Examination and Film Comparisons of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno
Referred to as a comedy by Dante Alighieri himself and named by later ages for recognition of both its subject matter and achievements, The Divine Comedy, Dante’s epic poem is one of the incontestable great works of world literature. It includes a wide range of distinct literary elements; it celebrates the central doctrines of medieval Christianity with great enthusiasm while still remaining sympathetic to the human heart. It is one of the most deeply serious works in world literature, it’s main concern is the relation of the creator to his creatures and the ultimate destiny of the human soul; and yet it has room for not just grim irony but scenes of generous good humor and vulgarity. There have been many adaptations throughout the ages to Dante’s work, whether through literature or film, different perspectives provide for different accounts of Dante’s original masterpiece. In the contents of this paper we will examine and analyze the original poem by the author then compare and contrast the differences and similarities of the film versions to the original work of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.
In the original work by Dante, the Inferno begins on the evening of Good Friday in the year 1300. Wandering through a dark forest, Dante has lost his way and fearfully searches for a way out, he sees the sun shining down on the mountain above him but when he attempts to climb up he is blocked by three strange beasts; a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Frightened and alone, Dante turns around to enter the dark wood once again, here he encounters the soul of the great Roman poet, Virgil who has appeared in order to aid Dante back up the mountain. Before they continue any further, Virgil advises Dante that their journey will take them through Hell before eventually reaching Heaven, where Dante’s beloved Beatrice awaits him. Virgil guides Dante through the gates of hell, which are marked with the inscription, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here” (Norton World Literature pg. 1221). They then enter the outlying region of Hell, the Ante-Inferno, where the souls who in life could not commit to either good or evil now must run in a futile chase after a blank banner, day after day, while hornets swarm and bite them. Dante observes their suffering with repugnance and pity. The ferryman Charon then takes him and Virgil across the river Acheron, the real border of Hell. The First Circle of Hell, Limbo, houses pagans, including Virgil and many of the other great writers and poets of antiquity, who died without ever knowing of Christ. After meeting Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, Dante continues into the Second Circle of Hell, reserved for the sin of Lust. At the border of the Second Circle, the monster Minos lurks, assigning condemned souls to their punishments. He curls his tail around himself a certain number of times, indicating the number of the circle to which the soul must go. Inside the Second Circle, Dante watches as the souls of the Lustful swirl about in a terrible storm. In the Third Circle of Hell, the Gluttonous must lie in mud and endure a rain of filth and excrement. In the Fourth Circle, the Avaricious and the Prodigal are made to charge at one another with giant boulders. The Fifth Circle of Hell contains the river Styx, a swampy, fetid cesspool in which the Wrathful spend eternity struggling with one another; the Sullen lie bound beneath the Styx’s waters, choking on the mud. Virgil and Dante next proceed to the walls of the city of Dis, a city contained within the larger region of Hell. The demons that guard the gates refuse to open them for Virgil, but a messenger arrives from Heaven to force the gates open for Dante. The Sixth Circle of Hell houses the Heretics. Next, they venture into a deep valley that leads into the First Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, where those who were violent toward others spend their eternity in a river of boiling blood. Virgil and Dante meet a group of Centaurs, creatures who are half man and half horse. One of them, Nessus, takes them into the Second Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, where they encounter those who were violent toward themselves, the Suicides. These souls must endure their eternity in the form of trees. The monster Geryon then transports Virgil and Dante across a great abyss to the Eighth Circle of Hell, known as Malebolge, or “evil pockets”; this term refers to the circle’s division into various pockets separated by great folds of earth. Virgil and Dante proceed to the Ninth Circle of Hell through the Giants’ Well, which leads to a massive drop to Cocytus, a great frozen lake. The giant Antaeus picks Virgil and Dante up and sets them down at the bottom of the well, in the lowest region of Hell. A huge, mist-shrouded form lurks ahead, and Dante approaches it. This figure is the three-headed giant Lucifer, plunged waist-deep into the ice. His body pierces the center of the Earth, where he fell when God hurled him down from Heaven. Each of Lucifer’s mouths chews one of history’s three greatest sinners: Judas, the betrayer of Christ, and Cassius and Brutus, the betrayers of Julius Caesar. Virgil leads Dante on a climb down Lucifer’s massive form, holding on to his frozen tufts of hair. Eventually, the two reach the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, and travel from there out of Hell and back onto Earth, here Dante concludes his great journey: My guide and I entered that hidden road to make our way back up to the bright world. We never thought of resting while we climbed. We climbed, he first and I behind, until, through a small round opening ahead of us I saw the lovely things the heavens hold, and we came out to see once more the stars (Norton World Literature pg. 1326).
