Both director Ron Howard and author Dan Brown found themselves threatened with prison time in Italy for making The Da Vinci Code movie.

It may have been savaged by critics, and it may be based on a book that people haven’t been particularly kind to over the years, but there’s little arguing with the phenomenal commercial success of The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown’s original book was published in 2003, earning critical notices that in some quarters could politely be described as ‘unimpressive’. Yet the book promptly sold some 80 million copies, and sparked a series featuring the lead character, Robert Langdon.

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Five books have been published thus far charting the adventures of the fictional Harvard university professor.

Unsurprisingly, then, the story attracted the interest of Hollywood. Never ones to be swayed by the whims of critical feedback (cough), a bidding war took place for the rights to make The Da Vinci Code movie, and it cost Sony Pictures $6m before a syllable of a screenplay had been written. The original reports suggested a plan to based a season of the show 24 around the book, but Dan Brown wasn’t keen on that. A feature film was thus pursued, and in came Sony.

Director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks had memorably come together for 1995’s Oscar-nominated Apollo 13. The Da Vinci Code project would see them reteam, but not before Howard had sounded out the late Bill Paxton about taking on the lead role. Howard and Hanks’ involvement pushed the negative price up to $125m, and the film was made very much as a standalone feature as well. Notwithstanding the fact that 2000’s Angels & Demons had already been published, Sony opted to hedge its bets and put the movie out without reference to other plot threads from the other novels, knowing it could refashion the earlier book as a sequel if required.

Which is pretty much what happened. Just as with the book, critics be damned. The bum-numbing two and a half hour movie debuted at 2006’s Cannes Film Festival, to pretty hostile reviews. Reviews so bad that Howard was even moved to comment on them. But still, it didn’t stop the audiences rolling in. By the time the film’s cinema run was done, $760m worldwide had been banked, ahead of a lucrative home formats release. It was a foregone conclusion that a second Langdon film would follow.

Yet there was a real threat that before that, Hanks, Howard and co could face prison time.

It’s little secret that The Da Vinci Code did not sit well with some religious groups. Furthermore, even the making of the film was fraught with problems, when some potential locations were made unavailable due to the nature of the material.

The Vatican took the release of the film in a measured way, with Cardinal Francis Arinze suggesting legal action, and Archbishop Angelo Amato asking that The Da Vinci Code movie be boycotted. The film was banned in many countries, and protests were organised against it in others on grounds of blasphemy.

Yet in the Italian village of Civitavecchia (some 40 miles north of Rome), things were taken further.

Following a complaint by a group of Catholic clergy, as reported in Film Review magazine (August 2007 issue), the area’s state prosecutor agreed to open an investigation into the movie. The complaint argued that The Da Vinci Code movie was in breach of Article 528 of Italy’s penal code.

This complaint was made in June of 2007 (over a year after the film’s release), and the timing was significant. The filmmakers were looking to return to Italy the following year for shooting of the next in the series, with key locations including Rome and Vatican City. Pre-production was going to be gearing up.

The problem was that if the defendants in the case were found guilty, an enormous spanner would go in the works. Article 528, cited by state attorneys who argued that the film was “obscene” from a religious standpoint, comes with teeth. If found guilty, the defendants would have minimum jail time of three months to serve, up to a maximum of three years. Furthermore, a fine of 103 euros could be issued as well as a minimum, although the guidance for financial penalties comes with no ceiling. Bottom line: the fine could be anything from a round of drinks for the cast and crew, to enough to bring down a studio.

The small village of Civitavecchia would thus have something to say when it came to Sony’s sequel plans. For the ten defendants named in the case included Dan Brown and Ron Howard. It seemed that Tom Hanks and his haircut were not named as part of the ten. But still.

The news quickly spread around the world, but with some pushback. Eyebrows were instantly raised by the fact that the complaint had been filed just over a year after the debut of the movie itself, and even an official at the Civitavecchia state prosecutor office seemed puzzled about that. The unnamed official suggested to Reuters that the offended members of the clergy may had only just got around to seeing the film.

As it happened, even though the story quickly spiked around the globe, it all came to a head in double quick time as well. After the state attorney’s office had announced that it was following up on the complaint from the clergy – itself seen as a surprising move – it dropped the enquiry less than 24 hours later.

There were two differing lines as to why that was the case. On the one hand, the official line was that upon investigating further, the enquiry was dropped purely based on the merits of the case. An official duly confirmed to Reuters that “there are no grounds for this investigation”.

The less official, more speculated line though suggested that the swathe of negative publicity generated for the village of Civitavecchia quickly brought things to a head. That around the world, the village was finding itself at the heart of a whirlwind of negative publicity, and that may – suggested some – have hastened the decision.

The upshot was that Ron Howard was spared prison for making the film, likewise Dan Brown.

The pair would indeed get to pursue the follow-up project, and Angels & Demons would be released in the summer of 2009, and gross another $485m. The complaints were quieter, and the Vatican’s own newspaper would describe it as “harmless entertainment”.

Perhaps the starving of the sequel of controversy ultimately dampened its box office this time. And presumably to the relief of ten people, no criminal charges would be investigated this time around…

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