Pecking "The Da Vinci Code" to Death
Movie critics operate above their pay grade
May 23, 2006: Vol. 2, Issue No. 40
IN THE NEWS
Has The Da Vinci Code had any good reviews?
Stodgy, grim, ponderous. Dreary, droning, dull-witted. Hammy, stilted, solemn, talky, wooden, bloated, plodding, deathly dull, dreary. Or did I do "dreary" already? Forget the Christian right—it's that shadowy global organisation, the Critical Establishment, that has lifted its cassock and dumped unceremoniously on Ron Howard's adaptation of The Da Vinci Code.
— Jonathan Gibbs, The Guardian (UK), May 19, 2006
At a direct marketing conference in Orlando I was having lunch with my Norwegian clients and Chicago headhuntress Suzy Ridenour, who mentioned that she was reading a new book called "The Da Vinci Code" and was loving it.
I bought it at the Orlando airport, and from the first paragraph to the end I was absolutely entranced.
"Holy Sepulchre!" was a May 19, 2006 headline by Wall Street Journal deputy editor, Daniel Henninger. "60 Million Buy The Da Vinci Code," the subhead read. This figure represents worldwide sales in 44 languages so far.
An awful lot of people not only loved the book but also—in an orgy of viral marketing—recommended it to their families, friends, neighbors and business colleagues.
The newly-released film starring Tom Hanks, Audrey Tatou and Sir Ian McKellen and directed by Ron Howard has gotten its nose bloodied by a legion of movie critics.
My wife, Peggy, and I have not seen the film (we certainly will—and soon), but what is astonishing is that many of these writers in the course of their dumping on the movie—no doubt jealous of author Dan Brown's success—take roundhouse swipes at the original book and Brown's prose.
Are movie wonks qualified to be book critics?
Let's talk about bad prose.
Those that can, do. Those that can't become film critics.
Here is smattering of what these literary sad sacks—whose big perk in life is free movie tickets on opening day—had to say:
While the book is a potboiler written with little grace and style …
—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
The Da Vinci Code opens in theaters today. If it is faithful to Dan Brown's embarrassingly mediocre novel …
—Gregory J. Sullivan, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Although pretty dismal as prose, the tome fairly rips along, courtesy of a strong story hook …
—Todd McCarthy, Variety
Dan Brown's pointy-headed potboiler …
—David Edelstein, New York Magazine
The Da Vinci Code is a terrible book, made popular by the kind of people who give reading a bad name …
—David Faraci, chud.com
… (although considering how bad the writing in Brown's original novel is, maybe the movie is overestimating the fanbase).
—David Faraci, chud.com
The Da Vinci Code is a prime example of clumsy artfulness, a book that boasts perhaps some of the most idiotic sentences ever laid to paper.
—Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com
It's a thriller, and the failure of both Dan Brown's book and Howard's film is not one of scholarship, but rather one of storytelling.
—Josh Bell, Las Vegas Weekly
A quick page-turner of incompetent plotting becomes a film which favors exposition over ideas …
—Erik Childress, Efilmcritic.com
. . . it offers strong performances and stylish filmmaking to make up for the book's flaws.
—Edward Dougless, comingsoon.com
. . . a fast-paced, childishly written speculative thriller. . .
—Daniel Fienberg, zap2it.com
In my opinion, here is one of the few fair comments on the book:
Dan Brown's entertaining read of fiction seemed a natural for a screen adaptation. The action flowed effortlessly from page to page and from chapter to chapter, causing many a sleepless night as readers around the world found it difficult to put down. Surprisingly director Ron Howard completely misses the mark, managing to turn an exciting, page-turning adventure into a complete bore.
—Michael Elliott, christiancritic.com
It seems to me that if a book sells 60 million copies in 44 languages, you are smart not to judge it.
It judges you.
Does Anybody Read Movie Reviews—or Care What the Critics Think?
Listen to the movie writers, and this dreadful film based on that badly written, deeply flawed book, "The Da Vinci Code," is a loser on all counts.
Except at bookstores—and now at the box office. As Merissa Marr wrote in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:
The combined $224 million world-wide global total ranks as Hollywood's second-biggest global debut, behind "Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith," which took in $253 million.
