A murder mystery mixes with biblical history in a novel that has been a global best-seller; and now it is on screen in a big Hollywood version that has been attacked as anti-religion. Alan Silverman has a look at The Da Vinci Code.
"Murder in the Louvre" scream the tabloid headlines when the curator, Sauniere, is found dead in a gallery of the renowned Paris art museum. However, it is apparently the way his body is discovered that prompts the police investigator to call in a visiting American expert on religious symbols. In his dying moments, the victim used his own blood to draw symbols on his body and a circle on the floor; his final resting place is within that circle, his arms and legs spread out touching the circumference.
It is the first of many questions that Robert Langdon must answer to solve the mystery and to clear himself of suspicion in the murder. Fortunately, he gains the ideal ally: Sophie Neveu, a skilled cryptographer who, because of her personal history, may understand the clues better than almost anyone.
The keys to the code are hidden within the works of Leonardo Da Vinci and they point to a legendary secret that could challenge 2,000 years of Christian teachings.
Oscar-winner Tom Hanks stars as Langdon with French actress Audrey Tautou as Sophie. The novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. Paul Bettany plays the albino monk and assassin named Silas and says he had to ignore any pressure to meet the expectations of the novel's fans.
"Frankly, 60 million people have read that book (and) I can't give 60 million performances because all of those images happened in their heads," he says. "I don't know how they saw him. I know how I saw him, so that's what I went about doing (and) the moment you think about it logically, there is no real pressure because it's just an impossible thing for me to deliver 60 million performances for everybody. He's a monk. He's an albino. He's tortured. He's strong. I went about doing those things."
However, Sir Ian McKellen says the book provided precious little to help him create the character of Holy Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing.
"The book is a bit short on character. The plot is what keeps you turning the page," he says. " It isn't that you get to know more about the characters, as would happen in some novels, but you get more about what they are interested in: the code - everything to do with Leonardo and Jesus and Mary."
Therein are the seeds of the controversy that has caused some national governments and church organizations to call for boycotting the film. The theory within the story is that the fabled Holy Grail is not a wine chalice, but a collection of artifacts that could prove Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had children ... a bloodline that, The Da Vinci Code contends, continues to this day. It also presents renegade Catholic activists who stop at nothing - even murder - to keep the secret from being revealed. The outspoken Sir Ian suggests it is worth keeping in mind that the Dan Brown novel and the movie are works of fiction.
"I think the facts in The Da Vinci Code may well be challengeable, but maybe the truths are not," he says. "Maybe he's onto something about the nature of an institution that has been around as long and is as powerful as the Catholic church. Maybe it isn't quite the organization that it seems to be from the outside. Maybe there are secrets. That would be a truth about an organization like the Catholic church that is probably incontrovertible; but the facts, the details of his criticism, I am happy to believe, have all been made up."
Director Ron Howard says his goal was to be faithful to the book and adds that he does not know if the controversy will affect how the film is received.
"I honestly just can't comment on it," says Howard. " It certainly hasn't seemed to matter in terms of book sales. Whether it matters in terms of movie sales ... I don't know."
The Da Vinci Code also features French actor Jean Reno as determined police captain Bezu Fache. The film has the distinction of being the first ever allowed to shoot scenes inside the famous Louvre museum.