The Lost Symbol Episode 1 Review: As Above, So Below
Dan Brown’s novel gets a competent, if somewhat generic adaptation.
Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol has been in the works for an extensively long time. Initially planned on being adapted as the sequel to The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, it was Inferno that made it as a movie instead. Ultimately, the studio decided to do a quasi-prequel of sorts, replacing the aging Tom Hanks with Ashley Zukerman as protagonist symbologist Robert Langdon. The Lost Symbol is mostly off to a competent, well-acted and decently executed premiere but doesn’t offer anything new, novel or unique to the genre that will leave you pondering for days on end.
Brown’s novels have the most deliciously adaptable plots, yet Hollywood generally struggles to get them right. A lot of it boils down to the nature of storytelling and mystery solving, which is often Langdon digging at clues and drawing connections to history and symbolism that translates better on the page than in a visual medium. And unlike a show as, say, Sherlock that concocted its own peculiar, trippy style of taking us inside Sherlock’s mind as he thought through clues, Peacock’s The Lost Symbol is more interested in being a generic, commercial, entertaining thriller without too much regard to commentary or inventiveness.
That by no means takes away from the enjoyment though. The premiere is well paced and largely seems to follow the book’s overarching structure. Langdon gets involved in a mystery to uncover an ancient portal when his mentor, Peter Solomon, gets abducted by the evil Mal’akh. Along the way, he is joined by the Capitol security guard Alfonso Nunez, CIA agent Sato and Solomon’s daughter, Katherine with whom Langdon shares a love-hate relationship (love for her, hate for the field of science that she pursues). The plot moves along nicely, with Dan Dworkin’s and Jay Beattie’s writing effortlessly stitching one scene to the next. And barring the cuts to flashbacks to flesh out Solomon’s relationship with Langdon, director-editor Dan Trachtenberg maintains a tight grip on the story and runtime.
The essence of Brown’s books – Langdon solving riddles – has been difficult to translate effectively on screen and Trachtenberg largely relies on a combination of quick-cut montages and some humor to see Langon through the puzzles in the series premiere. This also cuts short some of the exposition in the interest of time, robbing audiences of the ability of deciphering any clues themselves (though that’s more of a gripe against the medium of film than the directorial prowess). Regardless, Trachtenberg tries to maintain a balance between giving viewers enough of the details about the history behind the freemasons while avoiding them from being submerged into details and maintaining focus on the show’s thriller aspect.
Book fans should be pleased at the show’s faithfulness towards the source material. Right off the bat, the opening text prologue is lifted straight off the books. As mentioned before, there are no significant deviations from the book and whether you’re seeing Langdon being cocky in his Harris Tweed turtlenecks, Peter’s hand mounted on the rotunda or Mal’akh’s tattooed body, seeing those words being respectfully brought to life should satisfy a decent chunk of book purists. Even the jarring flashbacks are actually true to the novel in an attempt to forge Langdon’s and Peter’s relationships and explain to the viewers just why Peter meant so much to Langdon. And while the show doesn’t offer much commentary, an attempt is made to draw modern-day connections as Langdon explains in his introductory classes how symbols can be miscontrued and used in malignant ways; even more so in today’s “fake news” times when myth can be circulated as fact with mere clicks. That, coupled with the presence of modern-day gadgets also effectively rules out any possibility of this being in the same universe as the Langdon movies.
Zukerman does a fine job portraying Langdon with just the right amount of confidence and vulnerability. He is competent in the sequences of deducing and explaining history, yet exudes fear when Langdon’s claustrophobia closes in on him in a great sequence that does a fine job in depicting this trait. We’ve yet to see much from any of the other characters but Eddie Izzard makes a strong impression in a few scenes as Peter Solomon. Both Sumalee Montano as Sato and Rick Gonzalez as Nunez act as good supporting figures to allow Langdon to bounce off his expositional monologues off them to the audience.
I sense a certain level of earnestness and sincerity in treating the source material with reverence this time around. For some reason, it’s reflected well in the directorial style, the performances and the whole setup. And while not all things compare to the movies (the score is no match for Hans Zimmer’s epic tunes), this feels more like a genuine attempt at bringing a well-reknowned book to life as opposed to a shamess cash grab. And thankfully, it doesn’t follow Ron Howard’s slipshod directorial style from Inferno but instead, keeps the camera and editing a lot more stable. Shots are allowed to breathe rather than rush through in headache-inducing Bourne-mimicking style, which in turn lends the show a certain level of confidence. The structuring also mimics the book’s style of delivering plot in bite-sized chunks which means the show peaks quite often into cliffhanger-esque blackouts
Overall then, The Lost Symbol isn’t a unique, out-of-the-ordinary experience; quite the opposite, it is ordinary storytelling. But it’s ordinary storytelling done right, resulting in an enjoyable thriller that you can sit back and absorb as the cast goes through the motions. And while reading the book should make for a more interesting experience as you indulge in the book-to-screen comparisons, the show remains perfectly accessible to non-readers as well. Not path-breaking by any stretch of the imagination but a decent watch. I’m going to be a bit generous with my score this time and see how things pan out in the remaining episodes.