Adaptating a book into a movie must be a tricky thing at the best of times. If we can safely assume that a book's printedness is a part of what it is (and I see no reason not to so assume), what gets lost, and what added, in the translation from print to screen? The outliers are such works as Contempt and Adaptation., films that primarily derive meaning from how they are not the book they are based on; far more common is a film like Jaws, which streamlines and changes and just altogether improves upon the source story, or The Lord of the Rings, which alters, "moviefies" if you will, an already solid and beloved film, leaving some of its themes intact and replacing others.

LOTR is perhaps the modern cinema's best example of a film that stands for good or bad on its own, despite being based on an infinitely popular novel. It's especially worth remembering that the first film in that trilogy premiered only a few weeks after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, an almost tediously unimaginative retread of a book that nearly the entire audience had read multiple times. In this mode we find the latest adaptation of a superblockbuster novel, Ron Howard's film of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

I am still not sure if it was a mistake to read the source novel last week, as I did in order to appreciate the point of view of an audience that would largely be comprised of the book's fans. At any rate, what I found was one of the most faithful literary adaptations in my memory. And therefore one of the most unnecessary.

I will say this in the film's favor; it contains much less information than the novel, and therefore it contains many fewer lies. I will not bother going into the reasons why the story offends me; many others have done a fine job of documenting how Dan Brown makes a hash of biblical history, theology, Grail mythology, art theory, and French grammar. Just know that the film had to do a lot to overcome my disdain for the book. It fails.

I can't believe anyone doesn't know the rudiments of the story, but here goes: Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) teams up with French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) to uncover a secret about the Holy Grail that the Catholic Church wants desperately to keep hidden. Along the way they are aided by a charmingly insane British Grail historian (Ian McKellan) and hunted by an albino Opus Dei monk (Paul Bettany) with a zest for personal mortification.

The movie tells a better story than the book. There, I've said it. In addition to cutting out some of Brown's many, many digressions into completely false historical theory, the film makes the good choice of changing Langdon from a true believer to an agnostic on the matter of the Grail, and changing Sophie into an agnostic on the matter of God. If nothing else, this makes the exposition a little bit easier to swallow (which is good, there's a lot of it). The ending has been jiggered with, not quite changed so much as retuned; there is no reason for this other than to justify the book's audience spending time and money on the film, but it doesn't hurt any.

The big story problem is just the same as with the book, though: this is one long first act. The entire film - up to the last scene - is basically throwing exposition at the viewer. Plot happens and twists occur, but it's all part of the setup for...what? The book leaves us to believe that nothing will happen as a result of the events depicted, although the movie is considerably cagier. None of which changes the fact that the entire damn story is about gathering and parsing information. Let this be a lesson to those (like me) who hoped for something moderately Indiana Jones-ish about Langdon's Eurotrotting adventures. It is a dull and perfunctory slog through crackpot historical theories, made even the duller by the fact that between reading the book and listening to the controversies, we all know the Big Dark Secret is that (spoiler) Jesus Christ fathered a child with Mary Magdalene, whose descendants still walk the earth.

I can't decide what individual associated with the film least deserves to be here. Not, surprisingly, Akiva Goldsman, who does a fine job of turning a shitty novel into an inevitably shitty film, which at least has the benefit of lacking Brown's cumbersome and wholly unappealing prose style. If I had to, I'd pick Ron Howard, who has never made a film remotely like this one, and hopefully never will again. I've never really liked his work as a director, even when I like his films, but this is perhaps his worst work ever. He's clearly so worked up over getting the scale of the film right that everything else - the camera work, and the poor actors - end up hung out to dry.

The poor, poor actors. Tom Hanks is one of those workhorses who's been in plenty of bad films, but he's always personally interesting. Not here. Here he is completely inflectionless, completely unemotive; his eyes are perpetually glazed over, and his hair is an atrocious mullet monstrosity. I felt something I've never felt from him before: boredom. Audrey Tautou is much the same; and there is something sinful about reducing the charm and bubble of the actress who gave us Amélie to an exposition-spouting box. Paul Bettany comes closer to working; he gets the presence and menace right, and his scourging scenes are especially quite good, but when he speaks he uses a deeply unfortunate accent that reminded me of nothing more than Mandy Patinkin's cod-Spanish in The Princess Bride. Jean Reno continues his uninterrupted streak of being totally wasted in American film productions as the police chief hunting Langdon. Only McKellan brings his A-Game, and that is, one suspects, because he enjoys the campiness, the unmitigated cheese of the whole thing. Like Michael York in The Omega Code or Michael Caine in many, many, many things, he demonstrates that nobody does B-movie grandiloquence like a British Shakespearean actor.

It would be impossible to review the film without mentioning The Controversy. As you are doubtlessly aware, the Catholic Church has denounced this film for heresy and theological incompetence. I have really nothing to say about that. The film is heretical, there are no two ways about it, but not so heretical as, for example, myself (being an atheist who views the historicity of Jesus - to say nothing of his divinity - as an undecided question). And the movie is much less concerned with its inner theology than the book was. Howard and company aren't out to destroy the Church, they're out to make money off of the bestselling novel of the decade. Indeed, the changes to the ending serve only to make the film considerably less anti-Catholic. Although I will mention one final complaint: why do Catholic authors insist on assuming that all Christian, if not all Western thought is dependent upon the Church? Let us say that the Vatican's authority is proven to be a lie - can't they all just become Methodists?