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The Da Vinci Code arrives to Cannes

Fuelled by controversy both within its covers and in the courts, The Da Vinci Code arrives on our screens with its intoxicating mix of fact, myth, fiction and religion, crowned by the honour of opening the Cannes film festival. Andrew L. Urban explores the duality behind the phenomenon, and the filmmakers discuss the core elements that drive this religion flavoured adventure thriller.

There’s nothing new about Jesus surviving the crucifixion, nor that he married Mary and had children – but even today there are many Christians (and others) who abide by the old stories and who regard these as explosive concepts. Consequently the notion that there are descendants of Jesus walking among us (perhaps in the South of France like at the Cannes film festival, where the film has its world premiere) is at least preposterous, at worst blasphemous to some.

Striking as this subject does at the foundation stone of Christianity, The Da Vinci Code’s most effective sales pitch is that it dares mix these already volatile elements with the tools of fiction, adding myths and the irresistible element of organised secrecy – a sort of inverted conspiracy.

By blending fact and fiction like this, the work takes on a duality: on the one hand, the author and the filmmakers can claim that this is just entertainment. It’s not history or scholarship (although much research went into it) but a thriller, with fictional characters. On the other hand, they are nudge-nudge wink-winking that actually, there is indeed something to all this hokum. Just look how credible is Ian McKellen as Sir Leigh Teabing, “the sphinx of the story,” says writer Akiva Goldsman, “he is full of mysteries and serves as an engine, both in the book and the movie. Much of what happens is due to this puppet master.”

Of course, film biographies mix fact and fiction all the time, or at best bend the truth, create composite characters and generally spivvy up the story for dramatic purposes. Expect nothing less from The Da Vinci Code, which even recruits a towering artist of the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci, as one its secret operatives.

Ron Howard’s wife was reading the book with her book group when he mentioned that he might direct a film version. He says: “People are interested in it for different reasons and are personally impacted by it in a variety of ways.”

But the main reason he was eager to direct The Da Vinci Code has to do with his love of the adventure thriller genre. “This story has all the style and traditional suspense elements that make a movie work as an entertaining narrative,” says Howard. “It takes the viewer along with the confidence that it’s headed in a particular direction but then surprises you in so many ways. That’s why the story Dan Brown created so captivated his readers. It feels familiar as a mystery and as a thriller but then, wow, there’s this fascinating turn of events.”

Having previously collaborated with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman on A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, Howard felt Goldsman was the natural choice to adapt Dan Brown’s book. “It was a pretty daunting task,” says Howard. “By the time we’d all decided to make it into a movie, the book had gone from being a big hit to being this historic success story. I’d already been working very closely with Akiva and he and I had some fairly deep conversations about the novel, because it’s more than just believing it would make a good movie story. In choosing to take it to the screen you also have to ask yourself a lot of the questions that the book poses to the reader. I’ve never really been involved in a film project like this, one that not only generates feeling and emotion and is entertaining, but also really stimulates great conversation.”

"tremendously impressed by the book"

Goldsman himself says he was a bit daunted by the task of adapting Brown’s best-selling literary phenomenon to the screen, since so many people had read it and had visualized it in their own minds. “I was tremendously impressed by the book and had absolutely no idea how to adapt it since it’s such a complex, labyrinthine and intricate piece of fiction,” Goldsman confesses. “My inclination was to shy away from it. But then I sat down with Ron, and he had such a clear idea of what he wanted to do with it that he turned me around and gave me the confidence to try.”

Goldsman was equally intrigued by the concept of the sacred feminine. Audrey Tautou plays Sophie Neveu: the name Sophie comes from Greek Sofia for wisdom and Neveu means “descendent” in French — a descendent of Mary Magdalene perhaps, goes the fictional query.

“For me, the most interesting aspect of The Da Vinci Code was the story of this girl who, in her search for identity, turns out to be far more than she ever imagined. From a writing point of view, that’s very fertile territory. It’s not as panoramic and epic as other aspects of the novel, but for me, it was the most compelling part, the most human part.”

Two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks, who embodies Dan Brown’s protagonist Professor Robert Langdon (a symbologist) in the film, also acknowledges the challenges in trying to adapt such a successful book for the big screen: “You have to give every reader what they’re expecting, because, quite frankly, the book is really good,” says Hanks. “You could change it, make it different, but you’d better be sure you’re also making it better. Akiva’s job in adapting something that is as specific as The Da Vinci Code was a monumental task, [precisely] because of all of his great instincts as a screenwriter about what makes for a good cinematic narrative.”

The filmmakers frequently conferred with Brown during the writing of the adaptation. “Dan made himself accessible in the most understanding, collaborative kind of way, in terms of his acceptance of the fact that of course the screenplay was not going to be a verbatim version of the novel,” says Howard. “He knew we were going to have to streamline it somewhat. But he was a really important resource in helping us interpret things he had learned or read including several things he discovered after he wrote the book, which have found their way into the script. So, our movie is in some ways a kind of an updated, annotated version of The Da Vinci Code.”

The Da Vinci Code releases on May 18, 2006.

Andrew Urban

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