And now that the game is out — and, creatively speaking, is a bit of a dud — it stands as further evidence that religious literature is difficult to adapt, especially for the screen. Spend five minutes with a video-game console in hand, playing Dante’s Inferno as reinterpreted by its producer, Jonathan Knight, and you’ll want to stay away from Western Lit forever. And that’s a shame.
“The Inferno,” written 700 years ago by the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, is not a work of Scripture or church doctrine. While the Roman Catholic Church takes the stories of the Bible to be true (if not always literally), it takes no position on Dante’s poetic descent through nine circles of hell. But “The Inferno” — as well as its companion poems, “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso” — has in a sense become canonical.
Over centuries, millions of readers have imagined hell in Dante’s terms: concentric circles of increasing wickedness, from lust to gluttony all the way to betrayal. In part because the Bible scarcely describes hell — Mark’s description of it as “the fire that never shall be quenched” is as close as we get — Dante’s gory portrait of maimed, tortured souls helped define it for Christendom, just as John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” defines the Garden of Eden.
“Both poets gave theological abstractions not only a form, but also, as it were, an address,” says Seth Lobis, who teaches Renaissance literature at Claremont McKenna College. “Hell, even sin itself, became hauntingly graphic.”
Despite their extraordinarily juicy plots, neither work has ever been made into a feature-length live-action movie. (Both titles have been co-opted often, and in 1935 the playwright Clifford Odets wrote “Paradise Lost” about a family struggling during the Great Depression.) Perhaps that is because artists recognize that religious portraits, handled clumsily, can quickly lose their power, becoming trite or kitschy instead of awesome.
The risk is particularly acute when portraying divinity. Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs are pretty scary, but have we ever seen a believable God on film?