These last lines are critically important because of how they end: Dante, having just exited from his nightmarish visit to Hell, gazes up at Heaven’s stars. This spectacular imagery symbolizes the idea that Dante has begun his slow climb out of sin and confusion and has taken a step toward Beatrice and God. There have been several film versions, even an animated video game, based on this great epic by Dante Alighieri. The first attempt was Dante’s Inferno (1924); a silent film in where the tactics of a vicious slumlord and greedy businessman finally drive a distraught man to commit suicide. The businessman is tried for murder and executed, and is afterward taken by demons to Hell where he will spend the rest of eternity (Silent Era: PSFL). While there is not much significance behind the film, being as it is an inaccurate and a skewed version of the original poem, it did serve as a basis for other filmmakers to attempt to recreate Dante’s vision of hell. Scenes from this film, more specifically hell scene footage, were reused in the 1935 film Dante’s Inferno (1935). These first two film accounts had been released by 20th Century Fox and although a respectable pioneered attempt in capturing Dante’s vision, both are extremely flawed and misinterpret Dante’s journey through hell and back. Another and more recent film adaption was Dante’s Inferno (2007), perhaps the most accurate depiction of Dante’s journey through hell and back. This 2007 version is a comedy film performed with hand-drawn paper puppets on a toy theatre stage. The film was adapted from the book “Dante’s Inferno” by Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders (Chronicle Books, 2004), which is a modern update of the canticle Inferno from Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy. The film accurately chronicles Dante’s journeys through the underworld, guided by Virgil. The film first premiered January 20, 2007 at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah (Dante Film). The film, having been created and presented in a distinctive fashion, did an exceptional job in recapturing Dante’s vision. The final and most recent film version we will analyze is Dante’s Inferno: An Animated Epic; it is a direct to DVD animated film released by Starz (movie studios) on February 9, 2010. The film is directly based on Electronic Art’s Dante’s Inferno video game, which was released in 2010. The movie is separated into several parts, for each chapter there is a title to the journey. Each chapter is animated with noticeably different styles; these vary in degree of difference and depict Dante with differing features, such as hair length, bodily proportions and armor (IMDb Dante’s Inferno). Having seen this version, myself, this appears to be the most accurate depiction of Dante’s original poem. This version shares the most similarities with Dante’s original, specifically in terms of structure and the characters that appear. In Dante’s original work he lists the nine circles of Hell numerically in accordance to severity of the sin committed, he descends deeper through each circle until reaching the lowest circle of Hell where Lucifer resides. In the 2010 animated film version Dante travels a similar path, however, instead of numbering the circles of Hell, each chapter represents a circle of Hell and is titled after the sin that corresponds to that circle, for example Dante’s first circle represents Limbo so in the animated film version the title is “Limbo”. Structurally the two are quite similar, Dante travels a similar path and encounters many of the same characters, yet there are still some apparent differences such as the way Dante himself is illustrated. In his original work he humbly characterizes himself as a weak coward, yet in the adaptive film version he is depicted as a mighty warrior journeying through Hell to defeat Lucifer and recapture Beatrice. Although many have tried to recreate Dante’s rather horrifying depiction of Hell, none have quite succeeded in accurately capturing Dante’s poem through film.
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