New Film Latest Chapter in Da Vinci Code Phenomenon

May 19, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

IAN MCKELLEN, Actor, “The Da Vinci Code”: We are in the middle of war, one that’s been going on forever, to protect the secret so powerful that, if revealed, it would devastate the very foundations of mankind.

JEFFREY BROWN: We are at least in the middle of a culture war, the “Da Vinci Code” phenomenon, now coming to a theater near you.

TOM HANKS, Actor, “The Da Vinci Code”: He did this himself, in his own blood?

JEFFREY BROWN: It begins with a murder — nothing unusual there — but this thriller, featuring a wise Harvard professor and a beautiful French police cryptologist, races into some very weighty history, or alternative history, about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the Christian church, and the legend of the Holy Grail.

ANNOUNCER: “The Da Vinci Code.”

It began with a book

JEFFREY BROWN: It all began, of course, with a book. "The Da Vinci Code" appeared in 2003, hit number one on the bestseller list in its first week, and just kept going.

LYNN GARRETT, Publishers Weekly: I think people love a conspiracy theory, number one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lynn Garrett is religion editor for Publishers Weekly.

LYNN GARRETT: Number two, the timing of the book was crucial. It came out in the wake of all the media coverage of the priest sex-abuse scandals. And I think that that primed a lot of people to believe the worst about the Catholic Church and to believe that, if the Catholic Church could cover that up, what else had they covered up?

JEFFREY BROWN: By now, the original book has spawned an entire industry. There's the paperback and the illustrated version. There are books of non-fiction to support the story and books to debunk it.

There are books about Leonardo, about the Holy Grail, about secret societies. There are even travel guides to "The Da Vinci Code." There's new fiction out to ride the coattails of success. And, of course, no fad is complete without its own diet book.

The man behind the code

The man behind all this is Dan Brown, a 42-year-old former New Hampshire prep school teacher. He'd published three moderately successful thrillers before "The Da Vinci Code" changed his life forever. Brown isn't granting interviews now, but in the early days he appeared on CNN and explained how the idea for the book came about.

DAN BROWN, Author, "The Da Vinci Code": Oh, there are many codes in Da Vinci's works, and I first learned about them while I was studying art history at the University of Seville in Spain. Later, I married an art historian who happens to be a Da Vinci fanatic. And, from there, there was no escape; I ended up studying it for many years.

JEFFREY BROWN: The result was some stunning claims made by Brown's fictional characters: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were secretly married and had children, whose descendents are alive today; that the divinity of Jesus was only established long after his death and for political reasons; that the church has at times ruthlessly suppressed this history; and that a secret society, whose members have included Victor Hugo, Sir Isaac Newton and, yes, Leonardo Da Vinci, has preserved the knowledge to this day.

How much of all this does Dan Brown actually believe? Hard to say. He begins the book with a page titled "Fact," which says, among other things, "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."

He clearly drew some ideas from the so-called Gnostic Gospels, written in the second century and discovered in 1945. Though never accepted by the church, these writings have brought new attention to the early Christian community.

LYNN GARRETT: He did draw on some genuine scholarship, like Elaine Pagels' "The Gnostic Gospels," which was on the bestseller list in the late '80s. But some of his sources were popular books that were known as a part of the new age market.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say "new age," you mean books about spirituality, legend, mythology, that kind of thing?

LYNN GARRETT: Books on the Holy Grail, books on the Knights Templar, speculative works on Mary Magdalene and Jesus and what type of relationship they might have had.

Churches weigh reactions

JEFFREY BROWN: The Catholic Church, of course, takes a rather dim view of all this. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops produced this video, "Jesus Decoded," to counter Brown point by point. Monsignor Francis Maniscalco is the communications director for the Bishops' Conference.

MONSIGNOR FRANCIS MANISCALCO, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: When you read a book and you know it's fiction, but you see people mentioned in the book who go beyond that fiction, namely real people, Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Emperor Constantine, events, the Council of Nicaea, people have a tendency to say, "Well, I know the plot's fiction, but what he's saying about the real people mentioned, that must be true; after all, he wouldn't make up things about those people because they go beyond the scope of his book."

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there any indications that the book is actually a real impact on beliefs or understandings of the church?

