Friday, January 14, 2011

The Da Vinci Code

I’ve wanted to read and watch this book and movie for a few years now – pretty much ever since the movie came out – but didn’t really have time to or desire to deal with the conspiracy theorists associated with these.  With the combo of Winter Break and the blog, I now have time and an excuse.  This is also my first review where I have neither read the book nor seen the movie prior to the review, and seeing what I have planned it may be a while before it happens again.  This review, therefore, will contain some of my initial thoughts about the storyline(s), and I acknowledge that my opinion of either or both may change over time.  That said, lets delve into the mystery of The Da Vinci Code.

Read my eyes...
The book was written by Dan Brown and published by Doubleday in the US in 2003.  The book caused many controversies about historical inaccuracies and sacrilegious themes.  While it wasn’t the first book to declare most of these themes, it brought them to international mainstream attention, getting a whole new group of perfectly rational people seeing correlations that don’t really exist and into the idea that there’s always a bigger plan.  It’s worth noting that a few days before I started reading (December 12th I think) I saw a news report that “experts”say that there were hidden messages found in the eyes of the Mona Lisa.  Uh, wut?  The “messages” varied from a couple of letters to a string of numbers, each “expert” seeing something different.  Apparently, Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa with a microscope, since that’s the only way some of these symbols can be seen.  And of course, it’s totally not possible that human imagination fills in blanks based on schemata of letters and/or numbers and the “experts” see something that’s not actually there.  I’m all for reading and getting lost in the world of the book, but when you mesh it with reality, there may be cause for concern.  And parents are worried that kids can’t tell between fantasy and reality.  Just saying.

But, since I’m not here to talk about those controversies or inaccuracies, and there are already plenty of excellent articles on some of the varied and repeated baloney found in the book, I’ll get back to the merits and shortfalls of the book as a literary work.  I have to admit, it took me a while to read this – nearly a month.  That’s not because it’s difficult or particularly long; in fact it’s only about 450 pages (and yet somehow 105 chapters?!)  It’s just that when I read a book that insults my intelligence as much as The Da Vinci Code does, I need to take periodic breaks.  There is more that I dislike about this book than just the fodder for the crazies.  But, since I like touching on the good points as well as the bad, I’ll do that first.

The story does a pretty good job of pulling you into the action off the bat and, for the most part, keeping that state of action pretty consistently in the story proper.  He uses what he assures us on page one are accurate descriptions of the artwork described (even if some details about the artwork or the artist are sensationalized, exaggerated, and often made up… oh sorry, right…) and details about real organizations (even if those details are sensationalized, exaggerated, and… well, you know…) It gives a real world feel to the fantasy of the world – and it is indeed a whole different world – that Mr. Brown has built.  It certainly takes advantage of that “what if?” factor that turns your everyday life into a bestselling novel.  The story itself is not too bad, either, as long as you understand that it’s not real.  There are many characters and story arcs, and Brown somehow keeps track of them all.  There seem to be at least four different stories told from one or two different perspectives each that are told in chunks going on simultaneously that all intertwine and merge eventually, and that’s a presentation that’s hard to pull off.

Unfortunately, I don’t think he pulled it off too well.  Every couple of pages, a cliffhanger occurs and either the point of view changes or we go to another story arc separated from what we were just reading, or we get pulled into a flashback.  I repeatedly just wanted to just hurry on to the next paragraph of the Robert-Sophie arc than find out what the evil albino’s next literal step is in the trail we already know is false (this is something we find out on the second page of the story, and he’s on that cold trail for 127 more pages – and yes, that’s the actual page count).  The chapter sections follow the same pattern – as I said, 450 pages into 105 chapters equals… lemesee… drop the 0, subtract 210, carry the 4… 4.3 pages per chapter, roughly.  Each chapter is usually accompanied by yet another change in POV.  The abrupt changes left me not with the sense of suspense I think he was going for, but a feeling of exasperation that I now have to suffer through another two-page irrelevant flashback that can be explained a page later when whoever the POV character tells the person he/she is with.  Oh, reverent Goddess of the Short-Attention-Span, I offer up to thee this sacrifice of suspense.

But even with all the flashbacks and POV changes, character development is nearly non-existent.  I know next to nothing about these characters as people.  I know a couple of things that happened in their childhood, last year, last month, last week, but I still don’t know who these people are.  All the bad guys are Dr. Claw, all the pawns are Faust, and Robert and Sophie might as well be male/female versions of each other – code breaking geeks who are rather slow at breaking codes.

