Ron Howard keeps the action dark and intentionally disjointed in this effective — and mostly faithful — adaptation of Dan Brown’s fourth Robert Langdon adventure.
The Phantom Menace
Might as well start at the end.
The movie goes for a different climactic resolution, which is something that will immediately set Inferno up for criticism, no doubt. Unlike the needless modifications made in The Da Vinci Code’s adaptation — changes made seemingly strictly in the name of political correctness and to deflect some degree of criticism from the controversial storyline — the major change here makes sense.
Inferno revolves around Dante Alighieri’s classic poem and the Sandro Botticelli painting it inspired. They’re the lynchpins around which a madman named Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma) encrypts his plan for thinning out the world’s burdensome human population, which is straining Earth’s natural resources.
The book ends on an ominous, sinister note as Zobrist’s plan achieves a degree of success. A virus makes its way into the human population, but essentially the strategy for population control is a pathogen designed to render some people infertile, thereby slowing the population growth. It’s an idea that works well within the confines of a novel.
But in a movie? Well, that’s where it can be argued Howard, reteaming with screenwriter David Koepp (Angels & Demons), actually gets it right — for the movie. The plan for population control as adhered to in the movie is full-tilt fire-and-brimstone damnation for humanity. Plague-like and more threatening as a movie-going experience. Dante’s Inferno brought to life in full color. And to his credit, Howard keeps the pedal to the metal right up to the movie’s end, which works in the tried-and-true ticking time bomb tradition.
C’mon now, true believers. Consider a couple other movies that differed from their source material. There’s another Tom Hanks vehicle, Forrest Gump. Roughly the first third of Eric Roth’s screenplay mirrors Winston Groom’s novel, then the movie and the book take wildly divergent paths — with the movie ultimately landing six Oscars. Another is Anthony Minghella’s take on Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Minghella’s movie won nine Oscars without being completely faithful to the source material.
That’s not to say Inferno is Oscar bait. Not likely.
It’s about adaptation from one medium to another. Inferno is entertaining and thrilling — and it features a great cast, including Foster as the heavy who — in yet another Dan Brown convention-busting move – commits suicide in the opening scene.
A longtime favorite in these Web pages, Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi) plays a quirky agency boss, Harry Sims. Well, it’s also a quirky agency all around. The agency oversees the execution of its clients’ plans, clients such as Bertrand Zobrist. Harry seems ripped from the pages of another book series — James Bond — but his mannerisms and way of talking are quite humorous.
Add Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) as a woman who is in some terms every bit Langdon’s puzzle-solving equal and Sidse Babett Knudsen (A Hologram for the King — also with Tom Hanks) as an age-appropriate love interest for Langdon (with Hanks returning for the third time as the symbologist and university professor), and the action’s given its due by a cast that hits the marks.
The Lost Screenplay
A lot of the ideas Dan Brown toys with in his books aren’t filmable.
The third book in the series, The Lost Symbol, has been skipped over in favor of Inferno most likely because Symbol’s hard to imagine as a movie. It’s a good read, a winding journey with a chunk of the action spent in the darkness of an expansive laboratory, but it ends with quite a nice punch, the kind that makes the entire journey worthwhile.
In contrast, Inferno goes for the jugular with another topical plot point, that of overcrowding and systematic population control. Throw in the visual flair afforded by Botticelli, the Venice Carnival and locations such as Florence, Venice and Istanbul and the attractions of filming Inferno are obvious.
In the past few months, two other literary heroes — Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher — have returned in sequels. Neither offered anything new in the world of espionage.
That is one key element which sets Inferno apart. It goes for something different and, while it doesn’t always succeed, the underlying ambitions are clear.