Does Da Vinci need a disclaimer?

tom hanksOne thing I’m looking forward to seeing in the launch of The Da Vinci Code next weekend (besides everyone laughing at Tom Hanks’ career-damaging hair) is what type of on-screen language it will open with and what, if any, type of language it will end with.

Director Ron Howard says that there won’t be a disclaimer, but if the book had a disclaimer of sorts (“Fact: The Priory of Sion — a European secret society founded in 1099 — is a real organization”), should not the movie have something similar? Here is the Los Angeles Times:

For the lay reader, such musings rank up there with what if the South had won the Civil War or Hitler had triumphed over the Allies. But the theory rankles the devout, hence the drumbeat of criticism. Howard’s movie version contains re-creations of the biblical allusions so viewers understand the alternate religious history that drives the plot. There’s no disclaimer, however, though some critics have asked for one.

“It’s very controversial. What Dan Brown did with the novel, we didn’t back away from in making the movie,” says Howard. “I think what a lot of people have discovered — a lot of theologians — is this is a work of fiction that presents a set of characters that are affected by these conspiracy theories and ideas. Those characters in this work of fiction act and react on that premise. It’s not theology. It’s not history. To start off with a disclaimer … .” he searches for the right words. “Spy thrillers don’t start off with disclaimers.”

Quick question for the LAT: Who are these “lay readers”? Non-priests/pastors? They are the only ones upset about Da Vinci? How about the odd journalist or historian who cares about history and facts? Just curious, because I don’t know anyone who sees this book along the lines of Philip Roth’s Plot Against America. While books like Roth’s can be very profound in examining an alternative form of history, Dan Brown goes a huge step further in his mixed portrayal of fact and fiction.

da vinci artBut let’s get back to the main topic. Howard and journalists writing about this movie should know that this is more than just another spy thriller. And they do know that. Otherwise it would just be another movie and nobody would give a hoot and a half, unless, sadly, Tom Cruise was starring. Journalists, armed with the facts, need to call Howard and the movie’s promoters out for such distortions.

For those of us who are concerned about those tricky, sometimes nebulous things known as facts, Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News has written a tremendous piece that must in the back of all reporters’ minds as they write about the controversies surrounding the movie (because journalists care about facts, right?):

Experts agree: Dan Brown got most of his facts wrong.

Religion scholars have been whacking The Da Vinci Code like a low-hanging pinata. The swings have come from establishment Christianity — the Vatican and the Archbishop of Canterbury — and from the fringes of the faith — a member of the liberal Jesus Seminar and the agnostic historian Bart Ehrman.

At least 44 books debunking The Da Vinci Code are for sale at, several written by serious academics or well-known pastors. And with the movie starring Tom Hanks scheduled to open in two weeks, surely more are in the pipeline.

All of which leaves this question unanswered: Why bother?

Weiss goes on to explain that smart people care about Brown’s creation because the book made a pretension of accuracy and it “reeks of truthiness and smartiness.” But the movie’s promoters are not playing the movie like the book when it comes to its alleged grounding in truth. If the movie doesn’t carry some type of “factual” disclaimer at the beginning, will the movie studios lose out on potential ticket sales? As James Frey will tell you, selling truth is always going to be easier than selling fiction:

If Mr. Brown can’t get inarguable facts right, the experts say, what faith can readers place in his conclusions about the nature of Christianity?

Some critics say they’re intent on tearing down the credibility of the book because many people, mostly ignorant of what is known of the early years of Christianity, accept Mr. Brown’s fictions as gospel truth.

“In our experience, readers are taking it as true,” said Dr. Ehrman, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina and the author of Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. “Historians care about what happened in the past, and it’s important … to separate the fact from the fiction.”

The biggest question in this story is whether people will start actually believing Brown’s theories. So far I have yet to see that the book has had that kind of influence. Time will tell with the movie.

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  • tmatt

    The evangelical pollster George Barna has some data on the Da Vinci truthiness question, data cited in the Weiss article. Readers may want to check out:

  • Grateful Bear

    Maybe Tom Hanks adopted “televangelist hair” in an attempt to curry favor with evangelicals. Look, ma, it can’t be ALL bad — Tom Hanks looks like Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts and Robert Tilton now.

  • dk

    Of course people believe it, like they believe Left Behind and many other constantly best-selling novels, revisionist histories, and related media that indulge the alienated, confused, simply bored, ill-educated and/or weak-minded person’s desire for a quick and exciting, overarching conspiracy theory view of history and reality itself. Eco’s novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, is probably the best imitation and examination of this kind of story. As he recognizes, excepting the truly paranoid and deranged, there is in the desire for Gnosis, or the secret history of the World behind the world, a kind of spiritual openness and wonder that no religious person can fully discount. Though perhaps for Brown’s fans, it is a wonder motivated by real or perceived injury and reaction toward Christianity and especially the Catholic church.

  • Tom Breen

    I’m not really sure about the contention that Brown’s book hasn’t been making converts. When it came out, I covered a “book club meeting” at a local UCC church that had about 200 people in attendance – far bigger than the average Sunday crowd at this church. Most of the people I interviewed there, including the pastor, had taken Brown’s thesis on board – if not in every detail, then certainly in terms of his overall portrayal of orthodox Christianity as a conspiracy to suppress the divine feminine.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    The biggest question in this story is whether people will start actually believing Brown’s theories. So far I have yet to see that the book has had that kind of influence.

    Really? A recent poll found that 1 in 6 Canadians, and about 1 in 8 Americans, believes that Jesus faked his death, married, and had children — a result that pundits attributed to the influence of The Da Vinci Code, even though the book never says that Jesus faked his death.

