“Dune” is, without a doubt, one of the most important works in science fiction. An incredibly complex tale that covers everything from politics to religion, from ecology to war and destruction, from the pitfalls of prescience to the struggle of a man to avoid becoming what fate wants him to be. It is – for lack of a better word – an epic story inspired by the fairy tales of our childhood, with evil kings, dragons guarding treasures, and unlikely heroes on a quest to find their version of the Holy Grail. The story has layers upon layers – plans within plans if you like – of intrigue, clashing interests, conspiracies, set in one of the most complex and fully realized alternative worlds in the history of science fiction. Perhaps this is the reason why it is so hard to adapt to the screen.
The two-screen adaptations of the “Dune” novels so far have both failed to grasp the depth and complexity of the books. The first one, David Lynch’s 1984 version, took way too many liberties in relation to the source material – it ended up being a movie almost incomprehensible without reading a book yet too different from the book to be embraced by its fans. The second, Hallmark’s miniseries did a much better job, staying mostly true to the story – and this is perhaps one of its greatest weaknesses: it over-explains things in an effort to not leave anyone behind.
And now, we are preparing for the third adaptation of the Dune universe, once again in a feature film format. At this point, it’s like a coin toss or a spin at a 7Sultans: the movie (or movies) will either be great or bad.
Should we be afraid?
The man behind the camera has a good track record when it comes to science fiction movies. With “Arrival”, he delivered a thought-provoking first contact story based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” that showed the world that a sci-fi film can be successful – and profitable – even if it doesn’t feature interstellar dogfights and aliens with claws, fangs, and similar appendages (the movie grossed over $200 million worldwide against a budget of around $43 million).
Then, he took on the tough job to direct a sequel to Ridley Scott’s cult science fiction classic Blade Runner – the result brought him five Oscar nominations (two wins) and further recognition as a science fiction staple.
These two movies were, in turn, both of the “contemplating” kind – fighting didn’t play an important role in either of them. Which leaves us the question: how will Villeneuve handle the many violent scenes in Dune, from Paul’s killing of Jamis to the fremen overrunning the Emperor’s palace?
What about the cast?
This is perhaps the one thing that shouldn’t worry anyone.
While choosing Timothée Chalamet for the role of Paul Atreides may have raised an eyebrow or two at first, let’s not forget that the character was just 15 when the Atreides family left Caladan for Arrakis. Chalamet is 24 but he looks young enough for the role of a 15-year-old.
Javier Bardem will likely make a great Stilgar, and Josh Brolin has proven that he has what it takes to play the Atreides’ weapons master Gurney Halleck. Strengthening the cast, we have two sci-fi regulars: Dave Bautista playing the Beast Rabban, and Jason Momoa taking on the role of Duncan Idaho, swordmaster of House Atreides who gives his life for the family.
Finally, those who worry about cramming such an epic story into a single feature film (a task David Lynch successfully failed in 1984), the good news is that there will not be a single film. The movie set to be released this year will cover about half of the first book in the Dune series, leaving enough time for the complex story to unfold.
This may also be a piece of bad news, though. The movies weren’t shot back-to-back – meaning that if the first one is not financially successful, we might never see the second part. And this is always a possibility when we talk about ‘serious’ science fiction films. Blade Runner 2049, despite receiving almost universal praise, was not financially successful with its $259 million box office revenues against its $150 million budget and despite there being a lot of talk about a potential sequel, nothing has been officially confirmed to this day.
You can’t expect a film director to adapt a novel to the screen without adding their own message and vision to the whole. This won’t be any different in the case of Dune: Villeneuve has already spoken to the world about what message he wants to convey using the film.
On one hand, the director described the film as “a coming-of-age story, but also a call for action for the youth”, reflecting on the overexploitation of the Earth. On the other, he altered the arcs of several female characters from the novel, shifting the Bene Gesserit, for example, from “space nuns” to “warrior priestesses”. Plus, he cast Sharon Duncan-Brewster for the role of Dr. Liet-Kynes. Not to mention his plans to turn Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen – a role so magnificently played by Ian McNeice in the miniseries – into an even more complex antagonist.
Overall, it’s hard to say if we should be excited or worried about the latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune. There is certainly much encouraging news around it but there are other factors, too, that could turn it from a dream to a nightmare. I guess, the best thing we can do is hope for the best and go see it when it arrives at the theaters later this year.