December 02, 2004

Thank God for film: Dan Brown without the writing

It had to happen: they are going to film The Da Vinci Code. Tom Hanks will play Robert Langdon, Harvard "professor of symbology". As long as they don't use author Dan Brown's hopelessly inept writing in putting together the screenplay, I'm sure the film will be a blockbuster success.

However, I have to say that I think the action of Brown's earlier (and even more badly written) Robert Langdon adventure Angels and Demons would be more suited to making into an action film.

In The Da Vinci Code you'll only get Langdon and a female co-star jumping out of a window of the Louvre onto a moving truck on the road below. In Angels and Demons, you get Langdon jumping out of a helicopter with no parachute, his sedentary academic lifestyle notwithstanding. (Though I should mention that we grammarians are also capable of staggering feats of agility and strength when roused. Just the other day I threw a copy of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language a full twelve feet. And I nearly hit that rat, too.)

More importantly, in Angels and Demons, you get Langdon racing across Rome trying unsuccessfully to prevent anti-religious terrorists from perpetrating bizarre and ghastly murders of important cardinals at landmark churches (there are always clues to the upcoming murder, but Langdon never manages to decipher them quickly enough), and there's big special effects at the end. In The Da Vinci Code Langdon just rushes around France and England with a cryptographer babe, tracking down coded clues to where a secret society associated with the bloodline of Jesus might or might not have buried something of spiritual significance, and it all gets a bit cerebral and biblical.

I'm still watching the mailbox daily as I wait for delivery of my copy of Secrets of Angels and Demons, a collection of essays about the factual background to Angels and Demons, to which I contributed a piece I called ‘Adverbs and demons’. Working through Brown's wretched prose looking for interesting cases of botched clauses and and other linguistic train wrecks was actually very satisfying. I came up with all sorts of observations that there weren't room for in the essay.

Here's one that didn't make the cut, for example. At one point Langdon is recollecting his quieter life at Harvard, and a seminar on terrorism he once attended, and Dan Brown writes this:

"Terrorism," the professor had lectured, "has a singular goal."

But the verb lecture is, despite its meaning, not a verb of saying, in the sense of taking direct quotation ("direct speech") complements. That is, although lecturing involves saying things, you can't use the verb lecture in what the fiction writers call a dialogue tag. Strings such as these are ungrammatical:

"But this," she lectured, "is not the only reason."
"And thus we have Fermat's Last Theorem as a corollary," lectured Wiles smugly.
Leaning closer to the microphone, the exobiologist lectured solemnly: "We are probably not alone in the cosmos."

I'm so confident that such sentences are ungrammatical that I would be prepared to lecture it to a hostile audience. Dan clearly wanted to avoid using "say" too much in dialogue tags, and looked (perhaps in his thesaurus) for a synonym without checking whether it had the appropriate syntactic properties to be allowed in the relevant context.

The great thing about filming Dan Brown's novels will be that it will get rid of his execrable expository prose. With a bit of improvement on the dialogue from some professional scriptwriters in Hollywood, we'll be able to just sit back and enjoy the action on the screen instead of trying to picture what Dan is attempting to describe.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 2, 2004 03:13 PM