Richard Leonard SJ
As a film critic, I regularly hear that movie adaptations of novels are ‘Not as good as the book’. This observation, of course, is misjudged. A good film cannot easily do what a good book can do – tell the viewer what all the characters are thinking, and what is motivating them at any given point.
I think this film adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel of the same name is better than the book, but only fractionally. The Da Vinci Code movie is overly long, the direction is uninspired and the acting by Tom Hanks and Audrey Tatou is surprisingly weak. And, what’s worse, with 20 minutes still to run in this 149-minute marathon, the film completely runs out of puff.
But whatever critics think won’t make much difference to the big box office returns. Readers of the book want to see the film. And the novel has been a phenomenon. It has been on the New York Times best seller list for 163 weeks, has been translated into 47 languages and sold more than 40 million copies. The recent soft cover edition, released eight weeks ago, sold 500,000 copies in its first day in the USA, and debuted at number one on respected best selling lists all over again.
The sort of success for the book and film has a context. It does not just happen because of hype. I want to make some observations about why I think Brown’s work is a hit and why people believe these works of fiction to be fact.
From his success with his 2001 novel, Angels and Demons, Dan Brown knew that religion and intrigue sold well. But not even he could have predicted that by adding sex into this mix in The Da Vinci Code he was going to ride a wave of public interest that would see this book become a publishing sensation.
Some history: One of the book and film’s major claims is that women’s leadership in the early church was suppressed. As Jesus’ lover, and mother of his child, the suppression of Mary Magdalene’s memory is indicative of this wider struggle. Whether we like it or not, the US literary market is the largest and most lucrative in the world. Almost universally in the English language market, if it’s a hit there it will be here too.
In the USA every major recent survey of mainstream American Catholics, and certainly people beyond the community of the church, reveals that they are not convinced by the Vatican’s arguments, historical, theological or otherwise, that women should not be ordained leaders.
But this is not just an issue for the USA. Even the Australian bishops’ study on women in 1999 concluded that the lack of women’s leadership in the church led many women in the hearings to express ‘a strong sense of pain and alienation resulting from the church’s stance on women’.
Whatever of these arguments, this is one context in which a novel about the sacred feminine and St Mary Magdalene’s role in earliest Christianity has been heard.
But there is a second context too.
In May 1992, the Boston Globe published a story about sexual abuser Fr James Porter. The response to that story started an investigation by the newspaper that reached a crescendo in its 6 January 2002 edition.
It published the first of a series of articles detailing how over decades the Archdiocese of Boston protected abusing priests. The diocese denied any wrongdoing during the entire investigation.
Once Boston proved radioactive, a chain reaction was set off across the USA that left believers and nonbelievers alike incredulous at the number of victims and perpetrators, and the breadth of the coverup. Boston’s Cardinal, Bernard Law, was forced to resign on 13 December 2002.
Within 12 weeks Dan Brown’s book was published, in March 2003. It wasn’t hard for a cynical public in the USA to believe that the Catholic Church had covered up a sex scandal that, if true, would rock its foundations.
I liked the book, and think Dan Brown has done Christianity a favour for this reason. While its theories could be easily and humorously disproved, The Da Vinci Code started people doing something I have never witnessed before – talking about the origins and history of Christianity at the pub, over dinner and around the barbie.
This article is reprinted from The Australian public affairs, arts and theology magazine, Eureka Street, [www.eurekastreet.com.au] and is an excerpt from Dr Richard Leonard’s Newman/St Mary’s Academic Centre Lecture Series, delivered at the University of Melbourne on 22 May 2006.