MONSIGNOR FRANCIS MANISCALCO: It's certainly raising questions. I mean, one bishop said to me, "This is the first time I've had to read a novel because the people in my congregation said, 'Have you read that novel yet?'"

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps they're also asking, "Have you seen 'The Last Supper' lately?" In "The Da Vinci Code," Leonardo's famous painting is reinterpreted as showing not the apostle John at the right hand of Jesus, but Mary Magdalene.

MONSIGNOR FRANCIS MANISCALCO: That's a famous painting for 500 years, 12 apostles and the Lord. This book comes out -- and I hear conversations on Amtrak of people saying, "Well, you know, that could be a woman." Well, it can't be a woman; it isn't a woman; nobody has ever thought that it was a woman.

JEFFREY BROWN: You actually hear people on the street talking about it?

MONSIGNOR FRANCIS MANISCALCO: Absolutely. My sisters tell me about their "Da Vinci Code" haircut. They went to the hairdresser one day to get their hair cut, and they spent their haircuts listening to the hairdresser tell them all about this marvelous book she just read and all these new things she found out about Christianity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many churches around the country, including Cherrydale Baptist in Arlington, Virginia, are finding ways to help, as they put it, "separate fact from fiction."

REV. PAUL MARTINS, Pastor, Cherrydale Baptist Church: If you're here and you're a seeker, we're hoping to give you some answers to the questions that you've been asking.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pastor Paul Martins leads the Sunday evening service and decided to use "The Da Vinci Code" as a teaching tool.

REV. PAUL MARTINS: I think really think Dan Brown has done us a really big favor. A lot of topics that are taboo to talk about in the office or, you know, at the coffee shop, that's been below the surface for a while, he's brought up to the surface, and it's OK to talk about these things.

We're doing this series, really, to equip our people, to know what they believe, and really know that their faith has a solid foundation in history.

Opus dei in the spotlight

JEFFREY BROWN: No group has found itself more in "The Da Vinci" spotlight than Opus Dei, a Catholic institution founded in 1928. In the book and movie, an albino Opus Dei monk ritually whips himself, when he's not murdering people to keep hidden the truth about the surviving bloodline of Jesus.

Opus Dei has long had a reputation as a closed and somewhat mysterious group, but it was certainly not amused by this portrayal and has gone on a P.R. campaign of its own with yet another video. Opus Dei spokeswoman Terry Carron.

TERRI CARRON, Opus Dei Spokeswoman: We don't have bloody mortification like they show with the monk; that's a gross distortion of what goes on. What Opus Dei really does is to help people, ordinary people, love God and serve God in their ordinary life. And it would be nice if they would show us the same regard, the same sensitivity that they would show any other ethnic or religious group.

JEFFREY BROWN: Amid all of this and some international calls for a boycott, director Ron Howard unveiled his movie this week at the Cannes Film Festival. And something you don't hear everyday from a filmmaker, he suggested maybe some people should just stay away.

RON HOWARD, Director, "The Da Vinci Code": My advice is to not go see the movie if you think you're going to be upset. Wait. Talk to somebody who has seen it. Discuss it, and then arrive at an opinion about the movie itself. But, again, this is supposed to be entertainment; it's not theology.

JEFFREY BROWN: The first reviews were tepid at best. But given the remarkable life of "The Da Vinci Code" brand, that may not matter.

GREGG KILDAY, Film Critic, "The Hollywood Reporter": This may prove to be a critic-proof movie, in that the book has had such an international success, with 40 million copies in print, there's a huge audience waiting to see how Ron Howard and Tom Hanks have adapted the book, despite whatever the critics say.

JEFFREY BROWN: Beginning today nationwide, readers and non-readers of the book can make up their own minds. For his part, Monsignor Maniscalco told us he hadn't decided about seeing the film. Pastor Paul Martins had no doubts at all.

REV. PAUL MARTINS: I'm going to go. I'm probably going to go three times tonight. I'm encouraging all our people to go and bring some friends. Afterwards, go and grab a cup of coffee with them, and just discuss, you know, what you just heard, and help them to begin to separate fact from fiction.

JEFFREY BROWN: That, at least, will make the filmmakers happy to have the ticket sales, while ensuring that "The Da Vinci Code" debate goes on.