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It’s been 20 years since the last live-action adaptation of Dune went on air, and 37 years since David Lynch’s famous film flop. Between the rising audience interest in epic fantasy and sci-fi film adaptations like The Lord of the Rings and the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and the more advanced filming and editing technology to make it happen — a lot has changed since then.
But critics still chuck Dune in the ‘unadaptable’ pile, citing its density, politics and sheer scope.
We, of course, hear ‘density, politics and scope’ and think of one person: Denis Villeneuve. In 2021, it’s not so technically impossible to portray Frank Herbert’s high-concept, enormous world — and with Villeneuve’s history of bringing epic sci-fi to life with critical acclaim, he might just be the one to do it.
Set pieces and style
Villeneuve has described Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival — two of his best-known movies — as “stepping stones” for taking on Herbert’s Dune, and you can see it in the trailers of each. Arrival’s decidedly low-contrast colour palette, Blade Runner 2049’s colour-pop aesthetic, and Dune’s sometimes all orange, sometimes Game Of Thrones-esque nudes and greys, while seemingly totally different, all still serve to display the vast landscapes in which they take place.
Setting is extremely prevalent in all three, playing a major role in establishing the tones of its respective film. No one can accuse Villeneuve of point-and-shoot directing, incidental aesthetics, or “style over substance”. The style is the substance. As Villeneuve himself told Slash Film, establishing the set piece was one of the most important elements making of Dune: “What I deeply love about Dune was [its] exploration of life and ecosystem and the biosphere that Frank Herbert put behind that.”
Though Villeneuve has taken on a range of aesthetics in each of his films, his dedication to exploring a film’s themes within the setting itself is consistent. For an adaptation of a novel with roots in environmentalism — exploring how modern colonialism wrecks the environment — this particular feature of Villeneuve’s directing style is ideal.
Trusting the audience
Herbert’s Dune is dense, and the series is long. There’s a lot to unpack, and while we get to Villeneuve’s philosophy on what to keep and what to throw out later, we need to address now that there’s a lot Villeneuve kept.
By his own account to Screen Rant, “I just kept my focus on Frank Herbert’s novel. That was my Bible. I kept it to this day with me; beside me, and it was my main source of inspiration. And when I was in doubt, I was just going back to the Bible, reading Dune again and finding my answers.”
We can easily believe that. Villeneuve’s Dune runs for just over two and a half hours – and it only covers the first half of the book. While this length has been reported by some as an indication that the director is unwilling to touch the cutting room floor, this Supanova writer sees it as a contract with the audience. We’ll trust that those two and a half hours give us a good story, and he trusts us to sit through it.
After all, if dedicated sci-fi fans can read a book series as dense as Dune, can they not watch a movie with similar nuance, complex plot machinations, and wealth of themes? We did it with Blade Runner 2049.
(📸: Chiabella James) pic.twitter.com/ZA1Kzn6aLV
— DUNE (@dunemovie) November 20, 2021
Skilfully tweaking the source material
In the same Screen Rant interview, Villeneuve said, “But I will say that the key for me was to really make sure that I was as close as possible to the spirit of the book.” Despite claiming Dune as his Bible, “the spirit of the book” does not mean “everything in the book”.
A few tweaks have already been reported, including removing Gurney Halleck’s beloved lute-like instrument, the baliset; writing the female characters a little less one-dimensionally than in the original novel; turning the character Liet Kynes into a woman; removing the character Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen; featuring the characters Thufir Hawat and Piter de Vries less prominently than in the novel; eliminating the expository world-building in favour of a sense of mystery; and more.
If these seem a bit much to you, consider that Blade Runner 2049 was a sequel to the first Blade Runner, and not an adaptation of the 1995 Blade Runner novel sequel, The Edge of Human. Plus, Arrival was based on a short story; and that wasn’t so bad, was it?
If anyone can do it, it’s Denis Villeneuve
With such “stepping stones” as Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival under his belt, Denis Villeneuve has already established himself as the go-to director for bringing truly bizarre sci-fi stories to mass audiences on epic scales. We can’t wait to see how he goes with this “unadaptable” classic.