Terence Blacker: Calm down folks, it's only a story

The internet keens with the sound of fundamentalist Christians expressing their rage and hurt
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The Independent Online

On one side there would be Tinseltown's great schlockmeister Ron Howard, the acceptable face of stardom Tom Hanks and the studio behind The Da Vinci Code. On the other, led by Tony Blair, Charles Clarke and Hazel Blears, there would be the concerned and good-hearted members of the Labour government who wish to make the world a nicer place, if necessary by silencing us. As a battle of conflicting moralities, it demands the pen of a Milton or a Philip Pullman.

Sadly, Hollywood's own two great commandments - Thou Shalt Gross Megabucks at the Box Office and Thou Shalt Not Risk the Slightest Offence to Those in Power - seem certain to ensure that anything remotely contentious in Dan Brown's book will be quietly ironed out of the screen version.

Already Sony Pictures, the studio involved, are said to be chasing "Passion dollars" - that is, the kind of cash bonanza reaped by Mel Gibson's entirely on-message religious biopic The Passion of the Christ. It must be a tough call, turning a book in which Jesus has a child by Mary Magdalene into a rallying cry for the faithful, but the guys in Hollywood are giving it their best shot.

The studio is in touch with the Catholic League and Opus Dei. An organisation called Act One, which according to The New York Times "coaches Christians on making it in Hollywood" has been approached for suggestions as to how to make the story more believer-friendly. Its contact at the studio is one Jonathan Bock, "a marketing expert hired by Sony for his knowledge of Christian sensibilities".

It is a revealing insight into the power of the new evangelism over what is presented to the rest of us. The Christian lobby now has it all - the support of Presidents and Prime Ministers, huge financial muscle and the ruthless will to impose its view on cinemagoers and readers throughout the world.

Under their scheme of things, not agreeing with their personal moral code is sinful, and dissent is an unpardonable offence against Christian sensibilities. And, boy, are they easily offended - interviewed on the effect on him of reading Dan Brown's novel, a spokesman for yet another conservative Christian group Focus on Family told reporters that it "broke my heart". Among the blogs and websites of the faithful, the internet keens with the sound of fundamentalist Christians expressing their rage and hurt towards versions of their religion with which they disagree.

But what these lobbyists are proving above all is the power of the storytelling. When the Catholic League plaintively requested of its director Ron Howard that The Da Vinci Code should open with an acknowledgement that the story is fiction, it was confirming that its members have lost the ability to read, see and understand works of the imagination. It takes a story as fact.

This new ambiguity about where reality ends and fiction begins is not entirely the fault of the reader. Over recent years, authors have cheerfully used semi-fact as a novelistic ploy. Julian Barnes's latest novel weaves a story around real letters and news reports. Authors from Fay Weldon and Paul Theroux to Dave Eggers and Bret Easton Ellis deploy events from their own lives as springboard into fiction.

TV's version of the same hybrid is even more subversive and confusing. In Ricky Gervais's series Extras, we have celebrities playing fictional versions of themselves - caricatured, grotesque, and yet not unconnected to the real person acting the part.

No matter how strange, fearful and compelling events that appear on the front page of newspapers, it seems that storytelling still exerts its own influence. The Christian church understands the power of a story, as well it should, but then so do politicians.

One suspects that the clause in America's Patriot Act that allows the FBI to check the reading habits of citizens who have visited bookshops or libraries is not entirely motivated by a fear that they are looking up recipes for bombs. Stories have the capacity to persuade, to change minds, to influence.

This week, investigators into claims of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay have stumbled across an intriguing item of information. Harry Potter has replaced Agatha Christie as the favoured reading of the alleged members of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida who are incarcerated there. Of the 800 titles stocked at Camp Delta, the boy wizard was second in popularity to the Koran.

It is an intriguing insight into the mind of the terrorist, this enthusiasm first for country house murders and then for the traditional British boarding-school story, but the reaction of those in control of them is also interesting. When The Washington Post ran the story, the Pentagon grudgingly confirmed that, yes, books by JK Rowling were indeed at Guantanamo Bay but refused to comment further.

Asked by what criteria books for the prisoners were bought, a librarian called Lori - she dared give only her first name - said: "We try to keep people calm and not incite riots." It can safely be assumed that Ron Howard's film of The Da Vinci Code is unlikely to find its way to Camp Delta.