Code sets Holloway on Hollywood path

September 17, 2004

A sinister tale of religious conspiracy and secret codes could thrust cryptographers at a UK university into the Hollywood spotlight.

Dan Brown's controversial bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code has unwittingly raised the profile of academics in the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway, University of London.

One of the central characters in Mr Brown's book is Sophie Neveu, a French cryptographer who is said to have trained at "The Royal Holloway".

Now, with the film rights to the book bought by a Hollywood studio, academics are wondering whether the grand setting of the university's Founders Hall could feature on the big screen.

Fred Piper, head of the Information Security Group, said at least one overseas student on the group's MSc course attributed his initial interest in studying at Royal Holloway to the book.

"The book has probably given us more publicity than any academic honour we've had," he said. "I've tried to get hold of the author, but haven't been able to do so far. I have no idea how or why he decided to mention us, but I'm delighted that he did."

Professor Piper added: "Our masters programme is quite large, with about 250 students a year.

"The book was first mentioned in idle conversation. We asked students how they came to hear of us, expecting that they would say through a website or the British Council, and one student from the US mentioned the book."

But if Royal Holloway does draw the eye of the film's director - rumoured to be Ron Howard, director of Apollo 13 - it will not be its first appearance on screen.

It featured in the Merchant Ivory film Howard's End and more recently in the television detective drama The Midsomer Murders .

Mr Brown's book also features King's College London, where the heroes consult a theological database.

Judith Lieu, head of theology and religious studies at King's, said that there was no evidence that the book was prompting added interest in the course from prospective students.

"There is no theological database of the kind mentioned in the book, although we do have a strong department and an old one, so to that extent the book has done its homework," she said.

Professor Lieu added that the plot premise of the book was "pure fiction".

"It is fanciful and, in a sense, not terribly original. Combining various themes of secret societies within the theological tradition is fairly well established."

Despite its standing as a best-seller, Mr Brown's book has faced fierce criticism from some Catholics because of its plot, which revolves around a supposed conspiracy to change the course of Christianity.

Nevertheless, with 15 million copies in print and versions in 42 languages, The Da Vinci Code has sold more hardback copies than a work by any other novelist, including J. K. Rowling.

Professor Piper, whose group of mathematicians, computer scientists and cryptographers is much in demand from governments and from commerce, added:

"If the film rights have been sold, I sincerely hope that the college does all it can to ensure that we are mentioned in some way."

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