Recently, ahead of the release of Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited sci-fi epic ‘Dune’, the film’s official Twitter account issued a challenge: “Explain ‘Dune’ in one sentence.”
Thousands of fans of Frank Herbert’s 1965 historical novel have responded, trying to distill the radical saga – set in the distant future on a desert planet where powerful clans fight for control of Earth’s most valuable substance. universe – in a nutshell.
Some efforts were hopelessly vague (“A Family Story on an Epic Scale”). Others were corny esoteric (“Subverting the hero’s journey to the far future with psychedelic drugs and ninja nuns with an unhealthy interest in the gene pool”). More than a few were jokers (“Gingerworms wanna party but dumb humans just wanna war.”)
The point was clear: “Dune” is perhaps one of the most revered books in the sci-fi canon, with millions of fans around the world – many of whom have images and quotes tattooed on their bodies – but it’s not the easiest book to explain to the uninitiated. And that fact only raises the already sky-high stakes for Villeneuve’s $165 million production.
Timothee Chalamet leads the cast of ‘Dune’ as Paul Atreides, the son of a noble family who finds himself embroiled in a deadly battle for dominance over the desolate planet Arrakis – and who could be the messianic leader his people oppressed has been waiting for a long time. With a sprawling ensemble that also includes Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, and Zendaya, “Dune” hits theaters and on HBO Max on October 22, after being pushed back by nearly a year. a year by Warner Bros. due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Filmmakers have long been drawn to “Dune,” dreaming of turning Herbert’s action-packed but philosophical romance into a more serious, adult response to “Star Wars.” (Believing that “Star Wars” had borrowed heavily from his work, if not plagiarized, Herbert once dismissed George Lucas’ film as “a comic book for the screen.”)
But the same elements of Herbert’s novel that have fascinated Hollywood – the vast scale, the heady themes of imperialism, religion, power and ecology, the most imaginative world-building this side of the ” Lord of the Rings” – were also the ones who thwarted efforts to adapt it for the screen.
Director David Lynch’s 1984 “Dune” was a troubled, critically panned production that bombed the box office and was disavowed by Lynch himself. An earlier effort to adapt cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s book failed after years of development and millions of dollars in pre-production costs, a doomed endeavor chronicled in the 2013 documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”
Falling in love with Herbert’s book as a teenager in Quebec, Canada, Villeneuve was not fazed by this bumpy story, although he fully recognized the magnitude of the task.
“I knew the big challenge was making sure that to appreciate the movie, you don’t need to have read the book,” Villeneuve said. “But at the same time, for me, it was even more important that the fans of the book find all the elements, the poetry and the atmosphere that they liked in the book.”
Villeneuve’s last two films, 2016’s “Arrival” and 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049,” were each ambitious and technically daunting sci-fi flicks. But as the first installment of a planned two-part epic, “Dune” is a gamble of another order of magnitude.
To help decipher Herbert’s novel, Villeneuve teamed up with screenwriters Eric Roth, whose credits include ‘Forrest Gump’, ‘Munich’ and ‘A Star Is Born’, and Jon Spaihts, who has worked on films like “Prometheus” and “Doctor Strange”. “
divide and conquer
Tackling “Dune” in the mid-1970s, Jodorowsky estimated he would need 10 to 14 hours of screen time to properly tell the story, crafting a script that Herbert said was “from the size of a telephone book”.
From the start, Villeneuve made it clear that he would only accept “Dune” if he could split the book into two films. This approach made perfect sense for Legendary Entertainment, which had acquired the rights to Herbert’s work and saw the film as a way to launch a larger franchise that could take advantage of the novel’s many sequels and prequels.
The challenge then was to figure out how to split a single work into two parts in a way that felt organic and narratively satisfying. “The kind of storytelling lets us know where this movie should take us to the next one,” Roth says.
embrace the mystery
The “Dune” universe works by its own rules, which can sometimes be difficult to understand.
