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Return of 'the Code'
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 05 - 2009


By Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Here we are on round two of the Da Vinci Code. Following the furore over round one, surely the public had no stomach for more. But the public's hardiness was underestimated and round two promises the same dose of debate, dispute and doubt, not to mention the same frills, chills, and electrifying thrills.
The 40 million book best-seller Angels and Demons, by Code author Dan Brown, opened its film version in Rome early this month (May 5) showering the ancient city with cries of outrage and shock as well as applause and cheers of approval and praise. During its first weekend release in the US it grossed an impressive $48 million, making it the second highest box-office of the year. Star Trek took the number one spot, grossing $72 million which comes close to the opening week-end of the Da Vinci Code of $77 million on its first weekend. Expectations were sky high for the film version of Code, the best-selling adult book in history, with over 81 million copies sold. Disappointed critics were merciless despite the dollar gross of $787 million worldwide. That would discourage an Oscar winning director like Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind ) from taking another chance on practically the same material, would it not"? Certainly an actor of Tom Hanks' standing, two-time Oscar winner, consistently successful, infinitely wise, with a long and distinguished list of triumphs, would not risk reprising the role of a critical setback? Both Howard and Hanks had no qualms about tackling a lesser known sequel to the Code, hence round two, even if round one was considered a draw between good box-office and bad reviews.
"Why would I hand this gig to someone else?" Hanks argues "I am not stupid......Langdon is a highly intelligent, interdisciplinary genius, and that is the sort of part selfish actors try to land." 'Stupid' he is not. With an amazing string of successes, Hanks often gets a portion of his salary from the box-office returns. For Forest Gump alone, he collected $77 million, a combination of fees and profit, making him the highest paid actor in Hollywood history.
The third part of this incredible success story is that of the author. Dan Brown caused an unprecedented sensation with the Code and Angels and Demons. Although Angels was written before the Code, it is treated as a sequel in the film version, but makes little difference to the story line which revolves around the adventures of Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist. In both books he is called upon to unravel the mysteries of secret codes and societies, brutal murders and fires, deep into dark catacombs, beneath monasteries and museums.
A secret society "the Illuminati," steals a vial of explosive anti-matter from a top secret lab in Geneva. The intent is to blow up the Vatican with everyone in it, in retaliation of the Church butchering several of its members, long, long ago. This is to occur during the conclave to elect a new Pope. It is a race against time, as Langdon tries to find the four kidnapped Preferiti, (favored to become Pope), and to save the Vatican from destruction.
How does Dan Brown do it? A modest English school teaches who dreamed of becoming a rock star, ends up writing the best-selling novel of all time and stirring such a raging storm to boot. Unable to become the second "Barry Manilow," his agent Blythe Newton, a music industry executive, 12 years his senior urges him to accept a teaching position back in his home state of New Hampshire. Brown leaves Los Angeles and his dreams of becoming a pop star behind. The couple marries in 1994, that is when the idea of writing came to him. On a beach in Tahiti he found copy of Sydney Sheldon's Doomsday Conspiracy. After reading it he thought: "hey, I could do that." He did. He became a full-time writer in 1997 and published Digital Fortress, his first thriller in 1998. Next came Angels and Demons and Deception Point. He was always intrigued by a lecture he had attended as a post-graduate student in Spain about Leonardo Da Vinci's painting The Last Supper. Disguised references in the painting were pointed out, messages and possible clues were implied. Twenty years later, Dan Brown wrote the Da Vinci Code, which became an instant best seller in March 2003. Brown is now a millionaire 200 times over, and by September the sequel to the Code, The Last Symbol, will be released adding more millions to his millions.
None of this pleases writers who find his success troubling. He is labeled as "one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature." Writing "unmitigated junk," Brown's book is "so bad," wrote Salman Rushdie, "it makes bad books look good." None of this worries Brown who keeps on writing as we keep on reading.
His works have started a feud with the Roman Catholic Church, which considers them "an offense to God." The Da Vinci Code was based on the premise that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalen and fathered a child. Angels and Demons accuses a Pope of circumventing the celibacy rules, by fathering a child through artificial insemination. The Holy See had considered a boycott of the film, but fearing it would backfire, it decided against it. Archbishop Velacio de Paolis, Vatican Economic Minister, said they would only be giving the film "free publicity," which is to some extent what happened with the Code.
It is wise to consider the movie for what it is, "an exciting mystery, set in the awe-inspiring beauty of Rome," says Howard, "rather than an anti-Catholic plot." Many are finding the film exactly that, a harmless intriguing adventure with an interesting mix of fact and fiction, science and religion, angels and demons.
As he basks in the furore he causes, author Dan Brown awaits the release of his book, The Lost Symbol, and surely Howard and Hanks are anxious to get in the ring again for round three, which should be a knock-out, one way or the other.
We have just enough religion to make us hate,
But not enough to make us love one another
-- Jonathan Swift (1667 -- 1745)


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