Look, I don’t want to be a snob. I want to grant the possibility that a book that enthralls millions and millions of readers can’t be all bad, that generally people are good readers who respond favorably to accomplished storytelling, and that, even if intellectualism is the kiss of death, there is at least a place for ideas in popular fiction.
Chapter 1 of The DaVinci Code casts into doubt all of these possibilities.
You want to know where it lost me? Page 1 of chapter 1, when Robert Langdon rolls over after midnight and reads a flyer next to his bed: “The American University of Paris proudly presents,” it reads, “an evening with Robert Langdon, Professor of Religious Symbology, Harvard University.” Are you kidding me? You’re delivering exposition by having the main character blearily read his own press clippings?
On page 2 of chapter 1: “His usually sharp blue eyes looked hazy and drawn tonight. A dark stubble was shrouding his strong jaw and dimpled chin. Around his temples, the gray highlights were advancing, making their way deeper into his thicket of course black hair. Although his female colleagues insisted the gray only accentuated his bookish appeal, Langdon knew better.”
On page 3, Brown mercifully forgoes the adjectives and just skips right to it, describing Langdon as “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed,” the repetition of “Harris” almost clever but too self-conscious to be entirely so, and Brown's attempt to separate himself from the description by couching the line in an embarrassing profile in Boston Magazine not quite working.
Here’s the thing…I actually don’t think that authors need to pander to readers so brazenly. The first chapter is all of four and a half pages, and, though I appreciate Brown’s desire to get the action started, I do think most audiences will wait until later in the book to learn that Langon is a Harvard professor. The monogram on the bathrobe says “Hotel Ritz Paris,” for Pets’ sake, so the “American University of Paris” is wholly unnecessary, and the investigator knocking on his door at this ungodly hour—you know, before Letterman is over on the east coast—says “considering your knowledge in symbology,” so that info isn't exactly a mystery for long.
As a reader, I do not need everything up front. Authors, I will roll with you until you withhold so much information that I get frustrated. It is your job to figure out when that is. Chances are, it's not page 1.
|Not only does Brown give us a painstaking description, but he thinks we need this as well.|
The bad guys are introduced in chapter 2. This is how they talk (descriptions are cut out in favor of pure dialogue; note especially the Mr. Burns-like “excellent”):
“I assume you have the information?”
“All four concurred. Independently.”
“And you believed them?”
“Their agreement was too great for coincidence.”
“Excellent. I had feared the brotherhood’s reputation for secrecy might prevail.”
“The prospect of death is strong motivation.”
“So, my pupil, tell me what I must know.”
“Teacher, all four confirmed the existence of a clef de voute…the legendary keystone.”
“The keystone. Exactly as we suspected.”
“When we possess the keystone we will be only one step away.”
“We are closer than you think. The keystone is here in Paris.”
“Paris? Incredible. It is almost too easy.”
“Paris? Incredible. It is almost too easy.”
Typically, when books are adapted to screenplays, the screenwriters have to select only the pieces of dialogue that capture the essence of the story that the movie tries to tell. I recently read Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and then followed up the reading with a viewing of the four-hour HBO movie, and, though the movie is excellent, it can best be described as a kind of outline for the much more excellent book. “Dumb down” is harsh, but a typical movie (120 minutes) can only hope to reduce the complexity of a novel to a narrative that has its moments.
There’s book-speak and then there’s movie-speak: Books develop; movies advance.
I haven’t seen the film version of The DaVinci Code, in large part because I’m still pissed at Ron Howard for stealing either David Lynch’s or Robert Altman’s Best Director Oscar that year, back when I gave a shit about that kind of thing (look it up). I thought about watching the movie, but then I realized that Brown has wasted enough of my time, so why would I want to give him more?
In any case, as I was reading the bad guys’ exchange above, I thought, “They’re actually going to have to make this dialogue less transparent for the screenplay.”
People don’t talk this way. Not even in movies.
|Even this cartoon is richer than Brown's villains.|
In chapter 3, Langdon is in a car, racing to the Louvre to help solve a crime. His trip takes him past the Eiffel Tower, which Langdon looks at admiringly. The Tower reminds him of a parting kiss with a previous love.
At this moment, the agent who is along for the ride says, “Did you mount her?”
Langdon replies, “I bet your pardon?”
The agent motions to the Tower: “She is lovely, no? Have you mounted her?”
I’m not making this up.
For the record, at the end of chapter 3 (page 20), I wrote, “He needs a cohort,” which can be interpreted to mean either a partner or a romantic interest. Of course, in this book, she’s going to end up being both, but there’s certainly no need to wait any longer to introduce her.
We watched The Adjustment Bureau last night, which was wildly disappointing, in part because the rules they established were both necessary and arbitrary. I won’t give too much away, but I will say that the mysterious figures in this movie should suffer from the same phobia as the Wicked Witch of the West, who is also undone by a pretty silly weakness, if you ask me. (In fairness, I’ve not read either the Frank L. Baum series or the Philip K. Dick story on which The Adjustment Bureau is based, which might explain these limitations more satisfactorily than the movies do.)
The best thing I can say about The Adjustment Bureau is that it got Leu and me talking about the necessity of weaknesses in characters and the degree to which they either work or don’t. Personally, I rather like the notion of an “Achilles heel,” for example, because there’s a kind of logic that guides dipping someone in the River Styx. You have to hold him somewhere, which means that something ain’t getting dipped. (By the way, is the Green Lantern really bothered by the color yellow? Please tell me this isn’t true.)
Thinking about it now, I would say that Hitchcock handled Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo about as well as you can, which is to say that his weakness, which prevented him from acting earlier, had to be overcome in order for him to behave heroically in the end.
I'm not breaking any news here. This is a guiding tenet of stories for all time: You get a second chance, and this time you'd better not fuck it up.
Brown introduces Robert Langdon’s weakness in chapter 4: He’s claustrophobic. Once he arrives at the museum, he has to take an elevator. Brown writes, “Langdon exhaled, turning a longing glance back up the open-air escalator. Nothing’s wrong at all, he lied to himself, trudging back toward the elevator. As a boy, Langdon had fallen down an abandoned well shaft and almost died treading water in the narrow space for hours before being rescued. Since then, he’d suffered a haunting phobia of enclosed spaces—elevators, subways, squash courts. The elevator is a perfectly safe machine, Langdon continually told himself, never believing it. It’s a tiny metal box hanging in an enclosed shaft! Holding his breath, he stepped into the lift, feeling the familiar tingle of adrenaline as the door slid shut.”
I mean, obviously, so much is made of this moment that the climax of the book must feature Langdon mastering this fear in order to win the girl and save the world, right?
P.S. “Squash courts” is supposed to be funny, isn’t it?
|Any hero's greatest fear.|