Newswise — The Da Vinci Code, the Ron Howard movie based on the best-selling book by Dan Brown, was released Friday in theaters across the United States to a loudly mixed chorus of critics and fans. University of North Dakota pop culture scholar and English professor Kathleen Dixon observes that the Da Vinci Code--love it or hate it--is a cultural phenomenon.

"People study this industry, the text, and the audience," says Dixon, who has a broad expertise in other cultural icons such as the Oprah Winfrey Show. "You find out how the industry regards the work that it's doing and how it produces this kind of book [or movie] even before it becomes a blockbuster. We're talking about the pipeline production mechanics of a popular novel."

And the key fact--often lost in the heated debate about the book's merits and defects--is that the book is, and was intended by its author to be, a novel. "As a novel, it achieved blockbuster status, and you can see that just by going to the bookstores: all those spinoffs, a lot of people making money just by writing about the novel," Dixon notes.

Notoriety--the bad press that Dan Brown's magnum opus is getting in some quarters--adds to that blockbuster energy, says Dixon. "We'd have to ask what Dan Brown's career was before the Da Vinci Code and what it's now like after the Da Vinci Code."

Whatever else may be true or not about the novel and what Dan Brown's message might be, it's now into mega-sell. "That's what Dan Brown is in now, so we want to see things from the perspective of the producers. I mean, you now have a book touting the Da Vinci Code tour. That's for fairly upscale readers. You've got many readers who could never afford to travel to see the Louvre--a focal point in the novel--but you also have readers planning vacations based on the Da Vinci Code."

Dixon says that once the publishers--and now the moviemaker, Ron Howard--realized that they had a cash tiger by the tail, they got their public relations machines working overdrive.

"A lot of times, people in these industries--publishing, entertainment--are beyond the rest of us," Dixon notes. "They are right up on the cultural currents, the trends, the feelings and thoughts among people, what's hot and what's not."

So, Dixon argues, the folks who're taking issue with some of the novels contentions may have failed to grasp that, essentially, the author is telling a story and that the publishers of that story are in the business of making money.

"The Da Vinci Code is fiction, and it's not supposed to be scholarly high art. In fact, it's rare that a truly scholarly, carefully researched book is going to be popular," Dixon says. "Scholars have to be skeptical, have to be objective, and should maintain a cool perspective on something." Novelists, including Dan Brown, are free, within the concept of "artistic license," to spin any tale that they want and take the characters wherever they want to take them.

Of course, it's also rare that a novel--even one turned into movie--is spun off as a large-format, glossy, coffee table version with lovely color reproductions of art, places, and architecture that are mentioned in the novel, Dixon observes.

The Da Vinci Code also is unusual, but not unprecedented, because it has fueled a critical backlash, especially among Catholics and evangelical Christians, Dixon says. "Generally speaking, they don't seem to favor Dan Brown's book, although the Christian Science Monitor gave it a favorable review.

"There are scholars, theologians, historians of religion, and others writing 'responses' to the Da Vinci Code, including some with titles such as 'Cracking the Da Vinci Code,'" she says. "Clearly, something big is going on here."

Among the book's draws, Dixon says, are its portrayal of the Opus Dei (a real-world Catholic religious organization) as a quasi-Mafia organization, shrouded in secrecy and mystery. "And of course, that's clearly one of the book's big draws. In fact, it might be one of the reasons why the Da Vinci Code has made it to this blockbuster status."

Dan Brown is good at his trade, she says, but this is the first book he's produced that's enjoyed both such extended popularity and notoriety.

"Though I haven't researched this specifically for the case of the Da Vinci Code, it appears to me that it falls into the pattern that audience research shows for similar cultural phenomena," Dixon says. "People are reading this book--and will see the movie--for many reasons. And most people will see it for many, not just one, reason."

Among other reasons for its popularity is that the Da Vinci Code "makes people feel smart," Dixon says. "These kinds of novels give people a kind of education. People enjoy finding out about things that they didn't know. They imagine, reading a book that features the Louvre, the Catholic church, that they're learning about high culture, in other words, about art, church history, language."

And what is high culture?

"It's precisely some of the elements in the Da Vinci Code: art in museums, church history," Dixon notes. "The opposite of high culture is low culture, like drag racing."

The Da Vinci Code also is prompting some cultural discomfort because of its feminist subtext, Dixon says. "The Church is supposed to have held down the feminine, or at least that's the argument made in the novel. It's pretty clear that this novel wants to build on feminist popular culture trends, including such things as having a heroine who is the equal of the hero. In fact, she saves him."

The book also gives people a look inside the world of academics, a world not normally open to the everyday experience of most people, Dixon says.

"This is a novel about a professor who doesn't think he's handsome," she says. "It's pretty funny, and it makes scholarly life look a lot more interesting than I thought most people would think it is."

Dixon says looking at Da Vinci Code for what it really is should relieve some people--especially the many who may not have read the book but are critical of, or worried about, its "message" --of the burden of being so serious about it.

"It's popular culture," she says. "I love popular culture because, really, it's just so fun, so playful."