What Dreams May Come and Dante's Inferno

Essay by sLvRk155es November 2004

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Death and what comes after has always been a subject of great interest and uncertainty. Many have tried to depict their own vision of the afterlife, be it heaven or hell, paradise or inferno. Here, I will discuss the similarities and differences in the hell represented in the movie What Dreams May Come and the Inferno of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.

What Dreams May Come is a movie about two soul mates, Chris (Robin Williams) and Annie (Anabella Sciorra). After Chris' death in a car accident coupled with the death of her two children four years earlier, Annie commits suicide. While Chris has gone to heaven and discovered that his heaven is living in a world of Annie's paintings, Annie has gone to a hell also of her own making because of her suicide. When Chris learns of Annie's death and her place in hell, he vows to go there and bring her back.

The main theme is that soul mates exist and love goes on after death. One of the main differences between the hell that Dante paints and director Vincent Ward creates in the movie is the idea of the afterlife being objective or subjective. In the Inferno, Dante paints a hell of fire and brimstone, carefully divided and subdivided. Everything is meticulous and standardized. A place and punishment is dished out for every crime. For example, circle seven, depicted in Cantos twelve through seventeen is the designated place for the violent but has many subdivisions including violent against neighbor, self, God, nature, and art; each with their own punishment. Although Ward's vision of hell draws much from the traditional thinking of Dante's version, perhaps only for the sake of painting a picture of hell on the screen, the major difference is in the subjectiveness of it.

In an interview regarding the film, director Vincent Ward stated "rather than there being an objective paradise where everybody's paradise is the same, you create your own paradise and it's whatever you want it to be" ("A Note on the Afterlife"). For Williams' character, Chris, his paradise was living in one of his wife Annie's paintings. But the same theory holds true for Annie in hell. Annie is not in her place in hell because she has been deemed by Minos to be a suicide and assigned her level; she exists there because she has made a hell of her own. Her hell is living in a world without her husband and children, which she tried to escape through committing suicide but lives on in due to her own self-loathing and guilt.

One central difference between these two works is the nature of Chris and Dante's travel into the inferno. While Chris has already died and gone to heaven, Dante is still living. Chris leaves heaven and descends into hell for his own purpose of bringing his soul mate, Annie, back. Chris had a choice as to if he wanted to go down to hell but Dante did not. His trip was divinely ordained and orchestrated. His reason in going is because he has been wandering from the "True Way" and has been sent to be taught an important and valuable lesson.

In both works, there is the common relationship of student to teacher. In What Dreams May Come, Chris locates a "tracker" to assist him in his journey to hell to find Annie. This tracker is Albert, a man who Chris studied under as a medical student and has a great deal of love and respect for. However, Chris does not know that this tracker is his old mentor. In the film, Albert states "thought is real and physical is the illusion." He is not in the bodily form that Chris recognized him as on Earth. He has assumed the form of an elderly white man and does not identify himself to Chris until a crucial point in the film. In life, he was Chris' mentor but in the afterlife, he is his friend and escort. A similar relationship of student to mentor exists in the Inferno between Dante and Virgil. Virgil, as a poet, has inspired Dante and his works greatly. Upon meeting him, Dante says "For you are my true master and first author, / the sole maker from whom I drew the breath / of that sweet style whose measures have brought me honor" (Inferno, Canto 1, Lines 82-84). Also, no longer is Virgil a detached influence to Dante, separated by hundreds of years, he is now a true friend to him. This is demonstrated in Canto 23 as Virgil and Dante are attempting to escape the Fiends. Virgil lifts Dante and " - as down that hill / my Guide and Master bore me on his breast, / as if I were not a companion, but a son." (Canto 23, Lines 45-47). In their travels through hell a close relationship has grown between master and student.

Aside from similarities and differences in the nature of hell and the relationships of the characters, there are also similarities and differences in the specific levels of hell dictated by Dante. While the film does not go through all the levels Dante created, probably for the sake of time, there are images of hell in the movie that directly mirror Dante's. Chris and the tracker travel to hell on a small boat under a gray sky that carries naked bodies twisting on the winds. These figures swell from the water beneath the boat as well and overturn it, dragging Chris and Albert on to their descent into hell. When they surface they have washed up on a beach with bodies littering it similar to clans of seals. A more broad view of the terrain shows shipwrecks clustered, inhabited by the damned and engulfed in unending flames. Sighs and wails of pain become deafening. In one scene, the hull of the most prominent shipwreck bears the word: CERBERUS. Chris and Albert have come to the entrance or vestibule of hell. While Ward has most definitely borrowed the image of swirling figures in the sky from Circle two of Dante's Inferno, there is no indication that this is the punishment for lust that Paolo and Francesca suffer in the Inferno. It is merely for the sake of cinematography.

When Dante and Virgil make their entrance into hell, they do it on foot and enter through a gate which bears the famous inscription, "Abandon all hope ye who enter here." (Canto 3, Line 9). They are immediately inundated with visions and sounds of souls in pain. While Dante describes these as "the nearly soulless whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise," Ward gives no name to their counterparts in the film (Canto 3, Lines 33-34). Next they are ferried on the river Acheron by Charon toward the first circle of hell. However, Chris and Albert must enter an elevator-type contraption upon the shipwreck labeled Cerberus to gain entrance to the rest of hell. Upon exiting the elevator, Chris and Albert are confronted with a field of heads, their bodies buried beneath the sludge leaving only their heads above ground. As Chris and Albert pass these souls cry out to them. This vision is reminiscent of many of the punishments that Dante paints but not specifically one. It can be compared with the gluttonous buried in sludge and freezing rain in Canto six or the violent against their neighbors fixed in place in varying levels of the river of boiling blood in Canto twelve. Chris inadvertently breaks through the surface of the field of heads and falls through layers of ground and into Annie's part of hell, the hell for suicides.

In the film, Chris states: "good people end up in hell because they can't forgive themselves..." Annie has not been able to forgive herself for how her family had deteriorated and her escape from life through suicide. Her self-loathing and guilt paints her hell just as Chris paints his own heaven. Her hell is a version of her home on Earth but everything is dead, decrepit, and gloomy. There she stays and lives forever in a torment of her own making. Compared to Dante's depiction of suicides, this is a horribly politically correct and nineties Hollywood concoction. In the Inferno, the suicides are located in Circle seven among the violent against self. Their punishment is not self inflicted, it is decided by Minos. Just as careless as the sinner was with his own life, so is Minos in flinging the soul down to the seventh level, sprouting roots where it lands and becomes a tree destined to be fed on by Harpies and mangled by hounds for eternity.

While many of the resemblances of the Inferno and What Dreams May Come seem mostly for cinematic effect alone, it is a testament to Dante's literary talent that his portrait of hell has been so enduring. The Inferno created by Dante indeed puts a face on hell and has influenced almost every look into the subject over the centuries since it was finished in 1321.

By: Mika Mokko