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May 25, 2006

"The Da Vinci Code"-3

Reading used to be one of my favorite pastimes. As early as grade school, I always had a book with me to read when I was finished with the day's assignments. During summers, I frequented the library. Indeed, some of my favorite books remain those that were read during my childhood; "Where the Red Fern Grows" and "A Wrinkle in Time" to name two.

As I grew older, I unfortunately began reading fewer books. Not only did newspapers and magazines replace books, but there just seemed to be less time for reading. That's not to mention new and exciting ways to fill time, like VCRs, video games and the Internet. I'm pretty sure this is not a unique situation for me. In general, I imagine people starting and ending their lives by reading, but in the middle of their lives being distracted by other things.

For these reasons, it's thrilling when a publishing phenomenon like "The DaVinci Code" comes along. Everyone gets excited again about reading. Those who haven't picked up a book in a long time read this one, as well as those who may have never picked up a book.

Inevitably, next comes the futile effort of turning a successful book into a hit movie. Those who read "The DaVinci Code" doubted that it could be done. And it did take a couple of years before the right deal was made. When director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks were finally announced, it sounded like it could work. Indeed, the movie's opening last weekend was eagerly met with $77 million in ticket sales. Perhaps "The DaVinci Code" the movie would revitalize the box office like "The DaVinci Code" the book revitalized the bookstores?

Initially, I'd say "yes," but after seeing the movie, I predict a gigantic drop off during its second week of release. Any hopes of a movie version as fantastic as the book have been dashed, and I realize the original notion that it couldn't be done has been clouded by Hollywood hype.

It's hard to place blame for the movie's failure. The screenplay by Akiva Goldsman (the good "Cinderella Man," the bad "Lost in Space," and the ugly "Batman and Robin") sticks pretty darn close to the book. There are really no structural elements or plot points that deviate from Dan Brown's expertly crafted thriller. But part of the fun of the book was the lengthy thought processes for figuring out puzzle and clues. That's nearly impossible to translate to film, so many of them are just mentioned and passed over with little importance. If you haven't read the book, I'm pretty sure you'd lose much of the significance.

One piece of this puzzle is easy for me to solve, though. I may be signing my death warrant by speaking poorly of beloved star Tom Hanks, but he is horribly miscast here. It's not that I don't buy him as a Harvard scholar. It's just that he coasts unemotionally through the 2-1/2 hour movie. You'd think that being accused of murder and being on the run from not only the French police, but also a killer albino monk, would cause you to act a little frantic. The most life he shows is during a philosophical argument with Ian McKellan. All right, that reinforces the scholar part, but what about the fugitive part? Maybe that's another clue to the movie's failure. To tone down the controversy, Hanks is much more a skeptic in the movie than in the book. Seemingly representative of American clergy who are using the movie to attract churchgoers with sermons on "The DaVinci Debacle" and "Deciphering The DaVinci Code" (they're everywhere; just look as you drive down the street), the movie wants to offend nobody. But by not taking a stand one way or the other, it is just bland.

The filmmakers had to stick to the book to please its fans, but they have done something to make the movie go beyond -- deviate a little, add something new or simply stand behind the controversial elements. "The DaVinci Code" does none of this.

So the only way to salvage the movie is to just make it so fast and entertaining that the plot points become almost secondary. Think "Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail," not "Forrest Gump and the Unsolvable Puzzle Box."

Maybe another director could have tightened the action, but here a fast-moving score by Hans Zimmer cannot do it alone. Don't get me wrong. I'm having fun here, but I'm really not bitter about "The DaVinci Code." It was an impossible task translating the book to a movie. And while the result is a failure, it's a good-intentioned failure. I can't really recommend it, but I imagine you could do worse this summer.

In the spirit that was intended, my thoughts are summarized by the following anagram. I could write here how I really felt about "The DaVinci Code"...

"Or tell an empty clue."

Jeff Owens is co-owner of Couch Potato Video in De Soto and an avowed movie buff.

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