Thursday, May 19, 2016

Neither Purely History Nor Purely Mystery

"Nobody hates history. They hate their own histories."

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks)

I kind of had an unfair advantage over many people who saw "The Da Vinci Code" after it premiered on this day in 2006.

Less than two months earlier, I was laid up for a couple of weeks after shoulder surgery. That's kind of a long story, and I really only mention it because, during my convalescence, I read Dan Brown's "preposterous" (in Roger Ebert's words) novel on which the movie was based.

The novel was published three years earlier, which is probably when most people read it — it was outsold only by the latest in the Harry Potter series — but I didn't read it then. I was busy with other things. Then, when I found myself with time on my hands in early 2006, I read a secondhand paperback copy of that novel.

That worked in my favor when the movie came out, though, because the plot was fresh in my mind. The people I knew who read it when the book was a best–seller in hardback had forgotten some of the finer points of the story, and I am sure they weren't alone.

(I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that it was considerably more challenging for moviegoers to follow the plot if they hadn't read the book. I mean, you at least had to be aware of about 2,000 years' worth of religious rumor and innuendo — as well as history. Lawrence Toppman of The Charlotte [N.C.] Observer wrote that "unlike most Hollywood blockbusters, this one assumes audience members will be smart." I worked for newspapers long enough to know that was probably a mistake.)

But I was fortunate to have the father I had. Dad was a religion professor when I was growing up so I got a lot of exposure to things about which most of my friends knew little, if anything — at least when it came to religion. Dad was a great resource for me when I was reading Brown's novel.

But he was a good resource in another way. Dad has always been an avid fan of mystery novels. As such, he was invaluable in helping me to differentiate between elements of genuine religious and historical significance and elements of good mystery writing. In such a novel, they are bound to overlap; without his help, it would have been easy for me to confuse the two.

On top of that, I saw the movie with Dad. We saw it on Father's Day that year — about a month after its premiere. We figured the crowds wouldn't be as great after a month. Boy, were we wrong. Around the time we saw it, "The Da Vinci Code" became the second film of 2006 to exceed $200 million in the United States.

It was still packing 'em in.

Ron Howard's movies always pack 'em in, though, and they are almost always good so that was understandable. What's more he had two–time Oscar winner Tom Hanks in the leading role and two–time Oscar nominee Ian McKellen in a supporting role. French actress Audrey Tatou, who was largely unfamiliar to American movie audiences at the time, co–starred with Hanks. How could Howard go wrong?

Well, apparently, he did.

The response to the movie was, at best, mixed. I think most people recognized the controversial nature of the subject matter — as well as the fact that considerable resistance could be expected from the Roman Catholic Church. More than a dozen countries censored the film — if they didn't ban it outright.

So there were some headwinds facing the movie when it made its debut. But that didn't seem to dampen audience enthusiasm. As mentioned earlier, it was the second–highest grossing film that year. Anyone looking for evidence that critical endorsements' have little effect on consumer behavior need look no further than "The Da Vinci Code."

Still, the critics could be harsh, and Howard said he found their responses "frustrating."

And I guess they were.

But that is to be expected, I suppose, when a movie challenges people's religious beliefs, and that is precisely what "The Da Vinci Code" did. How could anyone think otherwise? Hanks' character was a professor of religious iconography and symbology involved in a quest for the Holy Grail.

What was not expected — at least, by me — was the negative reaction to Howard. After all, who didn't like Opie? Or, depending on your age, Richie Cunningham? Getting rough with Ron Howard is like getting rough with the Easter bunny.

Ebert wrote that the movie was "preposterously entertaining." That was probably a good way to put it.

I agreed with his assertion that the book on which the movie was based was "preposterous" — and with that stuff about the movie being preposterously entertaining.

If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, I encourage you to do so.

Just remember that it is neither purely history nor purely mystery. Perhaps a little of both.