When author Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” became a best seller and cultural phenomenon, it made sense that a top notice director like Ron Howard would team up with a top notch actor like Tom Hanks and turn “The Da Vinci Code” into a movie. These two also turned the prequel and sequel into movies as well with “Angels and Demons” and “Inferno.” The problem is all three are mediocre movies at best.
The huge problem with Dan Brown novels is that what makes them so enjoyable simply isn’t translatable on to film. When you read a Dan Brown novel, part of the thrill is reading and learning about the historical basis of the setting and reading the emotions of the various characters as they struggle against obstacles to achieve their various goals that wildly conflict with the goals of the other characters.
There’s also the subtle romantic emotions lingering between the hero and the woman who’s helping him. So the combination of romance, history, and action makes Dan Brown novels fun to read.
Translate that to film and you can’t describe the historical background without bogging down the story, you can’t show the emotional point of view from different characters, so you’re left only with lots of action. Yet focusing solely on the action creates a largely empty story with the hero constantly jumping from one problem to another with seemingly no purpose or logic. That makes Dan Brown movies dull, confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying as a film.
Dan Brown novels are not alone in failing to translate well to film. Stephen King novels mostly fail as movies with a handful of exceptions, and Ray Bradbury’s writings rarely translated into satisfying movies or TV adaptations. That’s because novels let us get into the thoughts and emotions of the characters while conjuring up images in our own imagination that’s far more terrifying and vivid than any movie could ever create.
So Dan Brown novels are fun and enjoyable to read but turning them into film requires more than just following the plot of the novel. By remaining faithful to the novel, the movies are mediocre at best. To turn Dan Brown novels into good movies would require cutting out large chunks of the story and making up new storylines that stay faithful to the meaning of the novel without slavishly following the plot.
Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining,” yet the movie is considered a classic horror film even though it deviates from the novel. That’s how Dan Brown novels should be translated into film. The difference between Stanley Kubrick and Ron Howard is that Stanley Kubrick also wrote screenplays while Ron Howard does not. That means Ron Howard’s great directing skills can never make up for the fact that he’s following the blueprint of a mediocre screenplay.
Sometimes movies can follow novels closely but sometimes they need to interpret the story for film instead. The real goal is to tell a compelling story with or without following the novel precisely. It’s not an easy task, but the result can be worth it rather than cranking out a mediocre movie and hoping it makes money based on the popularity of its source material alone.