The Da Vinci Code

Dan Brown's frontal assault on the church is softened in Ron Howard's film | Andrew Coffin

If polls are taken of audiences leaving The Da Vinci Code (and they probably will be), one suspects that the results will be similar to polls conducted on audiences leaving Fahrenheit 9/11: It preaches to the choir.

Ron Howard's film version of Dan Brown's bestselling novel provides a comfortable, if remarkably flimsy, buttress for viewers looking for reasons to reject the gospel, and likely fails to impact many others. Just as in Mr. Brown's book, the movie follows Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and French police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) through a maze of deceptions involving codes, murder, secret Catholic orders, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the deity of Christ.

The Da Vinci Code adheres with moderate faithfulness to the plot of Mr. Brown's novel but is not a particularly thrilling film adaptation of a book that is often described as a "page-turner." Until it becomes unbearably talky and self-important about two-thirds of the way through, the book succeeds on the strength of a repetitive but absorbing pattern of puzzle/clue, puzzle/clue, divided into short, revealing chapters. Mr. Brown's massive web of intrigue encompasses everything from the Knights Templar and Holy Grail to Friday the 13th and Disney movies (Christians always knew they were evil, right?).

Whether through the elimination of much of this "historical" fiction or a generally too serious approach to the material, Mr. Howard's film never builds up steam, and scenes in the book that seemed built for the screen simply fizzle. Despite the hype and a strong cast that includes Ian McKellen, Paul Bettany, and Jean Reno, word of mouth isn't likely to propel this film far.

But what of Mr. Brown's anti-Christian content? It's still very much there, but in becoming Hollywood-ized, the tone of the story has shifted in subtle and interesting ways. Mr. Howard has claimed that no concessions were made to assuage public opposition to the book, but—whether he admits it or not—he has softened Mr. Brown's frontal assault on the church. Mr. Hanks' Langdon plays much more the role of a skeptic in the film, losing some of the all-knowing academic tone that defines his character in the book. Langdon often argues with the film's version of the Holy Grail story, which involves Christ taking a bride and bearing children—regularly referring to the story as a "myth," something he doesn't do in the book.

The book's implication of the Catholic Church and the conservative order Opus Dei in murder and deception on a mass scale are also marginalized to a rogue faction. This, combined with significantly less talk—meaning less history and fewer strands in Mr. Brown's far-ranging web of conspiracies—suggests that the film will be generally less effective than the book at causing anyone to seriously question their beliefs.

Not surprisingly, although Christianity itself is severely undermined if the story is taken literally, Mr. Brown's alternative—a mix of goddess and nature worship manifested in sex rites and other pagan rituals—is also toned down in this PG-13 film. In place of Mr. Brown's idealized picture of ancient paganism, Mr. Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have substituted an oh-so-familiar Hollywood religion that is certainly easier to swallow for many—and a more insidious force in modern culture.

This is, of course, the religion of me. Langdon's repeated advice to Sophie in a crucial final scene is, "It's important what you believe." Not what's true, but what's true for you. In the final analysis, Christianity isn't entirely repudiated, even if it is based on utter falsehoods, because faith (in something) is important, insofar as that faith benefits those who require it. That, more than Mr. Brown's silly, easily refuted conspiracy theories, is an all too prevalent cancer on our culture's understanding of spirituality.