With more than 200 million copies of his books in print worldwide, The Da Vinci Code novelist Dan Brown, 57, is an undisputed pop-literature powerhouse. His Robert Langdon series features a juicy page-turning combination of religion, art, cryptography and conspiracy theories that has continually propelled him to the top of the best-seller list since the release of his 2000 hit Angels & Demons.
The books have also spawned a cinematic trilogy, starring Tom Hanks (65) and directed by Ron Howard (67). While they may not have captivated critics, the films have nonetheless grossed nearly $1.5 billion worldwide. This month, the streaming service Peacock releases the latest Langdon thriller, a prequel TV series based on his book The Lost Symbol (out Sept. 16). Before you dive in, here's a quick refresher course on the first three films and a preview of the series, with everything you need to know — from the artworks being decoded to the wanderlust-inspiring settings and the controversies they've attracted along the way. Be warned: There are plenty of spoilers ahead!
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
Based On: The second book in the Robert Langdon series, 2003's The Da Vinci Code
The Plot: When a curator at the Louvre turns up dead with bloody symbols carved into his body, Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon (Hanks) begins an investigation with the help of the victim's granddaughter, police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Amélie's Audrey Tautou). Through the use of clues hidden in works by Leonardo da Vinci, they set off to find the Holy Grail, but their plan is thrown for a loop when historian Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen, 82) reveals a potentially history-altering secret: The Grail is not a chalice but instead Mary Magdalene, who was actually the wife of Jesus Christ and the mother of his child. Langdon and Neveu zip around Paris and London in a race against Opus Dei, who seek to destroy the Grail and keep the Vatican's secret safe.
The Setting: Paris, London and Scotland
The Artworks Being Decoded: Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and Madonna of the Rocks; the Rosslyn Chapel in Roslin, Scotland; the Louvre Inverted Pyramid
The Controversies: Though it's a work of fiction, many readers were outraged by the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child together. While it might be hard to imagine that the crowd-pleasing team of Howard and Hanks could create one of the most controversial movies of the decade, the film went on to be banned in a slew of countries, including Syria, Belarus, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and many more. Vatican officials called for a boycott, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rated the movie morally offensive and described it as “deeply abhorrent.” Even the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) got in on the action, protesting the depiction of Silas, a villainous albino monk played by Paul Bettany, 50.
Watch It: The Da Vinci Code, on Netflix
Angels & Demons (2009)
Based On: The first book in the Robert Langdon series, 2000's Angels & Demons
The Plot: The pope has died, and a conclave is gathered to name a successor, when the four top candidates are kidnapped by a man claiming to be a part of the underground society known as the Illuminati. He promises to murder each one of the cardinals and then destroy the Vatican City using a canister of antimatter that he has stolen from CERN, the particle physics laboratory headquartered in Switzerland. Langdon teams up with nuclear physicist Dr. Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer, 52) to stop the assassin, and they rush around Rome searching for clues in the Baroque sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The Setting: Rome and the Vatican City
The Artworks Being Decoded: Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Habakkuk and the Angel, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and the Fountain of the Four Rivers; the Pantheon; the Castel Sant'Angelo
The Controversies: Following the drama of the first film's release, the response to the sequel was relatively tame. Samoa banned Angels & Demons, deeming it too critical of Catholicism, but ironically, the Church itself went much easier, with the official Vatican newspaper calling it “harmless entertainment.” Perhaps the funniest response was from CERN: They had to set up a website to explain the science of antimatter, after it was depicted as a superweapon in the film.
Watch It: Angels & Demons, on Netflix
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Based On: The fourth book in the Robert Langdon series, 2013's Inferno
The Plot: After waking up in a hospital in Florence with amnesia, Langdon partners with Dr. Sienna Brooks (The Theory of Everything Oscar nominee Felicity Jones) to help recover his memories. They soon find themselves combing through Dante-inspired clues left behind by a billionaire named Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who has recently committed suicide. Zobrist believed that Earth was overpopulated, and he set in motion a plan to release a plague that would kill off half of the world's people. Can they track down the virus and stop his evil plan before it's too late?
The Setting: Florence, Venice, Istanbul
The Artworks Being Decoded: Dante's Inferno, Sandro Botticelli's Map of Hell, Giorgio Vasari's Battaglia di Marciano
The Controversies: A writer for Inside the Vatican magazine had this to say about the book at the time of its release: “Dan Brown could be defined as the perfect follower of Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, whose catchword was: ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.’ This time he has gone as far as to use the greatest Italian poet and devout Catholic, Dante Alighieri, in his attacks on Catholicism, by making him out as a heretic.” Ouch.
Watch It: Inferno, on Amazon Prime Video
The Lost Symbol (2021)
Based On: The third book in the Robert Langdon series, 2009's The Lost Symbol
The Plot: After a trio of movies that widely followed the same formula, this adaptation is shaking things up considerably. For starters, it's a television series, which will stream on NBCUniversal's Peacock app and website. Despite the source novel being set after The Da Vinci Code, the plot is being rejiggered into a prequel, with Australian-American actor Ashley Zukerman — who has appeared on shows like Manhattan, Scandal and Succession — stepping into the role of a young Robert Langdon. When his mentor Peter Solomon (Eddie Izzard, 59) goes missing, Langdon is sucked into a Freemason-themed scavenger hunt around D.C. that takes him deep inside the Capitol, as he and Peter's daughter, Katherine (Valorie Curry), solve intricate puzzles and avoid deadly booby traps.
The Setting: Washington, D.C.
The Artworks Being Decoded: The art and architecture of the Capitol itself, including Constantino Brumidi's 1865 fresco The Apotheosis of Washington in the Rotunda
The Controversies: It remains to be seen how the series is received, but when the book was published, the Freemasons took it all in stride. In fact, according to a 2009 Reuters article, a group of Australian Freemasons was so excited about The Lost Symbol that they started their own book club to discuss it!
Watch It: The Lost Symbol, on Peacock
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.