A landmark work of science fiction, Frank Herbert's Dune has long been considered by many to be unfilmable. Not that this widely-held belief has stopped people from trying.
From David Lynch's infamous 1980s film adaptation, to two Syfy miniseries, multiple attempts have been made with varying degrees of success. Denis Villeneuve's take is merely the most recent and, for many ardent fans, perhaps the most faithful to Herbert's original vision.
The strict adherence to the source material isn't without its limitations, however. The main reason why Dune was, and is, deemed difficult to adapt rests in the way Herbert presented his epic space opera.
Large swaths of the conflict are internal versus external. In fact, much of the action exists as internal monologues. Translating this to film is no small feat. It's not impossible, but choices made during the writing of the screenplay and from behind the camera will have long-lasting effects upon the final product.
In the case of Villeneuve's Dune, the visual spectacle leaves the strongest impression. Not only have the vast deserts of Arrakis been brought to life, but its landscapes contrast starkly against the lush Atreides homeworld of Caladan and the overindustrialized Harkonnen homeworld of Giedi Prime.
The ornithopters are a delight to behold and hint at a backdrop in which computers are outlawed. Even the iconic sandworms boast a design that both biologically makes sense—lamprey-like with baleen structures to filter sand—and evokes a creature that is evolutionarily ancient. This deftly showcases a universe that is lived in, with history, interplanetary politics, and shifting alliances that have spanned millennia.
The most recent Dune's success at delivering such visual immersion comes as no surprise. Villeneuve's previous films include the critically acclaimed Arrival (2016)—also an adaptation of a science-fiction work—and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Both films were highly lauded for their cinematography, and we see that carry over into his vision of Dune.
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But, as with all science fiction films, balancing the demands of worldbuilding, plot, and characterization proves tricky. Add in the desire to satisfy fans of a much-beloved property while making the film accessible to movie-goers unfamiliar with the original novel, and things get dicey.
Unlike the stellar visual aspects, the film does an adequate job with the plot execution. We see the lurking dangers threatening House Atreides when the Emperor removes Arrakis from Harkonnen control and gives it over to Duke Leto. We see the uneasy relationship between the fief rulers of Arrakis and the native Fremen who watch as these outworlders strip their planet of its most precious natural resource. We see Paul struggle with the expectations of being heir to a great house while slowly realizing that his destiny lies somewhere else.
Indeed, we see many things unfold on screen. The screenplay even does a reasonable job explaining why they all happen. The main flaw with the film is that during the process of adaptation, the characterization was left behind.
Without a doubt, this is the most difficult aspect of adapting Dune to the big screen. Much of the original novel's characterization comes in the form of lengthy internal narration and philosophizing, after all. Translating that internal characterization to external characterization suitable for a film screenplay was always going to be a challenge.
This isn't to say the acting is dreadful. It isn't. A star-studded cast featuring Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, Zendaya, and Stellan Skarsgård could never be dreadful. But an actor's skill is only one half of bringing a character to life. The other half lays with the material they receive.
In this case, the most clearly-drawn character is Lady Jessica (played by Rebecca Ferguson), Duke Leto's Bene Gesserit concubine and Paul's mother. And perhaps that focus was inevitable. Her love for Leto is what led her to bear him a son instead of the daughter she'd been ordered to conceive. Her love, fear, and expectations for Paul are what caused her to defy convention and train him in the Bene Gesserit ways.
These emotions are relatable and offer a window into a sci-fi epic where the father's fate is sealed and the son's journey involves him becoming a messiah. The rest of the characters, however, did not enjoy that same depth and nuance in their portrayals.
To be fair, fans of the novel and its sequels may not need to see that fleshed out characterization on-screen. These characters are already alive and fully drawn. A decent representation is all that's needed. But for people who haven't read the novel and for readers who prefer bolder choices in their adaptations, this presentation here may be less lively and more spare than desired.
But perhaps the most discussed choice is the decision to split Villeneuve's adaptation into two parts. This installment roughly covers the first half of the novel and, unfortunately, ends abruptly. In an era where multipart sagas have become the norm, the film's sudden conclusion would not be an issue for audiences except the likelihood of the second half ever being made remains unclear. Never mind a multi-year wait between installments, there may be no conclusion at all.
The film doesn't feel complete as a story because it isn't, and that may work against it should a second installment never be filmed.
Even with these shortcomings, Villeneuve's Dune will satisfy fans who have been waiting for a serious film adaptation of the material. The visual scope is unmatched, and it captures the epic range of Herbert's original work. While the characterization may not live up to some expectations, readers won't be disappointed by the casting as whole, which features interesting choices such as Jason Momoa's Duncan Idaho and a female Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan Brewster).
In fact, this cast is truer to the multicultural vision of the original novel than we've seen in previous adaptations. If we were expecting a universally loved Dune adaptation, this isn't that film. But that expectation is unreasonable. The novel, though widely viewed as a seminal work, is also polarizing due to the themes it explores and that subsequent sequels expand upon.
Any adaptation will reflect that, and Villeneuve's directorial vision is no different.