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 Amazon.com, 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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