Depp's Inferno

The actor is going to hell and back to star in a dramatisation of the life of Dante

He has embodied an eccentric range of cinematic roles ranging from the sadistic singing barber Sweeney Todd, to a neurotic Willy Wonka and the wistful Edward Scissorhands.

But now Johnny Depp is to take on what is arguably his most challenging role yet: he will star in an adaptation of a modern-day drama based on the life of the Italian Renaissance poet, Dante, during the time he conceived his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy.

Depp's film production company, Infinitum Nihil, has bought the screen rights to the modern-day mystery novel, In the Hand of Dante, by Nick Tosches. The book, published in 2002, revolves around the same theme of the afterlife and hell's fiery inferno as The Divine Comedy, with parallel storylines involving Dante in 14th-century Italy as he tries to complete the work, and a contemporary plot involving a fictionalised version of the author, named simply Tosches, who is asked to authenticate what might be Dante's original manuscript.

Depp is to play Tosches but it is not yet known who will play the part of Dante. In the book, the author casts himself as an Indiana Jones-style protagonist who begins an intrepid journey after a gangster named Louie presents him with a stolen manuscript of Dante's epic. He sets out to authenticate it, an endeavour which leads him on a quest that spans the globe and takes a series of twists and turns, encountering several dead bodies along the way.

In quieter moments, Tosches reflects on the career of the medieval poet and there are "flashbacks" to Dante's life during the time he was gaining inspiration to complete the poem which became his life's work.

When In the Hand of Dante was published, it was classified as a pseudo-literary thriller in the same vein as Dan Brown's blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code. Tom Tivnan, features editor of The Bookseller, said: "In terms of the book world, there is a real appetite for books such as The Da Vinci Code and The Shadow of the Wind [by Carlos Ruiz Zafon]. A lot of them follow on from Dan Brown but with some of them, there are more literary overtones, such as The Dante Club [by Matthew Pearl], which is all about the translation of Dante and a murder mystery."

Tivnan said that, while the critical and commercial success of film adaptations based on bestseller books were never a guarantee – The Da Vinci Code, starring Tom Hanks, was badly received at the Cannes film festival, for one – the mix of Depp's Hollywood bankability and the literary elements in the plot boded well for filmmakers.

"A lot of people respond to this kind of thing because in some ways, they can learn about Dante without having to actually read his work themselves," he said.

The Divine Comedy, written between 1308 and 1321, constructs a vision of the Christian afterlife. It is composed of 14,000 lines divided into three main sections called "Inferno", "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso". The poem tells of Dante's journey through the three realms of the dead, with the Roman poet Virgil guiding him through Hell and Purgatory, while Beatrice, who Dante was never permitted to marry in real life, takes him through Heaven.