ancient riddles that kept me listening. When I zoned out during one of the endless lectures on symbology (which did have their interesting moments, but bordered so often on preposterous that I wanted to talk to a real symbologist before I believed one word of it), I would think about who I would cast, how this story would work as a movie. Because adaptation was inevitable. What wasn't inevitable was what kind of movie it'd be. The more I listened, the more I suspected that with some serious finessing, this dumb book could be a fun dumb action movie. You know, the kind that stars Hugh Jackman. In fact, I thought Hugh Jackman might have been a nice fit as Robert Langdon. I liked to think about Hugh Jackman as I listened. (I like to think about Hugh Jackman, so it was nice to have a reason to do so.)

But I didn't really give much thought as to who should write or direct the film, because I figured that whoever it was couldn't screw it up too badly. The twists and turns of the Grail quest were well-structured enough. All a potential adapter would have to do is cut out most of the lectures and Catholic church conspiracy, up the action a little bit, and make the characters into people. It wasn't necessarily a movie I'd be excited about seeing, but could develop into a solid little summer blockbuster, with an intriguing mystery at its core. The story might have legs, once freed of substandard prose, the kind that thinks it's well-written but really just sags under the weight of bad grammar and poor word choice (a friend referred to it as Michael Crichton-esque, which is apt indeed). The characters might resemble real humans if cast properly.

Then I found out that my nemesis, Akiva Goldsman, was writing the script for Ron Howard, the Dan Brown of cinema, to direct.

I started laughing then. And I didn't really stop, even after I'd seen the damn movie.

This is what happens when you stop being a snob, and you start hoping that maybe something good will come out of popular entertainment. You spend eleven dollars to discover facts that you didn't really want to learn. Like how the only thing you need to do to make someone a character is to give them a phobia. Like how you can cast a bevy of elite actors and still find the drama lacking. Like how there is no such thing as too much albino self-flagellation.

Because here's the thing. Ron Howard's adaptation of Da Vinci Code is too long, too self-important, too implausible. The characters remain cardboard thin. There is a reliance on blunt exposition (exemplified, in this case, by using CGI matte effects to illustrate Langdon's brain at work). The story never really lives up to its epic potential. You know what it is? It's an adaptation that rivals Sin City in its faithfulness to the source material. Which is exceedingly disappointing.

Both versions of this story fail to acquire any real importance. Both versions of this story think that they do. Lukewarm, middle-of-the-road, and just a little bit boring. This is "popular entertainment" today. And counting how many hours of my life it's cost me just gets depressing.

This is why people are snobs. Not because certain media is stupid; but because it's just not worth the energy. If you are one of the billions who liked this book, that's fine. Take your pleasures where you will, live your own life...

...But the next time I hear something's a popular phenonenom, I'm going to let myself be a snob.

Life is too short to do otherwise.