Short reviews of mediocre books: Part II – The Da Vinci Code

January 24, 2006

I just finished reading The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. Obviously, I am way behind the times on this book, but I thought I’d read it before the movie comes out in May. My opinion on the book in the past has been similar to that of many others: "Why all the fuss?" After all, this is fiction, not a scholarly treatise. Unfortunately, this line of thinking didn’t survive past the first page (prior to the beginning of the story proper) on which Brown writes the following:


The Priory of Sion – a European secret society founded in 1099 – is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’s Bibliotheque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo Da Vinci.

The Vactian prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brain-washing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as "corporal mortification." Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City.

All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.

With such a bold pronouncement right up front, it is clear that Brown intends this book to be more than a nice, fictional tale. Indeed, he explicitly claims that all of the surrounding details of the story are true. This becomes important as the reader learns that the main plot of the story is largely a vehicle for Brown’s radical views on history, art, and religion. I have no intention to spend my time here debunking any of Brown’s claims since so many books have been published and so many webpages created with that express purpose (mostly becuase it is so easy to do). I will simply state that Brown’s historical perspective is radical in the extreme and even laughable in some places.

Instead of critiquing the claims of the book, I want to answer whether I think it was a good read and whether it will make a good movie. The answer to the first is mostly yes. The story, though frequently broken by long explanations by the characters, is pretty fun and encourages the reader to figure out the answers to the riddles as it goes along. Of course, it is hard to come up with good riddles and the author has to make his characters a bit slower on the uptake than they should be in order to allow the necessary pacing and lead the plot in the right direction. Despite all of the exposition and revisionist history lessons, the pace is pretty lively and conveys a sense of urgency and intensity that – while not strictly necessary past a certain point – certainly makes the book more entertaining. The characters are pretty starkly defined, with each falling into a specific role, particularly the villian and his henchmen, who could have been lifted from a James Bond tale. The ending is pretty typical fare for this type of book, but does resolve the main plot line. All in all, the book is entertaining but fairly unremarkable if one leaves out the extraordinary claims that it makes.

The Da Vinci Code movie is scheduled to be released in May of 2006, and I suspect that it will be quite good. The story itself is extremely well-suited to a film adaptation, with fast-paced action and lots of nice locations (even a car chase or two). If National Treasure made for good entertainment (and I am among those who think that it did), then The Da Vinci Code should do even better. This has been all but assured by the fact that the director is Ron Howard and he has chosen an excellent cast, including (according to imdb) Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Ian McKellen (Leigh Teabing), Jean Reno (Bezu Fache), and Alfred Molina (Bishop Aringarosa). Hanks and McKellen are both excellent actors, though I certainly wouldn’t have thought of either of them in the roles, particularly McKellen since Teabing is described as "rotund." Alfred Molina (best known to the general public as Doc Octopus in Spider-man II) seems like a good choice for the Bishop, and Jean Reno is – in my opinion – the coolest Frenchman on the planet (though he was apparently born in Morocco). You simply can’t have a gruff French chief of police and not think of Reno. The rest of the cast looks to be pretty solid as well. Of course, a decent story and a good cast do not guarantee the movie will be any good. It remains to be seen whether it will have a strong script that is able to deal with the pseudo-historical nonsense that Brown has strung throughout the book and still keep audiences interested. It will also be interesting to see whether some of the more inflammatory details are cut to accomodate the movie’s need for much faster pacing. I suspect that the movie version will lead to several prime-time specials examining the books’ claims, which will hopefully be good for those who originally accepted the book at face value.

If you are interested in learning more about the veracity of the claims that Brown makes in the book, simply google "Da Vinci Code" with "errors" or something similar.


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