Speculating on Denis Villeneuve’s Adaptation of ‘Dune’

I’ve mentioned many times that Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune is my favourite novel. I’ve read it many times over the years and each time there is a new layer opened to me. It’s an incredible piece of imagination that looms over the entire field of science fiction/science fantasy.

Dune has had three attempts at adaptation to date. The first was Alejandro Jordorowsky’s ill fated experiment in the mid-1970s. This attempt is recounted in the 2013 documentary Jordorowsky’s Dune and is a compelling look at what might have been. A mad revisioning of Herbert’s original story rife with drug fuelled imagery and dialogue. All I can say is I’m thankful this never came to pass.

The first edition of Dune published by Chilton Books (1965).
The first edition of Dune published by Chilton Books (1965).

The first completed adaptation was David Lynch’s version in 1984. This version of Dune was authorized by Frank Herbert and he helped in part with the script and story. The film was uneven and generally disliked. However, while the story veers sharply in places, Lynch did capture the atmosphere and gothic imagery perfectly, I feel. I often watch the extended three plus hour Alan Smithee version because the story is more complete and I can immerse myself in the deeply enticing visuals.

Lynch’s Dune is a failure not because it couldn’t be great, but because the studios wouldn’t invest the time and budget to film the book in a complete form. Too many alterations were made and too many corners were cut. This added up to a film that couldn’t fully encompass the entire depth and scope of the book.

The second complete adaptation was the Frank Herbert’s Dune miniseries for the Sci-Fi Channel in 2000. This version was a little more faithful to the book and you would have thought that the Sci-Fi Channel would have done everything in its power to make a brilliant adaptation, but they failed to capture the atmosphere well and the changes they made to the story were odd and off-putting. Given that the budget was mediocre the choice of visuals and some frankly ridiculous costumes – the hats! – it’s not difficult to understand why this adaptation fell well short of what it could have been.

The newest adaptation will be released this coming December. The adaptation of Dune is being directed by Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve has some impressive credits to his name including Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049. Villeneuve is no stranger to making films with depth and subtlety. Given the complexity of Dune’s story Villeneuve is clearly an excellent choice to take on this project.

Denis Villeneuve, source variety.com.
Denis Villeneuve, source variety.com.

The first point in Villeneuve’s favour is that he is insisting on taking two films to tell the story. Dune has a deep and interesting mythos that has to be developed for the story to understood completely. If this background is glossed over then any audience members who aren’t already initiated in Dune will be left out and unsatisfied. We have seen that this sort of film can work very successfully as Peter Jackson split J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings into three films. No one can argue with its success.

However, there are no guarantees that there will be a second film if the first one does not do well financially. This could end up materially hurting the adaptation if Villeneuve doesn’t engage the casual viewer. This could mean inserting superfluous action and dialogue simply to make the film more dynamic to viewers at the expense of the story. This may please some viewers, but certainly raise the ire of orthodox fans, of which I include myself.

Most of the casting choices made are quite good, but there are some that I wonder about and one in particular that I find deplorable. I won’t be making any comments about that person, but if the role is played as poorly as I suspect I will no doubt raise the point in my future review.

If you have not read Dune there are spoilers ahead.

One question that I have heard raised over and over is where should the first film end?

For me, the most natural place to end the first film is after the funeral of Jamis. Paul has killed Jamis and following the Fremen funeral ritual declares his friendship for him; Paul then proceeds to cry. This is known as ‘giving water to the dead’ among the Fremen and is a mystical thing among them. The final scene should be of the Fremen touching Paul’s tears in awe.

That would be a perfect way to end the film and give the audience something to think about in the intervening months until the second part is, hopefully, released.

Denis Villeneuve is keeping reliable information on his film in very short supply. We’re still awaiting a trailer, even a short one, to whet our appetites, but there does not seem to be one forthcoming any time soon. Even so, I have certain expectations to be met in order for me to consider this adaptation an unqualified success.

Firstly is scope. Where the Lynch film succeeded so admirably was in portraying the galaxy spanning scope of Dune. I think the best way he showed this was in the immense size of a Guild Heighliner. All those ships, very large in themselves, entering the exponentially larger Heighliner was the perfect metaphor for how big Dune’s story truly is.

Secondly is atmosphere. Again, Lynch got this perfectly with the gothic and baroque sets, costumes and make-up. There were many small touches that are not immediately evident when you watch the film, but the whole is much greater than the sum of their parts.

Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Siân Phillips) and Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer) in the 1984 adaptation of Dune. The visuals are simply stunning.
Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Siân Phillips) and Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer) in the 1984 adaptation of Dune. The visuals are simply stunning.

Thirdly is adherence to the story. It’s unrealistic to expect a word-for-word adaptation of the book; that would be impossible. However, the previous adaptations altered or omitted too many key plot points and scenes that made fans confused and even angry. Villeneuve has said that is fan of Dune from his youth and that this project is very close to his heart. Hopefully, that will translate into a more complete telling of Dune than we’ve seen thus far.

Fourthly is ignoring conflicting or extraneous ‘source’ material. As I said earlier, I am an orthodox Dune fan. I consider the six books Frank Herbert wrote to be the only valid source of information about Dune. Any other information, either from the so-called ‘prequels’ or even the authorized Dune Encyclopedia by Willis E. McNeilly should be treated as incorrect and therefore ignored.

The Dune Encyclopedia by Willis E. McNeilly published in 1984. Interesting and well written, but not vaild.
The Dune Encyclopedia by Willis E. McNeilly published in 1984. Interesting and well written, but not vaild.

Lastly is accessibility. When Lynch’s Dune was released in 1984 there were some cinemas that provided glossaries to the audience in order for them to understand what was being said. This problem stemmed from the fact that the studio didn’t want the film much longer than two hours so much of what would have explained things in some way was cut. Villeneuve has a difficult task in making the more exotic notions of Dune understood by the casual viewer without making it sound trite or ridiculous. Fortunately this first part will only tell half the story and I would expect the running time to fall between three and three-a-half hours. That would plenty of time to bring the audience up to speed with the universe of Dune.

I am looking forward to the release of Dune this coming December, but I’m trying to manage my expectations. For a lifelong fan of a book like Dune there is the potential for me and others like me to be overly critical of the outcome. I do try and tell myself that this will be the effort of someone else to interpret the magnum opus of Frank Herbert and that it could never live up to the book. I will be keeping that in mind when I head to the cinema to see this film in December and will fervently hope that Villeneuve is able to make an extraordinary adaptation that will become a classic of filmmaking.

In the next few weeks I plan on starting a reading and discussion of Dune with a few chapters viewed each week leading up to the release of the film. Please check back to join in the fun.

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