CRACKING THE 'CODE'

One of the virtues of "The Da Vinci Code," author Dan Brown's gajillion-selling thriller about a Harvard symbologist in hot pursuit of the Holy Grail, is its breathlessness. The novel unfolds over the course of 12 hours, and that's about how long it takes to read. It's fitting, then, that the man spearheading the movie version, producer Brian Grazer, first got wind of the book from the creator of his company's acclaimed TV series "24"--itself an adrenaline rush of real-time pulp fiction. Early in 2003, Joel Surnow read the book, which was popular but not yet a worldwide phenomenon, and thought it would make a terrific story line for "24's" third season. So he asked his boss to look into acquiring the rights. "It quickly became clear that we had no chance," Grazer says. Brown had no intention of handing over his book to a mere TV show. Wise move. A few months later Sony paid $6 million for the movie rights--and hired Grazer to produce it. One of Hollywood's shrewdest operators, Grazer, 53, had started out trolling for TV material and ended up piloting the biggest film adaptation since "Harry Potter."

Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, Grazer and director Ron Howard, the Oscar-winning duo behind "A Beautiful Mind," have settled on an actor to play "The Da Vinci Code's" lead role of globe-trotting scholar Robert Langdon. Perhaps you've heard of him: Tom Hanks. Grazer and Howard helped make Hanks a star with their 1984 comedy "Splash"; they rehired him 11 years later for "Apollo 13," which earned the filmmakers their first best-picture nomination. But Howard insists that friendship alone doesn't explain Hanks's casting. Much of the action in "The Da Vinci Code" is cerebral--solving riddles, cracking codes. At one point, there's even a heart-stopping Boolean key-word search at a London library. "Tom is an exciting actor to watch thinking," Howard says. "We probably don't need his status from a box-office standpoint"--by now, "The Da Vinci Code" sells itself--"but he gives Langdon instant legitimacy."

At the moment, Grazer and Howard are finishing next summer's "The Cinderella Man," a Russell Crowe boxing drama, so they're taking their time casting "Da Vinci." But they've settled on a guiding principle that's sure to please fans: they plan to hire--get this--actual foreign actors to play the book's foreign characters. "If there's any book that's supposed to be an international thriller," says Grazer, "this is it." One recent Oscar winner, he says, inquired about the role of Parisian cryptologist Sophie Neveu, "and she could easily do it. But I think the audience would be let down a bit. They expect a French girl." Internet fans will be happy to hear that Jean Reno, their pick to play bullish cop Bezu Fache, is on Grazer's shortlist.

Grazer is a rare breed in Hollywood today: the independent megaproducer. And so far, 2004 has been tough on his peers, such as Scott Rudin, whose films ("The Manchurian Candidate," "Team America") have been terrific but commercial letdowns, and Jerry Bruckheimer, who flopped with "King Arthur." (To be fair, Bruckheimer may well rebound with "National Treasure," a family thriller that plays like a descendant of... "The Da Vinci Code.") Meanwhile, Grazer and his team at Imagine Entertainment have been sipping champagne. Their sitcom "Arrested Development" won a surprise Emmy for best comedy series, and "Friday Night Lights," a football saga 14 years in the making, has already entered the sports-movie pantheon. "That movie is a real tribute to Brian's stamina," says Howard. "He could've made it at least twice before, and producers are trained to see a green light and go for it. But each time, he felt he wasn't going to get the movie that the book deserved."

The best thing about "Friday Night Lights" is the honesty of its ending, which, without giving too much away, ain't happy. As a film producer, Grazer has come to embrace the ugliness of authenticity. "When I did '8 Mile,' Dr. Dre gave me some advice. He said, 'Just don't clown out our world.' And of course, I said, 'What does that mean?'" Grazer laughs. "He said, 'Don't be corny.' For me, the worst failure is a movie that's too soft. You have to have edge." Imagine's future slate of movies includes an animated "Curious George" film with Will Ferrell and "Fun With Dick and Jane" starring Jim Carrey. Not too edgy. But the project Grazer is most keen on is a documentary about the notorious skinflick "Deep Throat." "It was the most profitable movie ever made, and also the most litigious," he says. Due out in February, the documentary may be the first NC-17 movie released by a major studio in years. "I can't wait to see how people react to it," Grazer says. If they hate it? Well, it's nice to have Tom Hanks and "The Da Vinci Code" to fall back on.