Since its publication in 1965, Frank Herbert’s Dune has served as inspiration and foundation for the narration of great narrative epics. The world created by the author achieved in the science fiction genre what Tolkien achieved in the fantasy genre. To recast the rules and forms in which stories of enormous human value were told.
So its film adaptation has become an event of considerable importance. Mainly because for more than fifty years it has been virtually impossible to bring an accurate version to the big screen.
Villeneuve promises to capture the essence of the saga, and create a cinematic spectacle that will surprise even the most skeptical fans. For the director – known for Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 – the essential thing is to translate Herbert’s journey through the cosmos into visual language. And to do so with a profoundly human ingredient.
An overly ambitious project?
For now, Denis Villeneuve has had complete creative – and, relatively, financial – freedom to create a cinematic blockbuster. From an all-star cast to extraordinary locations, Dune is also a production of impact. It’s not just that it’s an adaptation of one of the world’s most beloved books. It is also that Denis Villeneuve’s production will attempt to make amends in its immediate historical antecedent.
The first attempt to adapt Dune to the big screen was a failed project of mythical scope. In 1974, Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky began a monumental production with an astonishing creative team. With H.R. Giger, Chris Foss and Jean Giraud on the set and character design team, the idea was to create “an indescribable world”. Little by little, the big names continued to join in. Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger were even mentioned in the cast.
Perhaps because of its scope, the project never came to fruition. Two years later, the rights to the novel came to Dino de Laurentiis’ production company and the project started from scratch. The production company even hired Ridley Scott to direct the future feature film, although in the end he left the company.
Again, the rights were renegotiated and Universal Studios managed to hire a team willing to go ahead with the challenge. This time, the chosen director was David Lynch (. The new route included rewriting the script and starting with a new visual version. It was a tough, drawn-out, problem-plagued production. In the end, the nearly four-hour running time was cut to less than 145 minutes to make it “economically viable”.
It turned out to be a box-office and critical failure that proved that the scope of Herbert’s material needs rethinking. Lynch (or the director’s vision that survived the editing room) showed a muddled story and a visual section bordering on the ridiculous.
On television? Also, yes.
In other minor attempts, Dune had a TV version in 2000 on the SyFy (formerly Sci-Fi) channel. Although it considerably improved the narrative, the visual section ended up turning the project into a confusing version of the original work. With William Hurt, Alec Newman, Giancarlo Giannini, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Barbora Kodetová in the main roles, it was a consistent but unsuccessful attempt. For the umpteenth time, Herbert’s work seemed to face an insurmountable stumbling block: successfully combining the dozens of layers and dimensions of the story.
Despite that, the series was a big enough ratings success to spawn a sequel miniseries that combined elements of Herbert’s second and third novels. Thereafter, there were several attempts to rethink the saga, with talk of adapting several of the books rather than the story.
The Dune project comes back to life
After a few years of silence and a legal dispute over the rights, at the beginning of the millennium the script reaches Warner. And it is then when it receives the definitive impulse to begin to be a viable project. The studio decides to turn the saga into a possible franchise, this time with Denis Villeneuve at the helm. The director, known for giving complex stories a human and elegant background, seemed ideal to narrate the galactic saga.
Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts are the authors of the screenplay, based on Herbert’s classic 1965 novel. In fact, the author’s son, Brian Herbert and writer of several Dune sequels, is also executive producer of the new production.
On the technical side, there are several names that guarantee at least considerable solidity to the work. Greig Fraser (Rogue One) is the film’s cinematographer, while Oscar winner Hans Zimmer is the film’s score composer. Villeneuve also to several of his Blade Runner 2049 collaborators, including editor Joe Walker and visual effects supervisors Paul Lambert and Gerd Nefze.
But what makes the way the story of Dune is told so important? For starters, Herbert’s saga is the most influential science fiction novel ever written. From Star Wars to politically tinged stories like The Expanse, Dune is the basis for the conception of political intrigue in science fiction. It has even been said that George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is a medieval version of Dune. So it’s not just about dazzling with special effects, but creating a proper world with anthropological underpinnings.
Dune’, the story of all stories
The plot of Dune speaks of the traditional hero’s journey taken to an epic dimension that spans the entire cosmos. The narrative follows Paul Atreides, whose family must control the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. But soon, the entire dynasty must face a war for power that will lead to a confrontation of incalculable proportions.
For Denis Villeneuve, the importance of tracing the maturity of the young Atreides, heir and hero of the saga, is the most direct approach to the essence of Dune. Two years ago, the director told IndieWire that the challenge was to sustain the look at the humanity of his hero. Something the film will apparently emphasize.
According to Herbert’s narrative, Arrakis is the only place capable of producing “the spice,” the most influential substance in the saga. Capable of providing everything from mystical powers to facilitating travel through the cosmos, the spice is the measure of power. The compound is not only the object of desire for all the characters, but the source of the betrayals and political games in the story. According to Villeneuve the story will move between understanding its central hero and the complex world of interests around him.
‘Dune’, a saga or a big production?
A few months ago, Denis Villeneuve confirmed to Vanity Fair that Dune will be split into two films. The reason is simple: the plot will be analyzed as a whole, rather than as a sequence of events.
The director explained that this is the only viable way to tell the set of stories that make up the plot. “I would not agree to do this adaptation of the book with a single film. The world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in the details” he explained.
In fact, the director’s concern at the news that Dune would also be released on HBO Max was focused on the effect it could have on the story. “It could kill the franchise,” he commented, referring to the possibility that a ratings failure could doom the rest of the project.
The Faces Behind ‘Dune’
Call Me By Your Name stars Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, the central figure in the saga. This is the first time an adaptation of the saga will show his character as Herbert describes him. In the original version, the character is a teenager in training to find his place in the family to which he belongs.
Oscar Isaac will play Duke Leto Atreides, father of the film’s title character, while Rebecca Ferguson plays his wife Lady Jessica.
The long list of names in the cast includes Javier Bardem as Stilgar Ben Fifrawi, the leader of the Fremen tribe. There is also Zendaya, who plays the role of Chani, a Fremen warrior and romantic interest in Paul Atreides. On the Atreides side, Jason Momoa will play Duncan Idaho, one of the loyalists to the disgraced house. A curious detail? He is the only character to appear in all the original novels of the Dune series.
Finally, actor Stellan Skarsgård will play the grotesque Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the main enemy of the House of Atreides. Recently, the interpreter told IndieWire in an interview that becoming the repulsive character took him at least eighty hours of makeup. “He’s such a terrifying presence that even if he doesn’t say anything, I think you’ll be afraid of him. And I’m extremely fat. And in some scenes I look very tall because I levitate. You’ll have a lot of fun with that,” he explained.