Seeing the Movie Instead

April 16, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Yes, I'm that one person. The one person who has not read Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. While everyone else chatters about the plot's twists and turns, and whether or not it's an affront to adherents of traditional Christian theology, I remain quiet, not having anything useful to add to the discussion. I did not skip The Da Vinci Code because I was outraged or offended; it simply didn't interest me. The premise didn't capture my attention. I figured there were a dozen books I would rather read instead and, even when I finished them, The Da Vinci Code didn't make it onto my short list. (In retrospect, it might have made perfect "plane reading" during my trip to Manila last year.)

A movie is coming. I have known this for some time. And I have access to the novel - my wife owns a copy (and has read it). This raises an age-old question: when a popular book is turned into a movie, is a film critic in a better position if he/she has read the book, or if he/she hasn't? There's no easy answer.

Film critics who have read the book are able to assess how well the movie captures the feel of the written word. They can discuss changes and omissions. They can compare and contrast freely. They can provide informed speculation about whether fans of the novel are likely to be satisfied by the adaptation. But they are limited in their appreciation of the movie by a familiarity with the source material.

On the other hand, those who have not read the book can approach the adaptation as they would any other movie, without the baggage of a book weighing down their opinions. Is this an advantage? Depends on your point-of-view. Those familiar with the novel probably want to hear the opinion of a critic in the former category, while those who aren't might prefer to read a review from someone who shares their "handicap."

There have been times when I have read a high profile book to be better informed when the movie came out. The example that stands out most clearly for me is The Firm. I read it in about two days and thought it was unmitigated crap. Then I saw the movie, which managed the seemingly impossible task of making the book look good. I lost countless hours to The Firm and promised never to do that again, especially if the book was referred to as a "page turner." And that's the description frequently tossed around in reference to The Da Vinci Code.

Ultimately, whether I read the book will depend on how much I like the movie. In fact, if the movie grabs me and I have enough time, I may bulldoze my way through the novel between the time I leave the screening and write my review. That's one way for a critic to have his cake and eat it, too. But if I think the movie is okay or mediocre or worse, I'll write the review and be done with Dan Brown.

On the flip side, I am familiar with the basis of another high profile adaptation arriving later in the year. I'm referring to The Children of Men. As is the case with almost every P.D. James novel, I devoured the material before it was on bookstands for more than a few days. At the time, whether it became a movie was not a concern. But I'll attend that movie with a different perspective than the one I bring to The Da Vinci Code. And those who read the reviews will be able to tell this. I won't try to hide it. To do so (as some critics undoubtedly will) strikes me as being fundamentally dishonest. My perspective: if you've read the book, admit it. If you haven't, admit that as well. It gives your readers an important stake in the ground.