Denis Villeneuve’s extreme less-is-more approach to adapting Frank Herbert’s Classic
**A Discussion with Spoilers**
Villeneuve is known for his sparse visual storytelling – Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 – in adapting Dune, he strips the story down, providing space for the visuals to breathe.
Herbert’s Dune, a sprawling masterpiece, has always been considered difficult to adapt to film, in part because of its plethora of themes which include: religion, feudal systems, power, decadence, ecology, destiny, human breeding programs, colonialism, coming of age, and chemically enhanced human development just to name a few. At the core, the theme of Herbert’s Dune is, as voiced in the novel by the planetologist, Kynes, the cost of being, and following, a hero.
In Dune: Part I, Villeneuve makes Herbert’s complex narrative manageable by eliminating themes, relocating events, and condensing the timeline. In doing this, he moves away from Herbert’s core theme of the danger of giving up individual decisions to a hero or messiah. Instead, he focuses on the human journey of Paul Atreides, the plight of the Fremen, and the ecology of Dune.
This is a place where adaptations succeed or fail. Success relies on the choices of the adapter and their vision of the story. But in giving up Herbert’s vision of corrupting power, does the story lose too much? Or will its focus on Paul’s journey and the Fremen uprising prove to engage audiences as a mirror from which to view our current ecological issues?
To focus the audience on his thematic choices, Villeneuve starts by altering who is telling the story. In the novel, each chapter is prefaced by an excerpt from Princess Irulan’s history texts. She is the lens through which the world of the novel is viewed. Irulan is white, educated, a Bene Gesserit, and a privileged daughter of the Emperor. Villeneuve upends that version by opening with Chani, a Freman, the daughter of Liet-Kynes the planetologist, a warrior, and an indigenous woman of color.
The difference in tone and intent is startling.
At nightfall, the spice harvesters land. The outsiders race against time to avoid the heat of the day. They ravage our lands in front of our eyes. Their cruelty to my people is all I’ve known. These outsiders, the Harkonnens came long before I was born. By controlling spice production they became obscenely rich. Richer than the Emperor himself.
By using Chani’s words, Villeneuve grounds his story in the plight of the subjugated rather than the ruling class. The story also becomes more personal and intimate as Chani shares focus with Paul. And it becomes the story of a people rising up and fighting, rather than a story of them being dragged along a path set for them by the Bene Gesserit, yet another outside force working to control the Fremen and the geriatric spice, melange. In opening with Chani’s worldview, the Fremen become more than tools to be used by others. They are, from the start, a fully fleshed-out society locked in battle with their colonial overlords.
Beyond refocusing the story’s themes, Villeneuve plays with time, which further streamlines the plot and allows more space for his gorgeous set pieces. Scenes pile up against each other with few clues as to the time between them. Like in Arrival, he uses this to his advantage and links scenes visually, ignoring the usual verbal and visual clues that let the audience know time is passing.
The only point when time feels present is in the final scenes, where he limits locations and streamlines the plot. First, by expunging nearly all the scenes that show Paul’s battle with the environment of Dune, and secondly having all the scenes where Paul and Jessica encounter the Fremen happen in the same place rather than dispersed into three different locals. This tightens up the story and allows Villeneuve more space to explore Paul’s struggles visually. The audience sees Paul’s internal debate in the images and words that flash through Paul’s mind and externally in the physical battle between him and the Fremen Jamis.
By tightening the plot, relocating events to single locations, and limiting the number of themes explored, Villeneuve gives himself the space to show us his version of Dune. It is a fully formed world with everything from color pallets, costuming, heighliner ships, ornithopters, and of course expansive desert landscapes. Yet, even as I enjoyed Villeneuve’s visual storytelling, I yearned for the layered complexity of the novel. Herbert’s Dune drew me in, as a teenager, with its intricate worldbuilding. It is a novel that, no matter how many times I read it (and there was a decade or two when I read it almost yearly), I always found new depths.
Villeneuve’s version is a feast for the eyes. The themes he has chosen to emphasize emerge from his storytelling organically and resonate with his singular vision. In Dune: Part II, I hope Villeneuve weaves in more of Herbert’s varied themes. But even if he doesn’t, his choices in Dune: Part I provides audiences with a mirror to our current political climate and cultural ills, and that, maybe, is enough. The movie may also pique viewers’ interest enough to lead them back to the source material in all its thematic complexity and awe-inspiring world-building.