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Dante’s Inferno (2007).

July 18, 2008

The Scoop:
One unintended consequence of the electronic media age has been a change in the way we experience classic (i.e., pre-20th century) literature. Now it’s all about the adaptation. (Of course, these adaptations make sense for the filmmakers, who get cheap access to familiar material and don’t have to deal with authors who demand royalties or protest changes in the script.) More and more, one’s first encounter with Shakespeare or Dickens or countless other authors is through a film or television adaptation of one of their works. If audiences aren’t rushing to the cineplex for their first tastes of these classics, they are getting them in the classroom — teachers typically now accompany their reading assignments with screenings of films based on these works to help students better understand them. Shakespeare has now become inseparable from Olivier or Branagh, and Jane Austen from the starlet du jour.

All of which brings us to this version of “Dante’s Inferno.”

Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s “Comedy” — his epic tale of his journey through hell (“Inferno”), purgatory (“Purgatorio”) and heaven (“Paradiso”) under the tutelage of his idol, the Roman poet Virgil and Dante’s beloved Beatrice — is notoriously resistant to onscreen adaptation. Except for a couple perfunctory stabs from the silent era and a BBC miniseries from the 1980s, little straight adaptation has been done of the poem. More commonly, elements of the “Comedy” have been used as inspirations or jumping-off points for newer works. (One typical example is the 1935film “Dante’s Inferno,” a turgid morality play in which Spencer Tracy plays a carnival barker wrestling with the ethics of his profession. The attraction he shills for, a ride based on “Inferno,” is shown in only a few scenes, primarily as a comment on the action of the main story.)

So give filmmakers Sean Meredith, Sandow Birk and Paul Zaloom credit for attempting a full adaptation of “Inferno.” One reason adaptors have stayed away from Dante is his work’s resistance to modernized spins on the material (something that has become a staple of filmed Shakespeare, for instance). But the threesome give it a try, mixing in modern situations and personalities with the arcane issues and obscure historical figures used by Dante. Credit should also go to them for doing it in the form of a puppet show.

In this version Dante (voiced by Dermot Mulroney) wakes up hung over in a seedy alley, not knowing how he got there. He his approached by Virgil (James Cromwell), who leads him down a sewer into the pit of hell, where they encounter pimps and whores, corporate malfeasance and urban decay to go along with the medieval horrors chronicled in the original.

The puppetwork, using paper figures that manage to be terrifically expressive, is wonderful, but many of the other creative choices fall flat. For every update that works (portraying the Maleboge demons as hypervigilant T.S.A. agents, or mounting Ulysses’ story as a puppet show within a puppet show) there are a handful that don’t (Lucifer’s fondue pot, or the multiple references to the rock band Styx).

Pacing is a problem as well. By the film’s halfway mark, Virgil and Dante have raced through the first seven pits of hell, then spend the last half in a leisurely stroll through the final two pits, including plenty of non-Dante tangents along the way. Also, purists may be offended that (spoiler alert!) Dante’s trip through hell ends with him back on earth rather than preparing to scale the mountain of purgatory.

But in all it’s an admirable effort to try to make a 700-year-old epic poem relevant to modern audiences. The somewhat basic approach may make it cringe-worthy for Dante aficionados. But that makes it ideal for use in a high school classroom, giving another generation an opening to understanding a monumental piece of literature.

Best Bit:
The Pope John Paul II cameo.

Side Note:
Zaloom is better known as Beakman from the TV show “Beakman’s World.”

Companion Viewing:
“Dante’s Inferno” (1935).

Official Site.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

A song and dance number explaining the grip lobbyists hold on Congress:

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