As Warner Bros. fires up the marketing engines for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, it might be too late to ask: Will devout fans of Frank Herbert’s classic novel get on board? It is too late, but as a rabid fan of the book I can’t help but ask. So, I’m going to look at a few of the critical elements that will make or break the success of Villeneuve’s upcoming new Dune movie 2020.
As the Fans Go…
Hollywood already knows that popular books can make hit movies because there is a built-in audience. This existing fan base can lower the studio’s risk of producing a multi-million dollar box office failure. Whether these fans line up to see the movie often depends on how closely it resembles what fans love about the book.
Dune has been considered one the greatest science fiction novels of all time. Readers have studied its pages for over half a century. That’s a lot of time for fans to become emotionally attached to the story, images and characters. I first read the book in 1984 and I’ve read it many times since. It is my favorite science fiction book, nothing comes close.
It’s a daunting task to film a novel like Dune because the first hurdle is to win over devout fans. If they love it, they will tell everyone they know to go see it. In order for me to love this movie, I need to feel that the filmmakers care about the original story as much as I do.
How Long Should it Be?
So, how does a filmmaker faithfully adapt a 400-page classic like Dune into a feature film? Hollywood director David Lynch made his attempt in 1984 with his 136 minute Dune film. It was met with mixed reactions by fans and audiences, and largely viewed as a box-office failure.
I was 14 when I saw Lynch’s Dune in the theater. Already a fan of Herbert’s book, I couldn’t wait to see the images on the big screen of my favorite scenes from the novel. I knew it would be impossible for a 2-hour film to include enough of the novel to feel satisfying. And that’s exactly how it felt.
Lynch’s vision was to make a much longer film, but gun-shy studio executives forced a much shorter version and it shows. Lynch’s Dune was beautifully imagined and honors the book in many ways, but it was missing many of the moments I loved from the novel.
Lynch’s Dune fell short because there simply wasn’t enough time to flesh-out the critical details of Herbert’s story. When I read that Denis Villeneuve refused to direct a new version of Dune unless the film was broken into two separate full-length films, I was elated. He knew that in order to avoid the problems with Lynch’s Dune, we had to see more of the book.
It’s the details that make Herbert’s world-building so captivating, so without those details fans will be dissatisfied and the general audiences will be left confused. Whether Villeneuve’s two-part Dune will be enough for fans is yet to be seen. But double the amount of time to tell the story is certainly heading in the right direction.
Dialogue Versus Action
Another important consideration when making a film adaptation of Dune is the dialogue-to-action ratio. Reading a book is a fundamentally different experience than watching a movie. Frank Herbert’s novel includes long sequences of character dialogue which, in themselves, are engaging and propel the story forward. His story also contains edge-of-your-seat action sequences and epic battles.
I am fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, however there were times when I felt he prioritized action over dialogue. This was a missed opportunity to pull the audience deeper into the story. I think Jackson’s trilogy would have been richer had he traded a few minutes of epic battle sequences for more character and plot development.
The story of Dune has been described as ‘dense.’ Herbert’s novel is layered with complexity. It’s this complexity that creates the realism and depth that fans appreciate. If Villeneuve can resist the temptation to devote too many minutes of action sequences and focus more time on the characters, the depth will translate for fans.
Frank Herbert’s novel juggles a lot of themes. Politics, religion, anthropology, ecology, tyranny, feudalism, and more. All these aspects of the story create a compelling backdrop for Paul’s heroic journey.
Heady readers prefer this type of mind-bending storytelling, but not everyone enjoys such mental gymnastics. How will Villeneuve keep Paul’s character arc clear in the swirl of so many themes?
Villeneuve’s Sicario and Arrival stand witness to the director’s skill at balancing strong character arcs with heavy-duty plot themes. These films never gave into the temptation to dive deep into the ‘big ideas’ at the expense of the protagonist’s transformation.
Dune has a long list of compelling characters, many with competing intentions. Keeping the focus on the principal character, Paul, with so many subplots and minor character arcs will challenge even the most seasoned director. Villeneuve has shown he can thread this needle with previous films, but the vast complexity of Dune will be his own Gom Jabbar test.
Is Villeneuve the Kwisatz Haderach?
Denis Villeneuve made it clear to me that he wanted his Dune adaptation to be done right. His insistence that it would not work as a 190-minute movie was the first sign that he gets it.
Dune needs someone at the helm who understands the screen time necessary to flesh-out Herbert’s novel so it closely matches the experience of reading the book. To some fans, reading Dune will always be a deeper, richer experience than watching it. But if his vision is realized, Villeneuve’s new Dune movie may be an unforgettable multi sensory experience.
If the fans come running, maybe other movie-goers will join them. Perhaps then, Villeneuve will control the universe.