Entertainment journalist Cal Fussman interviewed Tom Hanks
for the June issue of Esquire. As part of an insightful feature, the two-time Oscar winner flipped through candid photographs taken on various film sets over the course of his 20-year career.
When Hanks reached the oft-maligned Bonfire of the Vanities, he speculated on the reasons Brian De Palma
’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s celebrated novel failed. The actor admitted, among other things, that he “wasn’t the right guy” to play that particular part. “Plus,” Hanks went on to say, “it’s hard to make a movie out of something that entered into the national consciousness as strongly as (Wolfe’s) book.” Article continues below
Consider “hard” an understatement. By the looks of Hanks’ latest literary snafu, The Da Vinci Code, it’s downright impossible.
With all due respect, if Bonfire represents a flat pebble tossed limply into literature’s calm pond, then Dan Brown’s international bestseller is a boulder heaved from a mountain that continues to create waves of controversy to this day. Knowing that Hanks recognizes his mistake, I’m puzzled as to why he’d allow history to repeat itself by participating in this inevitable and eagerly anticipated Code adaptation, which can't help but fail to measure up to its literary predecessor.
There is a significant difference. Where Hanks was miscast in Bonfire, he now represents the perfect choice for the role of Harvard professor Robert Langdon, an expert in religious symbols and a key suspect in an unsolved murder at Paris’ famous Louvre museum. Before the night is through, Langdon and Parisian cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou
) will launch a globetrotting quest for the legendary Holy Grail by following scrambled clues left in priceless works of art.
Further plot summary is unnecessary and would spoil what little fun remains in Code. You see, the biggest issue with this literal translation is that it does everything by the book. Director Ron Howard
and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman allow their reverence for Brown’s source material to stand in the way of creating a rousing and memorable treasure hunt. Their adaptation remains so faithful it borders on bland.
Brown’s strength as a writer lies in his pacing, something Howard never taps into. The novel is intentionally hurried, while the movie feels rushed – and there’s a big difference between the two. Code chapters pack in exposition but end on cliffhangers. The movie remembers the former while leaving off the latter. Hanks lets loose, processing clues but remaining one step behind the action. Late in the picture, Ian McKellen
surfaces to add a dash of humor and a glint of mischief. He’s a breath of fresh air in comparison to the somber, solemn Tautou.
Code isn’t even a very good looking film. Much of the action occurs at dusk, allowing cinematographer Salvatore Totino to continue to shoot bleak, gray pictures for Howard. He cloaks Code in the same shadows that enveloped the period dramas Cinderella Man and The Missing.
Too much attention has swirled around Brown’s controversial stance regarding the divinity of Jesus Christ, a pivotal subplot that drives the fictional narrative. Even here, Goldsman hedges his bets, making Langdon more of a skeptic than he is in the book and tacking on a soft message of independent worship meant to satisfy all parties. It’s the film’s lamest sin. It embraces everything about Code except for the divisive position that grabbed all the negative press.
Howard’s version misses Brown’s inherent sense of astonishment. It lacks the joy of revelation, the excitement of code breaking, and the thrill that accompanies an impromptu quest. At best, this Code will satisfy anyone who hasn’t already deciphered Brown’s mysteries. For the rest of the approximately 40 million who have the misfortune of entering the theater after digesting Code, the movie is slow, drab, and devoid of adventure.
Before Code, Brown wrote Angels and Demons, a similar breakneck page-turner with Langdon at the lead that was steeped in faith and history. Ironically, Angels was overlooked, though it offers a far better story and more credible twists. I’d always hoped that Code would generate impressive box office numbers so Sony
would commit to filming Angels somewhere down the line. Now, I pray the studio just leaves well enough alone.