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Monday, May 22, 2006

Q: When is a movie not a movie?

A: When it's a book.

Specifically, when it's a book called The DaVinci Code.

In this, number two of an occasional series of posts that may well be termed 'I don't like this because...' I'll attempt to dissect what is almost certain to become the year's biggest movie.

I have no problem, religious or otherwise, with Dan Brown. He writes novels, and has made himself a very tidy living from it. I also have no problem with the main conceit of The DaVinci Code; that there exists a blood-line of descendants from the supposed union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In fact, as ideas go, it's a good one to write a book around. It draws on a collective consciousness that has almost universal recognition, it charges readers with the task of re-examining facts once considered gospel (ho-ho!), and is likely to aggravate a few people too. That's pretty much all you need for guaranteed success. And a success it was, with sales well into the millions.

Does success in one media lead to success in another? With big names like Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and, for all you screenwriters out there, Akiva Goldsman involved it has to be a sure thing. Looking at the grosses, it is. US$77m opening weekend, giving both Hanks and Howard their biggest open to date. Add the worldwide figures and you get US$224m, the second biggest worldwide opening weekend in history behind Star Wars Episode III.

It's a success in every way.... oh, except one.


I can see a future when this movie will be on film-school syllabuses to illustrate the radical differences between a novel narrative and a film narrative. There is so much in this film that doesn't work, or is wasted.

Tom Hanks for one. One commandment of screenwriting is thus: The protagonist MUST be a wilful character. Tom Hanks' Robert Langdon character is exactly the opposite of that. He and his actions never have anything more than a surface effect on the story narrative. Instead he is buffeted around by the twists and turns going on around him. He never effects any change on the narrative; he never drives it, rendering him as much of an audience member as we are. While it might seem similar to Hitchcock's favoured method of an everyman in a situation much bigger than himself, the key difference is that Hitchcock's protagonists rose to the occasion and began to take control of their fates. Not so Langdon. I wondered why the producers went with as big a star as Hanks for such a non-role. The cynical side of me says that it's in the hope that his star appeal covers up what's missing from the role written for him, which is almost everything.

Another commandment: Show, don't tell. Or: The thorny problem of plot exposition. (Aside: For the most lucid example of plot exposition and its misuse, see the wonderful exchange between Miss Piggy and Diana Rigg early in The Great Muppet Caper, culminating in the line "It's plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.") I don't think I've ever witnessed a movie where I ran out of fingers counting the plot exposition scenes until now. A whole book's-worth of exposition shoe-horned into 140 minutes just plain does not fit. If you need to spend five out of every twenty minutes using on-screen dialogue to get your audience up to speed then you're doing something very wrong.

One more commandment: Screenplays are structure. Successful structure dictates that life-or-death action must be tempered by moments of calm in order for those moments of action to increase tension or be unexpected. The DaVinci Code is, as the saying goes, 'one-damn-thing-after-another' and each double- and triple-cross dilutes the effect of those that succeed it. Think of it like this; if I were to constantly slap you upside the head every two minutes you'd eventually get used to it and it'd lose its effect. But a quick slap when you're not expecting it? Works a treat.

Yet one more commandment: Get into a scene as late as possible, and get out as quickly as possible. This can be extrapolated to refer to the story as a whole, and the filmed DaVinci Code really should have ended at the tomb of Isaac Newton. This scene saw the obligatory confrontation between the force of good and the force of evil. It's the resolution scene. Nothing beyond that resolution has any bearing on the actual story. It's all window dressing. And still, they filmed something like twenty minutes of window dressing. When the only principle characters still left in your story aren't in conflict with each other, isn't that a clue that perhaps the story's over? After all, and perhaps this is the most important commandment of all: There is no scene without conflict.

So, in terms of the script, it's a train-wreck. Why? Akiva Goldsman knows film narrative. Ron Howard knows film narrative.

I saw Dan Brown's name in the Producer credits. Oh-oh. That might have something to do with it.

In fact, Goldsman sends out a little SOS at the end of the film. After having spent 135 minutes doing his best to try to convince us that Brown's madcap idea might just be an alternate history, he fills the last minutes with a scene where the male lead discusses that very notion with the female lead and ends it up, and I'm paraphrasing here, with "It doesn't really matter anyway. What matters is what you yourself believe".

I've never seen such a concise distancing of oneself from their own work.

It put a great big grin on my face.



Blogger Konrad West said...

It's interesting that you took that line to mean Goldsman was distancing himself from the work.

I took it to be the filmmakers pulling a punch to Christianity by minimizing the importance of the concept that Church is based on a lie.

But I'm with you on the train-wreck of a screenplay. My favourite part: the great melodrama of Tom Hanks telling Sophie the self-evident fact that she was the descendant of... Jesus Christ. (Cue muffled laughter).

10:12 AM


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