Did 'Inferno' Get Dante Right? We Asked an Expert

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones in ‘Inferno’ (Photo: Sony Pictures)

In Inferno, based on the Dan Brown novel, the only thing that stands between humanity and a devastating plague is Robert Langdon’s knowledge of Dante’s Inferno. In reality, if you were trying to outsmart a Dante-obsessed bioterrorist, you’d probably want to ring up Deborah Parker before you called in Tom Hanks. A professor of Italian literature and art at the University of Virginia, Parker is the general editor of the website The World of Dante, a multimedia resource for studying Dante’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy (of which Inferno, the author’s imagined journey through the nine levels of Hell, is the first part). She’s also the co-author of Inferno Revealed: From Dante to Dan Brown, which takes a deep dive into the Dante references in Brown’s novel. On the heels of Inferno’s lackluster opening weekend at the box office, Yahoo Movies spoke with Parker about what the film gets right, what it gets very wrong, and why the Map of Hell on Parker’s website is more authentic than the one in the film. [Warning: minor spoilers.] 

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So the obvious first question in assessing the accuracy of this film from the perspective of a Dante scholar is, have you ever woken up in a foreign city with no memory of how you got there and had people shooting at you?
No! I don’t know anyone who has, either.

The villain in Inferno is Bertrand Zobrist, a billionaire scientist who’s obsessed with overpopulation. Does it make sense that he would associate this idea with Dante?
It does make sense, and in Dan Brown’s novel, it’s pretty clearly laid out. There’s a prophetic side to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Zobrist takes that aspect of the poem and plays with it. He thinks what’s going to happen is that because of overpopulation, the world is going to become a kind of hell on earth. For Zobrist, this is all encapsulated in Dante’s eighth circle of hell, which is where all the sins of fraud are. There are 10 subdivisions, including thieves, embezzlers, seducers, people who sow discord — all different kinds of falsifications. So he thinks that this is what’s going to happen, everybody’s going to be attacking one another, committing all of these horrible crimes and sins. So that’s his concern. But Ron Howard just doesn’t do anything with that [idea].

Zobrist says that the plague had a positive outcome, in that it caused the birth of the Renaissance.
I’m not quite sure where he’s getting that. Perhaps the film is suggesting that the death of all these people from the plague allowed the renewal of civilization and the flowering that became the Renaissance. But I think that is a pretty reductive version of the birth of the Renaissance!

Botticelli’s illustration of Dante’s Inferno, called the Map of Hell, plays a big role in the film. There’s only one high-resolution image of that painting on the internet, and it’s on your website, The World of Dante.
At one point, someone from Columbia Pictures contacted me during the preproduction stage and wanted to talk about the Map of Hell. The actual map is in the Vatican library, and Dan Brown is probably not one of the Vatican’s favorite people, so they knew they weren’t going to get rights to use the original! For The World of Dante, a friend in the Classics department at the University of Virginia had contacts to people at the Vatican, and we got their permission. It took a long time. The colors are off, but they’re the ones that were on the negative that they gave us; the real Botticelli is a brownish, almost sepia color. So for the film, they hired an artist to draw the map. And it looks fine.

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I did think that Ron Howard was quite clever in how he animated [details from] the map, when Robert Langdon is having these hallucinations. At one point, he sees people with their heads twisted around; that’s the punishment of the diviners, people who tried to see the future, and that’s one of the sins punished in the eighth circle. And early in the movie, Robert has a vision of a snake around his friend Ignazio Busoni [the scholar who conspires to steal Dante’s death mask]. In the eighth circle, that’s one of the ways in which the thieves are punished: snakes, dragons, and reptiles attack them continuously.

Is the Palazzo Vecchio, the famous museum in Florence where many of the clues are hidden, actually full of secret passages for in-the-know scholars?
The last time we were in Florence, the novel had already come out, and I had a friend who knew one of the guards at the Palazzo Vecchio. So we had the secret passageways tour, which tourists can also pay to take. When [the characters] go through the map of Armenia in the Map Room, that’s exactly where you go.

How about the scene where they’re crawling through the roof over a painted ceiling?
That’s actually part of the secret passageways tour! It does have all of these thick wooden beams and rafters.

So if you wanted to just steal Dante’s death mask from the Palazzo Vecchio, how hard would that be? It looked pretty easy in the movie.
Well, It’s possible that Ignazio had some way of disabling the alarm and getting into the Palazzo Vecchio at night, but actually dismantling the case, removing the mask, and getting out? I think it would require a master thief.

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In your experience writing and lecturing about the book, has Dan Brown changed people’s perception of Dante?
There’s no question that Dan Brown’s Inferno increased interest in Dante among people who might not have read Dante before. Often what writers do [when their work is inspired by Dante’s Inferno] is they look at the punishments, and they may use them to spin some kind of thriller or crime novel. But Dan Brown actually uses it in unexpected ways, and I think he deserves some credit for that.

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