The planet Arrakis is home to giant sandworms whose larvae produce a drug colloquially known as “the spice” that prolongs life, provides superhuman cognitive abilities, and makes interstellar travel possible. An ancient secret order of women called the Bene Gesserit are trying to steer humanity to a higher level of development through genetic experimentation and the use of their own mental powers – and believe Paul may be the messianic figure long-awaited they call the Kwisatz Haderach.
“Frank Herbert created a uniquely rich culture in his futuristic world,” says Spaihts. “It’s a wild, woolly universe with deep mysticism, complex politics, different rivers of thought running through it. It would be very easy to take the source material and do a brain project that gets lost in the philosophical bushes. “
For Villeneuve, finding how to orient the public in this strange universe was not an easy task. Although he sought to ground Herbert’s story and make it understandable to newcomers, Villeneuve did not want to lose the more inexplicable qualities that had fired his own imagination at a young age.
“I like the unknown,” he says. “I like to be dizzy, to feel that there is a door that has not opened for you, that you have to take a look. There is a word in French that you do not have in English, bewitching, which means to be bewitched by the mystery. It was very important for me not to explain everything.”
Accentuate the feminine
Sci-fi audiences tend to be male, but with “Dune”, Villeneuve saw the opportunity to make a film with strong, well-rounded female characters, starting with Lady Jessica (Ferguson), Paul’s mother. and a member of the Bene Gesserit.
“Early on in the creative process, I remember Eric Roth asking me, ‘What’s the most important thing I need to focus on as I start writing the first draft?’ I said ‘Women'”, says Villeneuve. “There’s so much in the book that is so relevant and so prophetic, but I felt the femininity needed to be front and center. We needed to make sure Lady Jessica wasn’t an expensive extra.”
To further advance the book’s female characters, Villeneuve made the desert warrior Chani, played by Zendaya, a significant presence in the film despite only appearing in the second half of Herbert’s novel.
“As the movie evolved, Chani just kept growing and growing because I was fascinated by Zendaya, her presence, and how magnetic she was,” Villeneuve said.
In one of the biggest departures from the novel, the film changes the gender of the character to Liet Kynes, a planetary scientist who has a deep understanding and love for Arrakis and his native people, the Fremen. In Herbert’s book, Kynes is a man but in the film, she is a woman, played by British actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster.
The change was suggested by Spaihts as a way to make the story more up to date.
Even after splitting the book into two films, there were still elements that Villeneuve decided to trim to avoid overloading the film with too many characters and subplots.
Memorably, though campily, played by Sting in Lynch’s film, the character of Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen — the scheming nephew of villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Skarsgard) — does not appear in Villeneuve’s “Dune.”
At the same time, the characters of Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian) – “mentats” with superior cognitive abilities who work for the Atreides and Harkonnen families respectively – have less prominent roles in the film. than they do in the novel.
When in doubt, return to the book
With so much at stake, it might have been tempting to try and turn “Dune” into a simpler, more marketable genre of spectacle, downplaying the more woo-woo witty aspects of the story in favor of slam-bang space battles in hopes of selling more “Dune” toys come Christmas. But no one involved in the film wanted to stray from Herbert’s vision.
When asked if he’s ever reached out to Jodorowsky or Lynch to get their hard-earned ideas on how — or, perhaps more importantly, how not — to wrangle “Dune” onscreen , Villeneuve answered no.
“I’m a big fan of both – they’re two masters,” Villeneuve said. “I will say, I think if Jodorowsky had made his movie, it would have been an incredibly fantastic movie. Would it have been the best adaptation of ‘Dune’? I don’t know.
“The thing is, from the beginning, I didn’t talk about Jodorowsky’s ideas or David Lynch’s ideas. What I said to the studio and my team was to start from scratch and come back to that, the essence of the book. The book was the bible. I kept saying to my team, ‘I want people who love the book to feel like we put a camera in their head for they were reading.”