If you subscribe to Dan Brown’s reputation as the worst prose writer, or author in the known universe, you’ll probably think less of me for saying that I do and have, always thoroughly enjoyed his Robert Langdon series. Yes, I’m aware of his particular brand of mixed metaphors (“A searing hot pain tore into his arm"); Brown's obsession with the word "ping"; and his inability to give any of his characters any sense of distinct voice or character, and the very formulaic and repetitive nature of his ‘adventure’ plots where Langdon is the ultimate Mary Sue of all Mary Sues—but in saying this, I think, there are two very common ways people engage with this (assumed) caliber of work.
You can either thrash it across the internet, kicking and screaming and whip the damn work to ribbons, because oh lord how the hell did something so shitty get published?
Or, like some greasy Maccas double-cheeseburger or slice of chocolate mud-cake from Gloria Jeans, you can indulge in this junk-food equivalent of a book and gobble it up faster than you actually meant to. Only to after try and read something ‘literary’ to make up for the transgression (dusting off that old copy of ULYSSES I see? Hmm…).
It’s weird that we feel this way, I think. To feel guilt from our own enjoyment. Guilty pleasures, everybody has a few. They contradict our (often carefully honed) sense of taste, and are something we keep close to ourselves or only discuss in a self-deprecating light only with those who are close and that we hope are not judging.
I like to say I have a wide and varied literary appetite, everything from fan fiction online to both fiction and non-fiction award winners and bestsellers; some of each live up to the hype and some do not. And I still devour these with varying degrees of glee and disappointment (some really are as bad as you would think).
I wasn’t disappointed when I read Dan Browns INFERNO in early 2013. And I wasn’t disappointed, per-say with its latest film adaptation (now out in cinemas). But I do think that a couple elements of the story (criticised frequently in the films current reviews) either aren't given the credit they deserve, or would have made the story all so much better to be included in the film like they were the book.
There was a visual element to the INFERNO film that I really enjoyed seeing. This transcription of Dante’s Hellscape is something I’ve loved to see on film and INFERNO actually executes some pretty jarring and frankly ghoulish Hell imagery particularly into its first act. It wasn’t something I was expecting with the work but it was something I really enjoyed, with the grotesqueness lending itself well to the illusory and jilted direction of the films action.
INFERNO opens up with one of these frighteningly vivid dream sequences, based entirely on artists’ depictions of Dante’s experiences in hell. Then Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) awakens in a hospital room in Florence, tended to by a woman (who in the book is bald with a blond wig, but in the film is brunette and decidedly non bald), Dr. Sienna Brooks.
Where I liked INFERNO the film enough, my real pleasure in it literary form came from the works ideas (not always well realised I admit). My interest in theology and mythology was what introduced to me Dan Brown (Through ANGELS AND DEMONS, rather than THE DA VINCI CODE) and with Dante’s DIVINA COMMEDIA being one of my favourites, Brown already had a fan in me by just attempting to shape the vast material into something a modern originality.
He does this best with his work in INFERNO. He takes on the controversial issues of overpopulation, a difficult subject to talk about in fiction, let alone with any real objectivity in the mainstream. It’s considered to be politically incorrect for liberals and environmentalists. Regarded as anti-capitalist and undemocratic for most conservatives, and morally abhorrent to the religious community and to a lot of other folks too.
In INFERNO Brown gives us a ‘quote-unquote’ made scientist (helpfully leaving a video of his evil intentions and a series of Dante inspired clues for Langdon and us to follow) who unapologetically makes the case for overpopulation being the driving force behind all of the worlds major challenges - climate change, peak resources, etc.—and he implies that the likely endpoint of continued overpopulation will be a collapse of our civilisation. But Brown’s antagonist Zobrist goes much further than just defining the problem, he actually has a plan to stop it (temporarily).
Tethered beneath the surface of a gloomy underground lagoon, not in Florence, lies a bag filled with yellow-brown goop that holds enough of a mysterious virus to render a third of humanity’s population infertile—somehow. There were actually moments in the novel that I felt genuinely compelled by Zobrist, or at least where I thought wow, maybe this is how far we have to go to stop this.
In the film this is changed a bit. The ideology and imagery of the black plague is invoked in the films cinematography, mixed with Dante’s own hellish-landscape, INFERNO the film puts the idea of a genetically engineered plague as the forefront attempt to end overpopulation but culling (instead of sterilising) half the population.
In both the film and the book, Dante’s nightmare visions of Hell become the stories visceral correlative for what we, as a species are allowing to happen to our world by simply just letting it.
As a Dante enthusiast, I appreciated Brown's reinterpretation of Dante’s work, some of the original and clever ways he incorporated Comedy lore into Langdon’s clues and trysts. Dan Brown may not be the greatest writer on the planet, but he is deservedly recognised for the amount of research he does for his novels.
I think INFERNO also shows a certain amount of growth in part of Brown’s writing. It seems that Brown has been learning some things about writing prose. Where in THE DA VINCI CODE, ANGELS AND DEMONS or THE LOST SYMBOL Brown would use three weak adjectives to describe something, in INFERNO he uses one, and it’s more-often-than-not a good one. Where we were given endless character monologues lasting pages in his other work, showing the range and depth of his (impressive) research in INFERNO Brown offers us stronger dialogue, clever details, and back story/information in digestible chunks that don’t take us readers too out of the story. There’s that beginning understanding of less is more showing up in Browns INFERNO prose and Brown’s thriller/mystery Florentine Odyssey reads better for it.
It’s still not anything revolutionary or jaw-dropping. But then again I don’t think it needs to be, I like the fact that it isn’t.
Perhaps the intentionality of guilty pleasure reading gives the term it’s ‘guilt’. Reading is a necessarily deliberate activity, and seeking out “high-brow” or “difficult” works to read is often seen as a badge of honor. The Low-brow, more like that temporary stamp that allows you back into the nightclub after you go out to grab a breath less cloying. But as anyone who loves both fanfiction and Dante knows, loving the lowbrow doesn’t preclude loving the high. Even the snootiest readers will flip a couple pages of a crummy airport romance novella, watch a thriller/action movie with plot holes and inconsistencies for different reasons and to correspond to different moods. So why is reading a Dan Brown book for pure enjoyment, for fun, mindless or otherwise, unacceptable?
Honestly it’s not. But it may still take a little bit to shake of the guilt part of guilty pleasure.
As for the INFERNO film, I liked it-I did, but I can see why it’s not doing so hot in critic reviews at the moment. I think people’s reactions to INFERNO would have changed for the positive, if the film followed the path of the book and had its far less ‘Hollywood’ and more impactful ending. Really walking the line of morality, a lot more surprising, a lot more (personally and thematically) effecting to me, at least. I won’t spoil that ending here, but I do think that INFERNO is Brown’s best work, and with its original ending intact; is well worth the read and even probably the watch just be prepared to watch a lot of running.