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Breaking ‘Code’ down on the page

Special to The Times

“The Da Vinci Code” is not just a mega-selling book, not just a crowd-drawing movie, it’s also, at $21.95, an “illustrated screenplay” replete with storyboards, stills from the movie, musings by author Dan Brown and the movie’s principals and boxes of production trivia (such as “ ‘The Da Vinci Code’ had 25 revisions over six months” and “Twenty-four rue Haxo doesn’t actually exist in Paris.”) At the heart of the “official making-of-the-movie book,” though, is Akiva Goldsman’s script. The Times asked film and book critic Charles Taylor to consider how it plays on the page.

It was always clear that the problem in adapting “The Da Vinci Code” for the screen would be that Dan Brown’s novel is less thriller than crackpot art-history lecture. Brown cunningly created the illusion of a forward-moving plot by engineering it so that nearly every chapter ends in a cliffhanger, by having the book take place in unbroken time and by having his hero and heroine hopscotch all over Europe while disgorging endless woozy amounts of history, art history and theology. And the killer albino monk didn’t hurt. So the drubbing that Akiva Goldsman is taking for his screenplay for Ron Howard’s film of the novel seems not only predictable but a bit unfair.

The monk made it into Golds- man’s screenplay -- now published in a glossy illustrated “souvenir” edition, with testimonials from Goldsman, Howard, Brown and producer Brian Grazer. Goldsman, obviously, wanted to be sure the audience could follow the book’s theorizing about how the Roman Catholic Church has been involved in a centuries-long misogynist coverup to disguise the fact that Jesus was mortal, that Mary Magdalene, his wife, bore him a family and that it was she who carried on her husband’s teaching.

The idea that anyone writing a script for a big-budget summer movie would be concerned with clarity is nearly a heresy as big as any Brown imagined. Most Hollywood blockbusters aren’t written to make sense, which is OK because, having been raised on spectacle, a generation of mainstream moviegoers no longer expects movies to make narrative sense.

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Goldsman deserves credit for winnowing the book’s “Final Jeopardy” torrents of information down to a manageable stream. But putting “The Da Vinci Code” through a slimming regimen means that some of its garments no longer fit.

When you’re simplifying a complicated story, the information that makes the cut has to be explained very carefully. And so, instead of accelerating the pace, Goldsman’s streamlining draws it out. When he reaches the physical action, the moment when the bad guy is revealed and the showdown with the heroes ensues, there is still, in the published screenplay, 30 pages of exposition and denouement -- about 30 minutes of screen time -- yet to come.

“The Da Vinci Code” might not have gained in clarity if Goldsman had crammed in all he could and Howard had lashed the actors into speed-talking floods of speechifying. But it might have made the script read as lively and urgent, might have given it, at least in terms of pacing, the sense of drama that, as it is, only fitfully comes through. And in a strange way, had Goldsman taken the amphetamine-jag approach, it might have been a form of homage to the bughouse fervor of Brown’s novel.

The necessity to impart so much information hampers Goldsman in other ways. The characters are never more fleshed out than they might be in a story pitch: dashing superstar academic; beautiful and spunky police cryptologist; queeny, tweedy Brit scholar; and, of course, killer albino monk. Where Goldsman deserves no sympathy is the dialogue. Much of it is straight from Brown’s novel, but did that excuse Goldsman from the obligation to improve it? How does an actor say, “We’ve got to get to a library. Fast,” and not sound like Supernerd? How do any actors play the following exchange: “You have eidetic memory?” “Not quite. But I pretty much remember what I see -- (beat) “Whoa. Anagram is right.”

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With the exception of his adaptation of John Grisham’s “The Client,” Goldsman’s work has never seemed particularly distinguished. And though screenplays have to stand on their own, there’s no way to honestly judge Goldsman’s work on “The Da Vinci Code” without knowing the problems inherent in the source. (In his introduction to the published screenplay, Goldsman admits that his first reaction on being asked to adapt it was, “I don’t know if it’s a movie.”)

Reading a published screenplay takes you only so far, of course. You can’t, for example, imagine the rhythm of the shots, the weight that the director and the actors will give to certain moments or dialogue. In some ways, it would be easier to judge a screenplay in the course of watching a movie, with the result right in front of you. So it would be dishonest to pass judgment on Goldsman divorced from any knowledge of what Ron Howard did with his script. Howard is too conventional a director to bring the film the craziness and pace that it needs. (If ever there should be a lapsed Catholic behind the camera, this is the movie.)

But the slow deliberation of Goldsman’s script does provide the pleasant novelty of a summer blockbuster that isn’t punctuated by explosions every two minutes. There’s also no escaping the kick of seeing a big-budget Hollywood movie that qualifies as an honest-to-God blasphemy. The rest of the movie’s pleasures -- such as the lovely cinematography of Salvatore Totino, and the equally lovely Audrey Tautou -- were, in the end, out of Goldsman’s hands.


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