    And ten months before that, a National Geographic Survey in Canada found that 1 in 3 people who had read the book believed its claims.

  • Maureen

    Re: “spy thrillers don’t start with disclaimers”

    Actually, The Hunt for Red October movie did. As a result, many people still believe that a Soviet sub defected to America during Gorbachev’s administration.

    Some people wouldn’t believe me even after I pointed out that Clancy’s novel came out long before Gorbachev came into power. (Or that the book was somewhat based on a historical scenario, but just not the one in the movie.)

  • dk

    Brian McLaren ascribes some essential truths to the DVC in the latest Sojourners newsletter:

    “I think a lot of people have read the book, not just as a popular page-turner but also as an experience in shared frustration with status-quo, male-dominated, power-oriented, cover-up-prone organized Christian religion. We need to ask ourselves why the vision of Jesus hinted at in Dan Brown’s book is more interesting, attractive, and intriguing to these people than the standard vision of Jesus they hear about in church. Why would so many people be disappointed to find that Brown’s version of Jesus has been largely discredited as fanciful and inaccurate, leaving only the church’s conventional version? Is it possible that, even though Brown’s fictional version misleads in many ways, it at least serves to open up the possibility that the church’s conventional version of Jesus may not do him justice?”

    “For all the flaws of Brown’s book, I think what he’s doing is suggesting that the dominant religious institutions have created their own caricature of Jesus. And I think people have a sense that that’s true. It’s my honest feeling that anyone trying to share their faith in America today has to realize that the Religious Right has polluted the air. The name “Jesus” and the word “Christianity” are associated with something judgmental, hostile, hypocritical, angry, negative, defensive, anti-homosexual, etc. Many of our churches, even though they feel they represent the truth, actually are upholding something that’s distorted and false.

    I also think that the whole issue of male domination is huge and that Brown’s suggestion that the real Jesus was not as misogynist or anti-woman as the Christian religion often has been is very attractive. Brown’s book is about exposing hypocrisy and cover-up in organized religion, and it is exposing organized religion’s grasping for power. Again, there’s something in that that people resonate with in the age of pedophilia scandals, televangelists, and religious political alliances. As a follower of Jesus I resonate with their concerns as well.”

    “The book is fiction and it’s filled with a lot of fiction about a lot of things that a lot of people have already debunked. But frankly, I don’t think it has more harmful ideas in it than the Left Behind novels. And in a certain way, what the Left Behind novels do, the way they twist scripture toward a certain theological and political end, I think Brown is twisting scripture, just to other political ends. But at the end of the day, the difference is I don’t think Brown really cares that much about theology. He just wanted to write a page-turner and he was very successful at that.”

  • Avram

    Roth’s Plot is what science fiction and fantasy readers call an alternate history story — a story in which history has overtly followed a different path than it did in the real world, like the Confederates winning the US Civil War, or the Nazis winning WW2.

    The Da Vinci Code looks to me (I haven’t read it) like it’s what we call a secret history story. In secret histories, the world looks like our world on the surface — all the same major historical events are there — but there’s some kind of secret force driving things behind the scenes. It’s popular for conspiracy stories. The X-Files is an example of a secret history, though one with strong science-fictional and fantastic elements.

    Of course, in the SF&F genres, reaers come to the book with an expectation that the book will be contra-factual. The Da Vinci Code has been published as a mainstream novel, and the popular audience might not have the SF reader’s ability to enjoy a story while also understanding that the story’s setting is based on author’s invention.

    (I don’t mean to imply that Brown or his publishers have done anything dishonest by publishing The Da Vinci Code as a mainstream book. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Baroque Cycle, also published as mainstream historical fiction, have fantastic and secret historical elements.)

    What Brown is doing that indicates either dishonesty or lack of research is claiming, in the “disclaimer”, that the various hoaxes and urban legends he’s come across are true.

  • Matt

    “Some people wouldn’t believe me even after I pointed out that Clancy’s novel came out long before Gorbachev came into power.”

    Maureen, that’s because Tom clancy is a prophet. Many years before 9/11 he predicted a terrorist flying an airliner into the capitol building in his “novel” Debt of Honor. ;-)

  • Umm Yasmin

    Musing to self: I wonder if the same people calling for a disclaimer and a buycott would do the same if a movie came out about an alternative history of Islam based on Crone and Cook’s Hagarism. Certain folk like to buy into kooky alternative theories about other people’s religions but get hot under the collar about their own. (And yes I know that equally applies to Muslims too!)

  • David Green

    Aristotle wrote that historians are concerned with what happened, but poets (& artists in general) are concerned with what always happens. Claiming that Dan Brown’s NOVEL needs a disclaimer is at best silly and and worst frightening. It has a disclaimer; it’s fiction. What Brown does with the facts is irrevelavant (which I think I just spelled wrong!). To borrow from Northrop Frye, one doesn’t read Macbeth to learn about the history of Scotland. One reads it to understand what it means for a man to gain the world and lose his soul. Only a credulous fool would read The Davinci Code for its historical content; hopefully, such credulous fools aren’t going to start forcing writers of creative fiction to start putting disclaimers on their work.

  • dpulliam

    David, I would usually agree with you, but Brown’s book does contain a disclaimer claiming a certain measure of truth when it comes to the facts presented in his book. That’s why the book goes a step beyond a typical fictional story like Macbeth.

  • David Green

    There’s a sort of Meta-disclaimer: the book’s ‘ontological status’ (AHEM!!) as fiction. He can claim anything he wants once that’s established and it doesn’t matter a fig. Don’t ya hate me for saying ‘ontological status’?