There’s a very good reason why Dune, one of the most influential sci-fi books of all time, has never had a great adaptation. Basically, it’s just a lot. The story is set across multiple planets; follows several families, factions, and belief systems; and is less about action than it is about persuasion — diplomacy or cunning is favoured over brute strength and violence. When filmmaker Denis Villeneuve sat down to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic for the 21st century, he knew he had several challenges, but making it accessible to a larger audience — so the film would make money — was the biggest one of all.
“I am a massive fan of the Dune books. It’s a book that stayed with me over 35 years and it’s a book that I deeply know,” Villeneuve told Gizmodo and a group of journalists last month. “So you go into the adaptation, you realise that the goal was to make a movie that will please the hardcore fans, the people that know Dune by heart, and also my mother that never read Dune … So to find that equilibrium was not easy.”
The way toward that equilibrium was to approach Dune from the audience’s perspective. “I had to [figure out] how to introduce this world without being too much didactic that it becomes like a lesson, that it becomes almost like the homework for the audience,” Villeneuve said. “So that’s where we had to find ways that we feel respectful to the book, but kind of a little bit different. So it’s all about choices and sometimes tough decisions.”
Those choices and tough decisions are numerous, from splitting the book into two parts with the hope and prayer he gets to make the rest in the near future, to focusing his version of this story on two specific characters. “The way, first of all, that the focus was [found] was I said to my partner screenwriters that we need to focus on Paul, Paul, Paul,” Villeneuve said. “As you know, Dune has been written that you visit the different planets and all those families. But for the movie, I said we will mostly focus on Paul Attrides. I want the movie to be as immersive as possible and to be in the boy’s point of view.”
Paul — played by Timothée Chalamet — has always been the main character but his arc is only part of the story. The first section of Herbert’s book spends significant time with his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac); his loyal soldiers like Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck (Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin); the evil Harkonnens (played by Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, and others); and many more. This is all while the Attrides family moves from the lush planet Caladan to the dry planet Arrakis, where an abundant source of the galaxy’s most valuable resource, spice, exists.
For a good chunk of the story, Paul takes that journey with his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the Bene Gesserit. It’s a group of almost superpowered women who basically control the galaxy from behind the scenes. So if you’re going to focus on Paul, and his future, the other thing Villeneuve realised he had to do was focus on Jessica. “I said to [co-screenwriter] Eric Roth — who had the task to track the beast at the beginning — Eric asked me ‘What would be the most important element? What would be the thing you would like to focus on as I adapt?’ And I said to him, ‘Women,’” the director said. “I think that in Dune women are very important. I think they were very important for Frank Herbert. And I think that the Bene Gesserit should be upfront. I would love Lady Jessica to be not the main protagonist, but just behind. So it was very important that the movie would be focused on Paul and the relationship with his mother and that lead to [building] up Lady Jessica as much as possible.”
Focusing the main story on a boy and his mother instantly makes a movie about huge, otherworldly ideas more accessible. Over the course of production, Villeneuve was able to hone his ideas more and more so that he had just the right balance of digestible story and Dune uniqueness. “Again, [that balance] is not something that was done in five days,” he said. “It … evolved as we wrote the film. As I shot and edit, it’s something that evolves like a sculpture will evolve. And for me, it was a very fascinating filmmaking process that I really enjoyed, to have that space to explore to make sure that I would find the right path to tell that story. But it was not a path I found very quickly.”
Even after all of that, no matter if non-fans feel the story is accessible or fans think it’s faithful enough to the original, it’s crucial to remember this is only half the story. People who want more Freman living, Harkonnen scheming, and sandworm riding, will, hopefully, still have that chance. “The beauty of making the movie in two parts, that was a decision I made right at the start as well, is that there are some elements that I didn’t explore in this first part that I will have a chance to explore in a second part,” Villenuve said. “Dune [has] all its power into details.”
Dune: Part One is set to arrive in Australian cinemas on December 2.