The clues to solving the mysteries are what insult me the most.  They are either too easy or too personal to the character for the reader to figure out.  The “professional” code breakers are often too dumb to do their jobs.  Robert Langdon is a Harvard professor of symbology (no such degree, BTW) and Sophie Neveu is an agent of the French FBI’s cryptology department.  Yes, France has an entire cryptology department, and they have never seen English anagrams.  I solved a number of the “mysteries” before the main characters did.  Case in point: neither our intrepid professor nor his Grail scholar friend Leigh Teabing can decipher an “ancient Semitic language that none of them has ever seen” that I, with absolutely no cryptology training (newspaper cryptograms confuse me) and no Sophie’s Grandpappy to give me the clues as I grew up, was able to recognize within seconds and was able to read within about 6 minutes by staring at it and transcribing it to Notepad; that is, without a particular devise that some other readers may have grabbed to in order to “translate” it.  Every student, scholar, or French cryptologist who hears a theory accepts it readily and without debate or challenge, no matter how conjecturable it is.  Everything these people previously know is immediately forfeit to one person’s subjective interpretations.  All your logic are belong to us.

My last beef with TDVC that I will address here (the mythology geek in me is screaming to be let out, but there are other pages for that*) is the amount of literary clichés in here, especially amongst the antagonists.  Clearly, albinos are evil and totally not regular people with a melanin anomaly.  They always play a bad guy, often psychotic, taking pleasure in either the pain of others or his own pain.  Our intro to the baddies, and also the book, is a masochistic albino with a mission from God to kill the all the members of a brotherhood in order to extract an ancient artifact/secret that their sole purpose is to protect.  Yawn. (pages 1-3, not counting the page of “FACTS”, BTW)  Christianity is the only religion still practiced, but the Church is evil, funded by evil “new” Pope (unnamed).  Cops will do anything to track down and arrest someone that they are 100% sure is guilty of murder even though they don’t have any solid evidence.  Our professor knows everything about the symbols, purpose, rituals, and secret knowledge of a supposedly secret society, including all of the mystery of the true Holy Grail.  Been there, done that, let’s move on.

So, is the movie any better?  Well, yeah.  I expected the book to translate well to a movie, to be honest.  The organization and pacing of the book was such that it seems Dan Brown had a movie in mind when he wrote it.

We get more of a sense of character in our main guys.  Well, with Ron Howard directing and Tom Hanks playing Robert Langdon, how can we not.  Robert is not so much of a Gary Stu as he is in the book, shares the mystery solving with Sophie (Audrey Tautou), and leaves most of the Grail education to our Grail scholar, Sir Ian McKellen.  This makes the characters much more unique.  Langdon is even skeptical of Teabing’s theories until later in the movie, and admits to Sophie that he doesn’t know everything.  And, they figure out the clues much more easily.  Like their professions say they ought.

Although, the movie script does still seem accept the book’s view of Christianity being the only religion still practiced – the audience members at Pr. Langdon’s speech, even those from other countries, all give very Christian centric answers to his questions – it’s barely mentioned after that scene.

The movie also seeks to correct many of the inaccuracies that are presented in the book.  Some of the historical errors from the book are changed to the correct information or simply omitted.  The artistic inaccuracies and embellished details are swapped for some more plausible observations.  While it still attests some of the same clues that the book does, it presents them in a much more logical way.  I’m not saying it’s perfect, and there are still some parts that may make you facepalm, but the overall feel of the story, for me anyway, is that it regards the audience as able to think.  The book tried to force you to think it was real.  The movie accepts itself as a fantasy.

While I can’t say whether or not Dan Brown believes the coincidences he presents in his book are actually linked, it does seem obvious that he does not think his plotline is real, or that the conspiracies he uses in his story are fact.  In the beginning he gives us three facts.  He does not say these are factually related.  His fiction is what links them.  The book was ok as far as language used and plot development goes, but the names of the characters are better researched than the myths, art, and history the story revolves around.  It would have been difficult not to make it into a better movie that it was a book.

I think I’ll leave you with this piece of awesomeness.

Lego Last Supper by The Rev. Brendan Powell Smith
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

*P.S. As it turns out, there doesn’t seem to be many pages for that.  I found all kinds of Christian theology disputes, and good on them, but there are inaccuracies among the pagan religious ideas, too.  If you find some – that is, articles on inaccuracies and misconceptions pertaining to ancient and pagan mythological symbols and belief presented as “fact” in TDVC – let me know.  Otherwise I may have to take matters into my own hands…

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