Let's Look at Some Truly Terrible Prose
Ed Zuckerman, proprietor of Government Policy Newslinks—a fascinating press release triage service for news junkies—forwarded the following to me:
Jay Gosselin is an English teacher who is kind enough to send on the winners of the "Dark & Stormy Night" competition, which is a compilation of the most heinous felonies committed on the English language by high school students. There is a new batch every year, which speaks disastrously to the prospects for American education, but delightfully for those who enjoy dark humor. Like the annual Darwin Awards, these are the real deal originating from actual high school essays. The analogies and metaphors are wince inducing. Beware but enjoy.
1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.
2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.
3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.
4. She grew on him like she was a colony of Ecoli and he was room-temperature Canadian Ham.
5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.
7. He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.
8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.
9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.
10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.
11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.
12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.
13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.
14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.
15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan's teeth.
16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.
18. Even in his last years, Grandpappy had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.
19. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.
20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.
21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.
22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.
23. The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.
24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.
25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.
26. Her eyes were like limpid pools, only they had forgotten to put in any pH cleanser.
27. She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.
28. It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.
Takeaway Points to Consider
* Whether you are writing a letter, memo, white paper, special report, article or full-length book, get a book on direct response copy and do what the top copywriters do.
* The first thing a writer must do is grab immediate attention. Book club colleague Bob Scott once suggested that you upset a bucket of gore in the reader's lap at the start and not let up. For example, here is Dan Brown's opening for "The Da Vinci Code":
LOUVRE MUSEUM, PARIS
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Carravagio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-three-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.
* Normally, the best lead paragraph is buried somewhere in the middle of your first draft copy.
* Use short words, short sentences, short paragraphs.
— Andrew J. Byrne
* Keep lead paragraphs short—no more than 12 words—to avoid intimidating the reader.
— Drew Allen Miller
* To avoid a gray "wall" of type that discourages reading, paragraphs shouldn't be more than seven lines long.
— Don Hauptman
* Avoid superlatives and brag-and-boast language.
— Don Hauptman
* Use specifics to add power and credibility. Use precise documented figures and facts. Cite data or opinions from outside, impartial sources. A lot of copy is anemic and ineffective because it's superficial, vague and unspecific. Concrete statements and detail add a ring of truth. But to find this kind of material, you've often got to dig for it.
— Don Hauptman
* Remember that your readers are as smart as you are.
— Jim Rutz
* I use the oldest words in the English language. People think I'm an ignorant bastard who doesn't know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which, if you arrange them in the proper combination, you make it stick.
— Ernest Hemingway
* Build a big vocabulary, but use it sparingly.
— Jack Maxson
* First draft copy always begs rewriting.
— Jack Maxson
* Milt Pierce's 8 Questions
— Is the vocabulary in your copy simple and unambiguous?
— Have words and phrases been repeated that should not be repeated?
— Is the sentence structure simple, straightforward and unambiguous?
— Does your copy treat the reader with respect?
— Does the copy flow from one idea to the next in a clear and logical manner?
— Honestly now, does your copy ever get boring?
— Have you checked spelling, grammar, punctuation?
— Are your sentences or paragraphs too long?
* Don't start with "There is …" The writer always has a stronger way to begin a message than with the passive phrase, "There is" or "There are."
—Herschell Gordon Lewis
* I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.
Web Sites Related to Today's Edition
"The Da Vinci Code"—Dan Brown's Official Web Site
Da Vinci Code Travel & Tours
Ed Zuckerman's Government Policy Newslinks
- Audrey Tatou
- Da Vinci
- Daniel Fienberg
- Daniel Henninger
- David Edelstein
- David Faraci
- Edward Dougless
- Erik Childress
- Gregory J. Sullivan
- Ian McKellen
- Jack Maxson
- Jay Gosselin
- Jonathan Gibbs
- Merissa Marr
- Michael Elliott
- Nancy Kerrigan
- Ron Howard
- Suzy Ridenour
- Terrible Prose Ed Zuckerman
- The News
- Todd McCarthy
- Tom Hanks
- Variety Dan Brown