‘Da Vinci’: Hiatus Says Read the Book … But That’s Not Saying Much

You settle into a strange enjoyment about five minutes into watching “The Da Vinci Code.” Why? Could it be the thrilling opening revelations? The gripping Smart Car chase? Audrey Tautou’s expensive French pout? Not likely.

In fact, five minutes seems to be about the time it takes for the brain to discover it isn’t being stimulated and revert to thinking about something else; in this case, the book. Suddenly the code-breaking becomes fun, the chases become exciting, but not because of what’s on screen. Instead, you find yourself reliving the frantic opening scenes of a book that started off pretty damn good, regardless of your ultimate opinion of it.

There are an infinite number of ways to convert a book to the big screen, but when the book is a mega-blockbuster, your options are pared down to just three. Option one is to dumb the book down for a mass audience by deviating from the plot without improving upon it, inevitably letting fans down in droves (“Jurassic Park 2,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”). Option two is to pander to fans of the book by sticking meticulously to the plot as much as the film’s running time allows (all the Harry Potter movies). Option three is to improve on the book by enhancing the best parts while leaving out the boring stuff (“Lord of the Rings”).

The choice seemed obvious enough — fans of “The Da Vinci Code” aren’t diehards, and nobody’s going to show up to a screening dressed as Robert Langdon, but all-star director/producer team Ron Howard and Brian Grazer went ahead and gave it the Harry Potter treatment anyway. The film adheres so rigidly to the book that if you should feel the need to take a nap — and you may — you won’t miss a thing.

There’s a certain rare pleasure in seeing locations from any book burst onto the big screen looking exactly how you imagined them. This film does it — the eye-popping settings are a high point. Unfortunately, the same kind of pleasure can’t be derived from hearing lines delivered exactly as they were written, especially ham-fisted clunkers of the Dan Brown variety. It should’ve been painfully obvious that no actor could succeed with a line like “You are the last living descendant of Jesus Christ,” and Hanks seems to know it as he delivers it resignedly in the same PBS-narrator voice he uses throughout the whole film.

Hanks Langdon gets one of the few mini-makeovers in the film; he now suffers from an embarrassingly contrived claustrophobia as a result of — I’m not making this up — falling into a well as a child. Of course, Langdon remains one of the most one-dimensional characters in recent memory; giving one minute of screentime to such a trite backstory is like putting a Flintstones Band-Aid over a missing arm.

The unfortunate truth is that Brown’s writing simply doesn’t translate well into movie form. Where Michael Crichton’s characters find themselves struggling for life in increasingly hopeless predicaments, Brown’s Langdon is fighting against a powerful secret society that barely ever shows itself. The Opus Dei subplot is so trimmed that it serves little purpose. Instead, the main antagonists are the folks Langdon runs into along his frantic quest, every one of whom try (and fail) to kill him. Though the fate of the entire Catholic Church rests in the hands of the protagonists, Howard and Grazer miss a golden opportunity by never bringing the Vatican itself into the picture, stranding the film with no unified front of opposition. Inexplicably, the stakes remain low.

Despite all the hype there won’t be much controversy over the content of the film itself. It even tidies the church-challenging message with a nice bow: Langdon ponders, “Why can’t Jesus be a father and still be capable of all those things?” It’s not in the book, and it’s the movie’s blue pill that offers a way out lest anyone leave the theater mulling some big questions.

Even with such (perhaps inevitable) shortcomings, the film could have been visually gripping. It may be visually impressive, but no more so than a standard episode of “Nova.” Howard, it seems, was too busy self-consciously making sure all the bases were covered to lose sleep over making the film entertaining. In an odd way, “The Da Vinci Code” is all substance and no style. And if you really have a hankering for some juvenile, mindless popcorn entertainment? Go read the book.