Frank Herbert's Dune is one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written. Many say it is the Lord of the Rings of science fiction. It has inspired story tellers ever since its release over fifty years ago. Without it, we wouldn't have Star Wars.
Multiple filmmakers have tried to get the novel adapted to the visual medium. We have a film and a miniseries saga, but many fans of the novel may feel disappointed that neither one really captures the full power of the novel. Fans have clamored for the perfect film, the one that will do the original novel justice.
Enter direct Denis Villeneuve, the man behind Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival. After completing the long-gestating sequel to Blade Runner, he announced his next film will be a new reimagining of Dune. The fandom rejoiced. And also panicked. Any director adapting Dune needs to be careful. It's a complicated novel. One wrong move can mess it all up.
Denis Villeneuve has his work cut out for him if he hopes to adapt Frank Herbert's masterwork, but, if he considers a few things, then his version of Dune may be film the novel deserves.
Focus on the Ladies More
America is in a very different place than it was fifty years ago when Frank Herbert first wrote Dune. If you were a lady in a SFF story, you'd either be a damsel in distress straight out of Edgar Rice Burrow's John Carter of Mars series or a sex slave out of John Norman's Gor series.
Though Lady Jessica and Chani may be a little problematic by today's standards (both are concubines, which may make some of the audience uncomfortable) they are are both individuals who do not exist as an extension of Paul's arc. That alone makes them leagues better than their competition in genre fiction at that time.
When Denis Villeneuve tackles the property, he will need to give these ladies a little more focus.
The 2000 Dune mini-series did a good job at this. They expanded the role of Princess Irulan, who is only present at the end of the novel, and gave her a far more nuanced role in the plot. Villeneuve can do something similar--or expand Lady Jessica's role to include more of a prominent role in the narrative. Make her more of a chess master. She already occupies this role in the novel (in particular the first half), so why not boost this up a notch?
I can easily imagine Chani being a total badass in the right scenes. But, in regards to Chani...
Cast Middle-Eastern Actors as the Fremen
Whitewashing is a huge deal in genre fiction right now. One doesn't need to dig deep to see examples of it permeating throughout Hollywood.
The original Frank Herbert novel is heavily influenced by Middle Eastern culture. From the Arabic names (Muad'dib, the Padishah Emperor...) to the fact that Arrakis is just a metaphor for Iraq (both are desert worlds full of special fuel that imperial organizations mine and take advantage of for their own good...), Herbert wore it on his sleeve that he had the Middle East in mind when writing.
So that influence must be relayed in film.
The people who live on Arrakis, the Fremen, are obviously influenced by Middle Eastern society. This is a great chance to push some progressive casting in Hollywood by having Middle Eastern actors play the characters. With how progressive the original novel proved to be in genre fiction, this film adaptation needs to be equally progressive.
Knock off that Internal Dialogue
When Frank Herbert wrote Dune, he included tons of internal dialogue. In writing, this works. Herbert layers scenes with, to quote the master writer himself, "feints within feints within feints." We see what the characters say, then what they think, and know what the other characters think. That way, tensions rise as a result of us understanding the tangled web of the scene.
David Lynch's film tried this. While I personally really like the film, this is one of the silliest aspects of the film.
Internal dialogue doesn't work in a visual medium, where actors can... act. Internal dialogue takes too much time to relay, and, quite frankly, is redundant when actors can relay how they feel through their performance.
I have no doubt that this will get the ax. Though we may have Paul remember his father or someone telling him how "Fear is the Mind-Killer" in some tense scene.
Don't Make Paul "The Hero"
Denis Villeneuve is good at this. Watch Prisoners. Watch Sicario. His main characters do morally dubious things while working (presumably) toward their ends. While we the audience understand why the characters do what they do, sometimes it's hard to watch.
Frank Herbert did not write Paul Atreides to be "the hero." He wrote him as a deconstruction of the hero. He starts off as an innocent pawn in a greater game, and is forced to take the role of a Messiah. But, in doing so, he triggers a massive Jihad that ends millions of lives.
Paul is not Moses. He is not Jesus. He is not Superman.
He's more like a Shakespearean tragic hero. His own actions bring about tragedy. He does not always do the right thing. Ultimately, his actions result in the Jihad that bleeds into the sequels (more on that later).
Make the Fights like 'Lord of the Rings' or 'Star Wars'
Dune is not an action heavy book. In fact, most of the action is off-screen for the very reason that Herbert didn't feel like combat was his strength. Which is odd, since military action plays a huge role in the story, as does hand-to-hand action. Most of the action is portrayed in broad strokes...
But that doesn't work on screen.
We need to see the combat go full-out. Show us Paul training with Gurney. Show us the Sardaukar legions pounding on Leto Atreides's forces. Show us the Fremen sandworm attack on Baron Harkonnen. Those sorts of things can be awesome!
