Will moviegoers have to wait to crack The Da Vinci Code? The answer might hinge on a high-stakes legal battle playing out in the U.K. that threatens the future of the mega-popular novel and its cinematic offshoot.
The trial began in Monday in London, pitting two British authors against publisher Random House and accusing Da Vinci mastermind Dan Brown of lifting the central theme for his 2003 (and 2004, and 2005...) bestseller from their 1982 nonfiction tome, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (or, as it was called in the United States, Holy Blood, Holy Grail). In a twist, Random House also published Holy Blood.
Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh seek an injunction to prevent further use of their material, which could technically lead to a delay in the hugely anticipated debut of the film version, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks. The film is scheduled to kick off the Cannes Film Festival May 17 and go into wide release two days later.
But Sony Pictures, which is distributing the adaptation, says no mere lawsuit will stop the would-be juggernaut.
"This lawsuit is not about the movie, and we are proceeding with our plans," Jim Kelly, senior VP of corporate communications at Sony Pictures Entertainment, told the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Random House is denouncing the suit, saying there's no evidence the plot of The Da Vinci Code ripped off Baigent and Leigh's book.
The complaint is "without merit," Random House Chief Executive Gail Rebuck said in a statement. Jonathan Baldwin, an attorney for Random House, said the suit was full of "wild allegations."
The two books share the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had a child--just one of The Da Vinci Code's plot points that has caused controversy among the religious community, made the book a practically mandatory airplane read and produced endless conversations around the water cooler. The Da Vinci Code even has a character named Sir Leigh Teabing, which as the British press has pointed out, is an anagram of Baigent and Leigh.
Jonathan Rayner James, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the court that Brown was "interested in taking--and took--short cuts rather than doing any of the work himself." James added that The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was in no way "consulted as an incidental reference source."
The start of the trial even brought out the reclusive Brown, who sat in London's High Court to listen to the start of arguments.
Although Brown had admitted to using Holy Blood as one of many historical sources, he claims the book was not "crucial or important" to his main ideas. He furthermore disagrees with Baigent and Leigh's supposition that Jesus was not crucified and instead went to live in France.
"This is not an idea that I would ever have found appealing," Brown told reporters. "Suggesting a married Jesus is one thing, but questioning the resurrection undermines the very heart of Christian belief."
The author is expected to testify next week.
Whether or not Baigent and Leigh prove their claim, the attention hasn't hurt their own quest for the holy grail of book sales--Holy Blood was up to number nine on Amazon.com's top sellers list as of Monday night, five slots below The Da Vinci Code.
This is not the first time The Da Vinci Code has been dangled over the copyright infringement fire. In 2005, a New York judge ruled that Brown's book did not plagiarize two books by Lewis Perdue, Daughter of God and The Da Vinci Legacy. Perdue had sought $150 million and asked the court to block the release of the film.
To date, no legal action has been able to put the brakes on The Da Vinci Code, which has sold more than 40 million copies and inspired everything from TV specials to European tours that trace the steps of the novel's main characters--and, of course, a little film that figures to be among the biggest of the year.