In 1965, Frank Herbert’s novel “Dune” irrevocably changed the science fiction landscape, becoming a cornerstone of the genre. Over 50 years later, following a previous attempt by David Lynch, critically acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve seeks to do the project justice on the big screen. The book depicts a future world in a galaxy far, far away, where warring royal clans compete for control over the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune — a hellish desert planet that happens to be the only place in the universe where the spice melange necessary for interstellar travel grows. “Dune” is an expansive story, littered with unfamiliar vocabulary like “landsraad” and “Sietch Tabr,” which can complicate the narrative on the page, much less on the screen. Yet Villeneuve, a lauded auteur, seems to respect the expansiveness and complexity of “Dune.” Alongside a star studded cast and production team, “Dune” offers the promise of an artistic touch from a true filmmaker.
Satisfying book fans in a film adaptation is never easy, and “Dune” has never quite hit the mark. David Lynch’s 1984 version was a critical failure, called “an incomprehensible mess” by critic Roger Ebert and hated by Lynch himself. Despite becoming something of a cult classic over time after its terrible first reception, a true “Dune” film adaptation has yet to be seen. In fact, arguably more important than Lynch’s version has been the colossal success of “Star Wars,” which was inspired by “Dune” and has been called “the great “Dune” film” by the Guardian. However, “Star Wars” is a far simplified and more family friendly story, leaving plenty of room for a grittier, successful “Dune” that is true to the original work.
Villeneuve seems necessarily respectful of the book’s history, yet also undaunted by its legacy. His solution to the problems of doing justice to the scope of “Dune” has been to break the film into two parts. “I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book with one single movie,” Villeneuve says. And this seems to be a reasonable solution: Lynch infamously voiced distaste for his own rendition of “Dune” after the studio trimmed his three hour film into a two hour blockbuster, from which Lynch promptly removed his name from the credits. However, there are certainly obstacles to a two part film. Villeneuve’s most recent science fiction film, "Blade Runner 2049," was critically praised, but a box office flop, calling into question the financial feasibility of a two part “Dune.” Moreover, the sequel has yet to be greenlighted by the studio, and the implications of the global pandemic leaves “Dune”'s success shrouded in uncertainty.
Yet there is hardly a director more up to the job than Denis Villeneuve, who has proved his finesse with sci-fi movies recently with the highly successful films "Arrival" (2016) and "Blade Runner 2049" (2017). Both movies were critically well received, regarded as among the best films in their respective years. And despite “Dune” being a major blockbuster film, Warner Bros seems to be allowing Villeneuve a certain measure of artistic freedom and trust. Stellan Skarsgard, who is set to play Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, said in an interview with Collider that “It’s not going to be directed by the studio. It seemed like they were giving him pretty free hands. And you have to, because his personal stamp on the film is paramount for the success of it.”
Along with the stellar director, the upcoming film features a star-studded cast and crew. Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump," "The Insider") and Jon Spaihts (“Passengers," "Doctor Strange") working with Villeneuve on the screenplay, and Hans Zimmer ("Inception," "Interstellar," "Blade Runner 2049") scored the film. The cast includes such high profile names as Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgard, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, and Timothee Chalamet as the protagonist prince, Paul Atreides. One thing that can be seen in this casting is Villeneuve’s feminism. Many of his movies feature female leads, and part of "Arrival"’s” success has been attributed to Amy Adams’ strong lead female character; the movie’s opening weekend audience consisted of almost 50 percent female viewers, despite science fiction's predominantly male audience. Though Herbert’s female characters are already powerful, Villeneuve takes their strength a step further, expanding the role of Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, and casting Sharon Duncan-Brewster, a Black woman, as the formerly white male role of Dr. Liet Kynes, a character who helps keep the peace between warring factions on Arrakis. “Women are very good at that, so why can’t Kynes be a woman?” said Duncan-Brewster as she explained Villeneuve's decision.
As stories often take on different overtones in a new time period, so too does this half-a-century old narrative. In returning to “the images that came out when I read it [Dune],” Villeneuve saw that the story had prophetic overtones about environmental issues: “It was a distant portrait of the reality of the oil and the capitalism and the exploitation — the overexploitation — of Earth.” And though the novel was originally inspired by Herbert’s environmental research on the shifting sand dunes of Oregon, his themes come into far sharper focus in 2020 as the climate crisis looms larger. The film is not set to be released until Dec. 18, 2020, and the studio has not yet postponed its release date, hopeful that audiences can return to theaters by the end of the year.
Correction: September 23, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of "Dune"'s author. In fact, he is Frank Herbert, not Paul Herbert.
—Staff Writer Sara Komatsu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.