Inferno – Ron Howard Talks About Changing the Ending

With major spoilers, Ron Howard talks about changing the ending of Dan Brown's Inferno for the big screen...

The following contains major, major spoilers for the book and movie adaptation of Inferno.

Overpopulation, a manmade virus, amnesia, the epic poetry of Dante Alighieri: Dan Brown’s fourth Robert Langdon novel gave its academic hero plenty of riddles to solve and crises to avert. But readers of the book may have noticed that the movie adaptation of Inferno – the third Langdon film to reach the big screen after The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons – changes the conclusion quite a bit.

While the build-up is broadly the same – a now-deceased billionaire has hidden a deadly virus somewhere, which Langdon has to locate before it breaks out – the novel offered a decidedly bleak ending. Langdon finds the virus’s hiding place in Istanbul, but it’s revealed that the entire treasure hunt has been in vain: the bag containing the virus decayed weeks before, unleashing a selective virus which will make a third of the planet’s human population sterile.

The ending on the movie, on the other hand, is more Hollywood and action-packed. Dr Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) is revealed to be a turncoat and former lover of the billionaire scientist who created the virus, and attempts to set off an explosion that will make the disease airborne. After a bit of action and tussle, the crisis is averted, Brooks disappears in a ball of flame and the virus is safely contained.

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It’s a neater ending, that’s for sure, but some of you might be wondering why it was changed so drastically from the book. At any rate, it was a question lingering in our minds when we spoke to director Ron Howard earlier this month. So was the novel’s ending, where Langdon’s efforts are effectively for naught, considered too downbeat for a popcorn-munching audience? According to Howard, he, screenwriter David Koepp and the movie’s producers “agonized” over the conclusion, but decided that “it wasn’t cinematic.”

“My recollection is, Langdon wasn’t really actively involved,” Howard told Den of Geek UK. “It was so complicated and not really movie-ish. He got [to Istanbul] and it had already been released. And so now, the upshot was, well, half the population has this thing, and we don’t quite know who has it, and we don’t know what’s going to happen. [Sienna Brooks] kind of runs away and Langdon chases her down and says, ‘How could you have done this?’ And then he convinces Sinskey [head of the World Health Organisation] to hire her to help seek an antidote. The kicker is, not everyone’s going to die; it’s not instant death, it’s a fertility plague. And so, interesting, and intellectually intriguing, and we missed it on that level. But it’s very drawn out, and I can imagine staging those scenes and a movie audience sitting and kind of saying, ‘How many endings are we going to have?'” 

The decision was therefore made to come up with a more explosive conclusion – one that would require less exposition while giving Langdon more to do.

“The feeling was, that ending worked great for a novel, but the complexity of it required a tremendous amount of explanation. I think I felt like that was something we got bogged down with a little bit in the previous movies, and when we found a way of narrowing the focus of the third act, it felt more satisfying on a movie level.”

The director didn’t comment on our suggestion that the book’s ending is much darker than the movie’s, but did admit that the change “may create some controversy” among fans of Brown’s writing.

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“My obligation is to the movie audiences,” Howard said. “And sure, it may create some controversy and so forth, but I didn’t feel like the differences in the third act were central to the big themes that he was presenting, and neither did he. As much as he was satisfied with what he did in the third act, he understood that it wasn’t that cinematic. I wanted to pack a bit more of a direct punch at the end and be able to give audiences more of a movie resolution.” 

The advantage of Inferno‘s movie ending is that, assuming another Langdon movie gets the green light, the story won’t have to address the glaring issue of a virus that is slowly eroding the world’s population. At the time of writing, there’s one more Langdon novel left to adapt: The Lost Symbol, which was published in 2009 and was originally supposed to be made into Langdon’s third big-screen outing. The project was eventually abandoned in 2013 after a number of screenwriters came and went – largely because nobody could quite nail down a version of the story that would work as a movie, Howard says.

“When I work on Dan’s books, everyone says they’re instant adaptations, but they’re not,” Howard told us. “We never could get an adaptation of The Lost Symbol that made us believe it was going to be an exciting movie-going experience. And some day maybe we will or somebody will, because it’s a terrific novel: if you look online, people rate it very high. Readers love it. But even Dan appreciates that a literal adaptation would have to be a mini-series for television if you were going to be really dutiful about it.” 

Even if a Lost Symbol movie never happens, there’ll soon be another Langdon novel for Sony to consider: it was revealed earlier this month that Brown is working on a fifth book called Origin. The new adventure, its publisher says, “thrusts Robert Langdon into the dangerous intersection of humankind’s two most enduring questions, and the earth-shaking discovery that will answer them.”

Origin, another cavalcade of “codes, science, religion, history, art and architecture” will be published in September 2017. If Inferno does well – and assuming Tom Hanks has the appetite to make another one – a movie adaptation will surely follow in due course.