Why is Dan Brown the biggest-selling author in the world after J.K. Rowling?1 After all, Brown’s writing is not high quality literature (in fact, that’s probably in his favour – many readers prefer light fiction to sophisticated, intellectual literature). But The Da Vinci Code in particular is one of those books that get even reluctant readers hooked. I think there are three key reasons why Dan Brown engages readers so strongly.
First, he’s an exciting storyteller. Although he frequently pauses for some long-winded discussion or reflection, he still manages to keep the action moving on at a cracking pace. All four of his novels so far(Digital Fortress (1999), Angels and Demons (2000), Deception Point (2001) and The Da Vinci Code(2003)) take place within very short time frames – twenty four hours, give or take a little – with an incredible amount going on. There’s a James Bond feel to the stories with clandestine operators and clever gadgets. Brown loves twists and turns, surprises and red herrings. He has a talent for building excitement, tension and intrigue, and his short chapters ending in cliff-hangers encourage the reader to keep on going just a little further rather than leaving it for the following day. Whatever else he does, he succeeds brilliantly at making you want to know what happens.
All Brown’s books feel as if they were written with a potential screen adaptation in mind, and the first of them – Ron Howard’s film of The Da Vinci Code (2006) – does an excellent job of bringing the story to life. It’s well paced overall, although the various discussions about the holy grail along the way do tend to reduce the tension. Lack of tension is also, as in the novel, a problem with the end of the story since once Sir Leigh Teabing has been arrested, there is no longer anything to create it. Howard attempts to bring some tension to the scenes in Rosslyn Chapel by having a group of people turn up looking extremely serious while Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) are in the crypt. But this is rather ineffective and he is hampered by staying quite close to Brown’s own unexciting conclusion. The final scenes of Langdon in Paris at last putting the last piece of the puzzle together is also as anti-climactic as the novel’s last chapter. But this aside, the story works well as a film as one would expect, and the cast could hardly have been better chosen for their roles (in fact, Dan Brown had Jean Reno in mind when creating the character of Bezu Fache).
Second, the intrigue arises in large part from Dan Brown’s extensive use of codes, puzzles, anagrams and riddles. Digital Fortress set the pattern for Brown’s future work in a number of ways, not least in its focus on cryptography – creating and cracking cyphers and codes. People love puzzles (witness the extraordinary popularity of Su Doku) so when Brown dangles them in front of our eyes in chapter after chapter, we can’t ignore them. It could perhaps be argued that Brown doesn’t always quite play fair with us. It’s all very well having Jacques Saunière scrawl ‘so dark the con of man’ over the floor of the Louvre, but the painting which he’s alluding to is usually known (in both the Paris and London versions) as ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ not ‘Madonna of the Rocks’. But we don’t mind that – this is fun! Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code add the mystery of ancient symbols into the mix as well so that we can play at decoding the symbology as well as the puzzles themselves.
This aspect of The Da Vinci Code naturally works much better in the book than on screen. There simply isn’t time to let the audience try to work any of the clues out for themselves. Interestingly, it is even more apparent in the film than in the book that for all its supposed valuing of the feminine principle, Sophie is really a supporting character. It isn’t simply that Hanks dominates the screen in all his scenes except those with Ian McKellen, but rather it is Langdon whose expertise and insight ultimately solves most of the puzzles and finally unravels the enigma.
Third – and perhaps most significantly – Dan Brown’s novels are all about conspiracy theories. The public may enjoy puzzles, but it is increasingly addicted to conspiracy theories. From Kennedy’s killer to alien abductions, we are more and more suspicious that the truth is being kept back from us. Brown knows this full well, and making conspiracy theories the central element of all his plots may well be the cleverest move he’s made.
It’s worth thinking about why conspiracy theories have become so mainstream. We have seen an extraordinary change in attitudes to such things in recent years. Once, not so long ago, conspiracy theories were the preserve of the lunatic fringe, not to be taken seriously by intelligent people. Now, they have found respectability. It is not hard to see why. At the most obvious level, recent decades have brought us a succession of political scandals and cover ups, perhaps starting with Watergate, which have rocked our confidence in politicians. Now, after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we have reached a stage of profound distrust of politics as a whole. We have grown accustomed to government ministers flatly denying an allegation, only to be forced into an admission of guilt later on. Little wonder that when the Government tells us that the MMR combined vaccine is safe, many people don’t believe them – even when solid scientific evidence is presented. In a world of conspiracies, we no longer believe experts, even scientific ones. Thanks to the media, we know – or think we know – just how much power governments have, so we find ourselves suspecting supposedly independent experts of fabricating data or misrepresenting conclusions in order to keep on the right side of the authorities.
