The Mancunion

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Review: Inferno

Given the success of Dan Brown’s novel ‘Inferno’, the book-film adaptation is a disappointment


Book-film adaptations inevitably polarise opinion. Some fans become overwhelmed by anger and disappointment, arguing that the film does not do their favourite book justice. To others, the film brings the book to a life in a way greater than they could ever imagine. Thus, given that in 2013 Dan Brown’s Inferno was the best-selling novel in the US, the stakes could not have been higher. Unfortunately, Inferno is a bit of a let-down, failing to encapsulate the imagery of the masterful Dan Brown.

The plot is complex but the central thesis is fairly simple. A billionaire named Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) believes global population growth is not sustainable. Hence, he wants to kill half of the world’s population in an act of a bio-terrorism. The opening scene shows Zobrist being chased before throwing himself off a building. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a professor of symbology at Harvard University, then wakes up in a hospital room in Florence and is greeted by nurse Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones). Brooks and Langdon then spend the rest of the film trying to locate the plague using clues left by Zobrist through different mediums of art (in particular drawing upon Botticelli’s Map of Hell, as well as Dante’s poem Divine of Comedy).

Dan Brown’s books are so successful because the plot is embedded within academic literature. Brown educates the reader, exposing them to different ideas and theories which perhaps changes their perspective of the world. In the novel Inferno, the core theory explored is Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). This states that global food supplies increase arithmetically (2,4,6,8 etc.) while the global population grows geometrically (2,4,8,16 etc.). Therefore, eventually, population growth will outstrip food-strip resulting in apocalyptic catastrophe, as depicted in Botticelli’s Map of Hell. But the film makes no reference whatsoever to Malthus or his ideas; the film has been “dumbed down”, involving no attempt at all to explain the views held by Zobrist.

Not only is Inferno intellectually vacuous, relative to Brown’s novel, the themes are subtly different too. Elizabeth Sinksey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), head of the World Health Organization, assists Langdon and Brooks in finding Zobrist’s plague. Throughout the film, the two characters engage in mild flirting resulting in Langdon asking Sinksey whether she ever thinks about what “might have been” between the two of them. While the novel hints of a past intimate relationship between Langdon and Sinksey, this is merely a side-story. But in the film, their relationship takes center stage. If viewers wanted to see romance, they would go and watch a rom-com or a chick flick; Dan Brown fans want to be intellectually stimulated and this certainly does not add to that.

Tom Hanks’ acting is—as you would expect—good, while Felicity Jones does a decent job playing Sienna Brooks. In terms of cinematography, the film itself is impressive; the characters explore the beautiful cities of Florence, Venice and Istanbul. The actors performed well; the shots of the cities were impressive; the plot was lively—if somewhat dumbed down relative to the book. However, I was just given the impression that the production team’s hearts were not really in the making of Inferno.

In particular, the biggest frustration I had with Inferno is was what you took away from the film. Brown’s novel left you pondering some interesting questions regarding population growth and sustainability, but the film did not have the same powerful, lasting impact on the audience—xacerbated by the fact the final scenes focused on Langdon and Sinksey’s relationship rather than the Zobrist’s neo-Malfusian beliefs. Overall, the film did not live up to expectations. Die-hard Dan Brown fans: prepare for disappointment.