And, as other blockbusters have shown us, fight scenes can be done well. Crazy visuals can be pulled off. Show us some crazy stuff. Get a little elaborate. Get creative.
Look at what Peter Jackson was doing with Lord of the Rings over a decade ago. The Battle of Helm's Deep remains almost unmatched in modern genre cinema. But something like that would work well. Not a one-on-one duel, but a real elaborate, multi-leveled war scene.
But, unlike The Hobbit films, don't just show us silly spectacle for its own sake. Keep it grounded in some degree of realism. Dune is science fiction, and, as such, needs to feel real. Not silly.
Look to Lynch and Jodorowsky for Visuals
David Lynch may be criticized for many things, but one thing even people who hate his film version have to admit is that it has some incredible visuals. While they are dated and can be awkward, are also memorable.
I do not think Villeneuve should facelift Lynch's visuals. But I think he should use them as inspiration as a launching pad for his own style, as Lynch used Jodorowsky's visuals as a launchpad.
For those unfamiliar, Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to make an adaptation of Dune back in the 70s. Among his ideas for this twelve hour film was to hire HR Geiger to design the world of Dune. His production sketches are compiled, and look... insane.
The Dune movie should transcend any expected material. It needs to be distinct. Just another desert planet after Tatooine won't do it. Villeneuve needs to transcend the genre with something really memorable. Look to the surreal imagery of the prior films. Something will come. Something incredible.
Don't Forget the Characters
It is tempting to make Dune a visual treat. It is tempting to just translate the characters and call it a day. But that will be an awful waste of potential.
Frank Herbert didn't just write a plot with his novel. He wrote an epic saga with larger than life characters. Their dreams, hopes, desperation--that makes the events of the story mean something.
If all Villeneuve does is bring images to the screen, then the film is going to fail. One of the biggest weaknesses of the Lynch film is that, while the characters say the lines and do the actions, there is an odd sense of inhumanity and coldness to the proceedings. The audience is detached, which weakens the impact of all the events that take place.
While the miniseries manages to develop the characters more successfully, it still fails to capture the grandiose arcs the characters follow in the novel. Plus, the miniseries is five hours long. Which brings me to the biggest problem...
Make the Film Three Hours
The Jodorowsky film would have been twelve hours. The miniseries is five. Both are far too long for any logical filmmaker to make. Lynch's film was cut down to two hours, with a three hour extended cut. Of course, this extended cut starts with a fifteen minute slide-show explaining the lore of the film.
Villeneuve has to find a way to explain the lore, while keeping a focus on the plot and characters, while still making the film visually beautiful.
Well, it will be hard, but Villeneuve did something similar with Arrival not long ago. He balanced a lot of heavy scientific ideas together, while still relaying some pretty incredible characters and a moving plot. And it had a profound impact on audiences.
Dune is nowhere near as complicated and overwritten as JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, yet Peter Jackson managed to condense the plot in a film-able package. But, in order to do that...
Don't Be Afraid to Change Things for Screen (But Within Reason)
It is inevitable. Things must be changed for the translation to screen. Villeneuve cannot be expected to translate every individual element of the book to screen--nor is that even possible, I'd wager.
However, the core of the film should remain the same. What is Dune? It's a story of a people being taken advantage by an indifferent empire. It is a power struggle between two rival factions. It is the story of a boy becoming a savior to another people, and, in the process, starting disaster.
That is the core. That must be relayed.
House Harkonnen. House Atreides. The Bene Gesserit. The Fremen. These are the core things that must appear. The interplay between these groups is where the tension must arise, with the Fremen really coming into play in the second half.
The CHOAM Company and Padishah Emperor, while important, do not need to appear nearly as frequently (though they must be referenced). Keep them in the dark until the sequels, where they play a larger role. Focus on the political side, and save the other details for other films.
Which, of course, leads us to...
This needs to be a series.
Beyond the original novel, Frank Herbert wrote Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune. At least the first three are filmmable. God Emperor might be hard to translate to screen without some heavy creative liberties.
But the benefit of sequels is this: lore can be transplanted elsewhere. Even whole components of the original novel can be distributed or spread apart. It can take the burden off of the original film's need to shove the entire saga into one cinematic package. Focus on the core of the story. Relay that. The rest can be given its own time in sequels, which would only build anticipation to seeing how the rest of it can be adapted.
Look at Lord of the Rings. Not everything in the original trilogy made it to screen. Some things were altered and twisted to make it better on screen. Some fans were disappointed not to see certain components make it to the screen, but the movie turned out brilliant.
We science fiction fans are lucky. We've had two adaptations of the original Frank Herbert classic. It is time for us to put aside religious adherence to the text so we can deliver something that brings the world to Dune in a beautiful, perfect package.