However, there is a more fundamental, though connected, reason. While we have not needed to be instructed in being sceptical about what politicians say, there has been a powerful shift in worldview taking place at the same time. Western culture has moved away from the modernist worldview which puts a high value on human reason and on objective truth. Modernism insisted that we could know what was true by using the right processes: logical argument and empirical science. If the ideas made sense, and the evidence was there, then we could be sure what we were hearing was really true. But the shift to postmodernism has brought with it a deep-rooted commitment to scepticism. It questioned the reliability of human reason, pointing out that the way we present our logical arguments and the way we interpret our empirical data are dependent on our prior beliefs and commitments. Everyone interprets everything differently, so there can be no objectivity. It’s a short step to saying that there is no truth. Lyotard famously described the postmodern condition as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ – a disbelief in any overarching explanations for the way things are. Around the same time, Jacques Derrida was arguing that communication is about power play. He championed an approach to literature known as deconstruction which highlighted contradictions and tensions within a text so as to break its power. The thinking of these men and others has found its way into popular culture and as a result we have become deeply suspicious. The more authoritative a voice is, or the more stridently an allegation is denied, the more we conclude that we can’t believe what we hear. We have come to assume that everything anyone says is primarily motivated by self-interest and is to be taken with far more than a pinch of salt.
This is the climate of suspicion into which Dan Brown has launched his books. No wonder they have sold so well: they cater precisely to the spirit of our age. In Digital Fortress and Deception Point, the setting is the ultra-secretive world of the American intelligence community – the National Security Agency (NSA) and, most secret of all, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). It’s a world far removed from most of us, but which we are nevertheless deeply suspicious of, feeling that these kinds of organisations have immense power over political events yet without being answerable to the democratic process.Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, however, are set in a world that is somewhat closer to home. While the inner workings of the Vatican may be as remote as the NSA, the Roman Catholic church as a whole isn’t. It’s an established presence in our communities, and if there is a web of secrecy, then it extends into our own little worlds.
In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown exploits some ideas which have been around for some time, most notably The Templar Revelation by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince (watch out for their cameo appearance in the film sitting on the bus right behind Hanks and Tautou) and Holy Blood, Holy Grailby Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. The ideas within these books continue to excite conspiracy theorists despite having been exposed as based on a hoax or a complete misreading of historical evidence. The intractably awkward thing with conspiracy theories is that it is impossible to prove them false since every bit of contradictory evidence is easily dismissed as part of the conspiracy. So when Christians (right across the board, not just evangelicals and fundamentalists) point out that Leigh Teabing is wrong to assert that, ‘more than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them’ (p. 313/p. 232),2 that claim can be undercut by suggesting that Christians are just trotting out the version of history which the church wants us to believe. How can one debate the truthfulness of the ideas in a conspiracy theory when all evidence against it is transmuted into evidence for it, and when every denial of the theory’s allegations is heard as an admission of guilt?
Significantly, Ron Howard slightly takes the edge off some of the conspiracy elements in the film. Rather than portraying the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei as a whole of being fanatics who will stop at nothing to destroy evidence of Jesus’s blood line, the film only casts Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina) and his blindly devoted follower Silas (Paul Bettany) in this light. The bishop is a member of a secret ‘council of shadows’ who are acting without the knowledge of the Pope or the Vatican as a whole. And rather than have Langdon and Teabing agreeing on a (frankly unwarranted and even bizarre) reading of early church history, Howard has Langdon arguing for a historically orthodox understanding – or at least suggesting that such a view is plausible.
While we’re discussing alternative readings of history, perhaps we’ve all been caught hook, line and sinker by another conspiracy. Isn’t it rather suspicious that Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh sued Dan Brown and his publisher for plagiarism of their book even though in America their book is published by the same company? And that Brown denied that their book had been much of an influence on him despite the fact that Leigh Teabing’s name derives from their surnames (Teabing being an anagram of Baigent)? Didn’t the court case serve primarily to create massive publicity for both The Da Vinci Codeand Holy Blood, Holy Grail shortly before the film was due? Why does Brown insist so vehemently that ‘All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate’ (p. 16/p. 1) when his descriptions are patently misleading or downright wrong again and again? Why does Brown keep referring to Leonardo Da Vinci as ‘Da Vinci’ when all art historians (as his wife could tell him) refer to him as Leonardo, since Da Vinci just means he comes from Vinci? Why did the publishers send out 10,000 advance copies of The Da Vinci Code before publication? Why are Sony promoting the film so heavily? Why are Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince on the bus?
Is there more going on than meets the eye? Could it be that Dan Brown has been plucked from the obscurity of being an English teacher and beginning novelist in New England by a secret society which has made him its spokesman? With his interest in conspiracy theories as a useful smokescreen, he would be able to write a book that could get under the public’s critical radar and persuade them to believe the cover-up. One imagines that the guardians of the secret are Picknett, Prince, Baigent and Leigh. Henry Lincoln has kept rather quiet which suggests he is the ultra-secretive Grand Master of this secret society. Somehow their agents have inflitrated the worlds of publishing and movies.
The central question is, what are they trying so hard to cover up? Surely it can only be the greatest of all two thousand-year-old mysteries: a story that eclipses fantasies of New World Orders and aliens; the claim that the most powerful being there is, God himself became a man and lived in our world, dying and rising again to destroy the oldest conspiracy of all. And what is the oldest conspiracy of all? The suggestion that we are able to do without our Creator, supplanting him with other gods and, ultimately, taking on the role of God for ourselves. Could it be that people are desperate to believe the cover up for fear that the real truth might actually require a response? Still, it appears that someone might be wanting to alert us to what is going on by giving the film the tag line ‘Seek the truth’. Good idea.