Dune: A Personal Story, The Art of Adaptation, and Denis Villeneuve

Several weeks into a freshman year at a now-defunct Catholic school on the East Coast, a shy, introspective teen with oversized glasses and the blue shirt, blue tie, and blue slacks that passed for a school uniform, finally ventured the nerve to ask his history teacher why he had a worn-out, dog-eared book precariously sitting on the corner of his desk. Since I was the first to ask, I was the first to read Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 seminal science-fiction classic. It was a test of sorts by my teacher. He wanted to winnow out not just the bright kids from the not-bright kids, but also the curious from the incurious in his classroom. This was presumably in the hope of cultivating that curiosity beyond reading the first book in a science-fiction series he considered a personal favorite.

To say my mind was figuratively blown would be an understatement. For me, there was science fiction before Dune and science fiction after Dune. Despite reading many books at my local branch library’s science-fiction section (it contained maybe five or six bookcases worth of titles), I felt something was missing. however, I couldn’t describe why I kept finding novel after novel unfulfilling. It took Dune to give me the answer: Where other science-fiction authors were content with one or two big ideas (if that), Herbert stuffed Dune with an overabundance of big ideas developed through years of diligent research: geopolitics, economics, ecology/environmentalism, religion, culture(s), and, almost as importantly, world-building on a level with few, if any, equals. (Only J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy series, The Lord of the Rings, come close).

From this teacher, I learned about Middle Eastern politics, the so-called desert religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), Herbert’s inspiration for the central hero and the soon-to-be-familiar hero’s journey, a mix of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and Mohammed, the founder of Islam. Rare among religious founders, Mohammed became a political and military leader, leaving a nascent Middle Eastern empire when he shuffled off his mortal coil. In a parochial high school here where the Roman Catholic version of Christianity permeated every and any discussion of religion (specifically the “right” religion), Dune and my subsequent discussions with this particular teacher gave me a “safe space” to discuss Islam, Mohammed, and Middle Eastern history without judgment or minimal bias.

Reading Herbert, I also began detecting the first signs of a critique of colonialism and imperialism, of the inherent flaws in saviour or messiah narratives, something Herbert, perhaps recognizing an overly subtle approach in his critique, made it far more explicit when he followed Dune with the divisive Dune Messiah. Even as I read the Herbert-penned sequels, a question repeatedly came up that David Lynch’s deeply flawed, ultimately disowned adaptation implicitly raised by its failure: Was, as some (many?) suspected, Dune simply unfilmable? Given its scale, scope, and sweep, was it unadaptable in any other medium? The answer then seemed obvious: It was, though, as always, we could imagine what it would look and sound like if the resources, labour, and above all, time were set aside to bring Dune to the big or small screen.

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There was — and continues to be — one overriding issue or problem that fans too often sidelined or deliberately ignored: The central character and ostensible protagonist, Paul Atreides. At least initially, Dune turns Paul into a background or tangential character in his own story. The Paul we meet early on might be the Duke- and saviour-in-waiting, but he’s also a passive/reactive character with practically no agency until roughly the second half of Herbert’s science-fiction novel. He lacks agency, driven and buffeted by galactic forces initially beyond his control, from his father’s traditional expectations that Paul will follow in his footsteps as the head of House Atreides to his mother’s expectations that Paul will fulfill an ancient prophecy engineered by the Bene Gesserit, the Dune universe’s most powerful religious order, and later, in the hopes and dreams of the Fremen, Arrakis’s indigenous people, apparently eager for a saviour of their own.

Sometime later, the SyFy Channel tried to give the complexities, breadth, and depth of Herbert’s genre-redefining work the time it needed to properly bring his vision to the screen, but where David Lynch was beset by all kinds of production difficulties, including a predetermined runtime, the basic cable miniseries had all the time in the world, but none of the resources. For frustrated fans of Herbert and the Dune series, it seemed like we’d never get the Dune we imagined we deserved. For almost two decades, we were proven right over and over again as news of rights changing hands, new scripts being written, and fresh adaptations coming close to being greenlit came and went.

Not surprisingly, the announcement that Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Prisoners, Incendies), a prodigious, ambitious talent fresh off a justifiably well-received sequel, Blade Runner 2049, had penciled in a new adaptation of Herbert’s novel was understandably met with skepticism from Herbert’s fans (including this writer) who took an “I’ll believe it when I’m sitting in an IMAX theater” stance to the news. While warranted, that skepticism obviously turned out to be unfounded. Whether a new, partial adaptation (roughly one-half of Herbert’s first book), would live up to expectations nourished and encouraged over those same decades was another, entirely different question.

Spoiler Alert: Villeneuve’s sumptuously mounted, reverential adaptation does, in fact, meet most of those expectations, though given that economic realities limited the first, big-screen Dune in almost forty years to half an adaptation means at best we only get half as fulfilling an experience as we would have received if Warner Bros. had taken an approach similar to Lord of the Rings or the Matrix sequels, filming Part One and Part Two back-to-back and releasing them in subsequent years rather than spread out over several years if and when Warner Bros. green-lights the second half.

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With a generous 155-minute running time. Villeneuve’s adaptation doesn’t feel truncated, at least not where world-building is concerned. Every aspect of the production, from the expansive, monumental sets, to the spacefaring ships that look like nothing seen before, to the costumes, lighting, music, etc. feels like it’s been carefully considered, each element complementing everything around it. Even its compressed, incomplete form, Villeneuve’s partial adaptation is the Dune fans of Herbert’s novel should have gotten four decades ago. That might sound hyperbolic, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Dune is available to stream via HBO MAX or in-person theatrical screenings.

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