I am upset about Dan Brown’s Inferno and annoyed about Ron Howard’s movie version: Bioethics, Dante and Idiots

If you know me, you know I’ve spent quite a few years being unhealthily obsessed with certain parts of the Divine Comedy, so when the last Dan Brown book was titled Inferno, I couldn’t wait to read it, get outraged and frustrated by it, and then wait three years to see Tom Hanks and Ron Howard do even more damage to possibly the greatest work of poetry of all time. I was not disappointed!

That all said, let’s just be very clear at the outset that all of the Dan Brown-based movies are absolutely terrible and I’ve seen the other two at least five times each because they are undeniably entertaining and fun in their awfulness.

Spoilers for Inferno ahead.

Ron Howard’s Inferno is now available to rent on demand (we watched it on Amazon, and I believe it’s also on iTunes), and if it’s possible, it’s even worse than Dan Brown’s amusingly-written atrocity.

The book, at the very least, made a good point about overpopulation, a lack of human empathy, and had some interesting takes on how to be a transhumanist super-villain: sterilize a third of the population. Seamless, harmless, random, and ties up nicely with a bow. But I’ll get back to the ending. I have two specific bones to pick.

First, let me just say that Inferno (book and movie) are not entirely the worst things I’ve ever read or seen using Dante as inspiration to tell a ridiculous story (that would be this 2010 video game), and also I’m a vicious critic when it comes to historical fiction. Like, I refuse to watch The Tudors because, let’s be honest, you don’t need to exaggerate the drama in the court of Henry VIII, and doing so is insulting to a person who took high school history class.

Still, like all the Dan Brown books, you’ve got the very sticky problem of the protagonist, Robert Langdon, a man who is so intelligent he can invent his own branch of academia (symbology is not a real thing, people, come on), and who often stumbles around and does and says things that are simply not believable for a man of his alleged intellectual stature. Specifically, this is because Dan Brown himself is not actually smart enough to write a character like Langdon. This is the biggest problem with Brown’s books: He’s an entertaining writer and I enjoy reading his work in under two hours on the beach. But, compared to the character he is trying to write convincingly, the man is shockingly incompetent at Renaissance art, politics, and history — which makes Langdon completely unbelievable.

The result is a exposition-laden work where Langdon is always trying to “explain” things to the experts he’s working with, as Brown is trying to work out his own ignorance with a fascinating subject. The most infuriating example of this in Inferno is when Langdon tells his super-genius, Dante-quoting, fluent-in-Italian, doctor accomplice what a death mask is.


The second gaping problem is that when Inferno does use some actual Dante to move the plot forward (as opposed to explosions from the World Health Organization’s apparently super-secret branch of SWAT agents, or people dressed as cops shooting at each other), it mixes up important parts of the books. Notably, one of the clues Langdon needs to solve the mystery can apparently be found in “Paradiso,” Canto 25 (which is obviously not part of “Inferno,” the first book of the Divine Comedy, but “Paradiso,” the third one). One of Langdon’s associates — dead in the book, suspiciously alive but unreachable in the movie? — leaves him an email saying “the thing they have stolen” can be retrieved “at Paradiso 25.”

Well, that leads him to the Florence baptistery, which is also referenced in “Inferno,” Canto 19. It’s where the corrupt priests, or simoniacs, famously meet a violent afterlife by being shoved upside down in baptismal fonts and are kept there for all eternity, legs on fire, waving in the air. My beef is this: Why even bring “Paradiso” into it, when the most famous line about the baptistery is actually in “Inferno”… where people are actually on fucking fire?! Classic Dan Brown! You know nothing about what you’re writing about!

Not to mention, in the movie, Langdon experiences hallucinations and visions of Dante’s hell — including the flaming simoniacs—because it’s one of the most recognizable images of Dante’s landscape. It creates such a disturbing vision that it is also obviously included in the Botticelli painting that figures so importantly into the plot and leads Langdon on the chase in first place! And yet, this is not one of the things that gets changed in the movie. Classic Ron Howard! Get to know your source material!

Unfortunately, and for reasons passing understanding, the thing that does get changed in the movie is the ending about the virus Langdon is chasing down and attempting to contain. It’s the best part of the book!

In the book, the heroes are too late, and the Inferno virus has already been released upon earth’s population, rendering one third of humans randomly sterile in an attempt to stem overpopulation of the planet. It’s a clean and arguably charitable action for a villain. The merits of randomly infecting a third of the population is a bioethical debate for another time, but I won’t say that it’s not a creative solution to the problem at hand.

For some reason, likely because any intellectual stimulation *at all* is impossible in a Ron Howard/Tom Hanks vehicle, the movie version of the virus is meant to be a murderous one that would be a plague on par with the Black Death, wiping out untold numbers of people. This is an obvious, Hollywood-friendly device and it pissed me off. Why can’t we have a philosophical debate about overpopulation, Ron Howard? WHY!?

Damn it all to hell.

Here are a couple hilariously titled reviews from the Guardian about the movie, as well as the link to Rotten Tomatoes, where Inferno gets a charitable 19%: