"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Inferno: A Sequel that Goes Up in Flames

With the allure of additional profits to be had, Hollywood has been all too willing to torch high-quality brands as if with perfect impunity. A case in point is the film, Inferno, which followed The De Vinci Code and Angels & Demons in the Robert Langdon film series spanning ten years (2006-2016) based on novels by Dan Brown.

Noticeably absent from Inferno were any traces of theology, which had given the first film such narrative force, are arguably even sustained the second film. On first seeing the title, Inferno, I expected the film to involve the Christian concept of hell (hence Dante’s Inferno). L’Inferno, the 1911 European silent film, for example, is loosely based on Dante’s classic text. The film was an international success, taking in more than $2 million in the U.S. alone.[1] In contrast, the 2016 film received generally negative reviews and did not do well financially in the U.S. Rather than being about hell, or even religion,  Inferno is about climate change and over-population combined with biological warfare. The link to religious symbolism is tenuous at best, so the justification for the protagonist, Robert Langdon, is insufficient.

Film can indeed handle substantive theological issues. Films such as Rosemary’s Baby, Agora, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Devil’s are but a few stellar examples—exemplary still because their respective producers did not risk the brands by attempting to squeeze out more profits from a line of diminishing sequels. In contrast, the reputation of The Exorcist was diminished by Exorcist II: The Heretic and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist; both films, justifiably receiving stinging reviews, departed from the original storyline without bothering to be faithful to the original.
Producing sequels until the marginal revenue approaches zero is not a good business model for Hollywood. It is indeed possible for ensuing scripts of sequels to burn, or at least tinge, the original even long after it has been made into a film. Even from a business standpoint, the box-office flop of a sequel can negatively impact sales of the original film because of the hit to its reputation. Contradicting elements of the original story, such as occurred in sequels to The Exorcist, burn holes in the believability of the storyline itself. Was or was not the African boy, Kokumo, possessed by the demon Pazuzu?
In short, too much of a good thing can be counter-productive. If the reputation of a film’s “brand” means anything, it should be protected rather than prostituted out. Rather than pushing for sequel scripts, producers with one hit “under their belt” can better satisfy their economic and personal-brand self-interests by looking for another unique script. In the case of films with a theological dimension, scripts that engage a viewership with substantive problems rather than superficial protagonist-antagonist “drama” are the best bet.  

[1] Antonella Braida, "Dante's Inferno in the 1900s: From Drama to Film." In Antonella Braida, Antonella and Luisa Calé, Dante on View: The Reception of Dante in the Visual and Performing Arts (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2007): 47-49.