In the long history of novels being adapted into films, it seems a certainly that people have always spoken of ‘unfilmable’ books. Of course they are usually only considered unfilmable until an enterprising production team actually films them, as was the case with Peter Jackson’s widely acclaimed The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frank Herbert’s Dune has spent a lot of time on people’s lists, despite both a 1984 feature film and a 2000 TV miniseries. In this case people use these adaptations as proof of their ‘unfilmable’ sentiment. Both film and series have their own critical flaws, and these seem to justify the argument that Dune is simply too long, too complex, and too expensive to film.
Acclaimed writer/director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Prisoners) has taken a red-hot go and proving the naysayers wrong, with his 2021 epic feature: titled Dune in all marketing materials, but Dune Part One once the audience has paid for a ticket and started the movie. Not only it is a slightly dubious bit of deception, it is also a key sign of how Villeneuve has attempt to ‘film the unfilmable’. Rather than adapt Herbert’s entire 412-page novel in one shot, he has split the work into two. For those familiar with the plot, Villeneuve’s Dune goes as far as Paul meeting the Fremen in the desert. To see the rest of the story, viewers will have to wait until late 2023.
For those unfamiliar with Dune, it is an epic science fiction story set far into humanity’s future. The known universe consists of a massive empire, within which rival aristocratic houses compete for the emperor’s favour. Travel between star systems requires the use of a substance called melange, or ‘spice’, and it is only found on the planet Arrakis – more commonly known as Dune. The brutal House Harkonnen is robbed of its control of Dune, with authority given by the Emperor to fierce rival House Atreides. The Harkonnens, of course, are not prepared to let go of their prime asset so they can help it.
That set-up barely scratches the surface of Dune, of course, and the main challenge facing any filmmaker is how to capture and deliver an enormous amount of world-building, history, and political machinations into the space of a few hours. There is also the extensive cast of characters, whose varying allegiances, goals, and personalities must be established and played out. David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation essentially tried a ‘kitchen sink’ approach, overloading the film’s first half in particular with names, characters, and situations piled so thick and fast that it simply became confusing. Villeneuve tries what is essentially the opposite approach, stripping out a lot of extraneous detail and trying to both slow down the feed of information and only give the audience what they need to know at any given time.
The approach seems only partially successful, as well as rather uneven. In some cases it still feels as if too much of the novel was unnecessarily retained. In others the absence of proper explanations renders some of the characters’ choices a little difficult to understand. What is included takes two-and-a-half hours to play out, at what often seems to be an interminable slowness. I cannot shake the feeling that with a little more trust in the audience and a more energised pace, Villeneuve could have captured the novel very effectively in the space of three hours. As it stands, this slow and methodical technique seems to show off a director afraid of their own production: as if one over-confident misstep would mean ruin for the whole enterprise.
It is, of course, impeccably designed. From the costumes to the enormous machinery and craft of mining spice the film presents a beautifully realised and consistent universe. It lacks a variety of colour, which seems a shame – everything is either grey or brown, which seems as much a hallmark of post-Gladiator epic filmmaking as the whisper-and-shout delivery of the dialogue.
Villeneuve has assembled an absolutely outstanding cast of actors to populate his Dune. Timothée Chalamet presents the precise blend of youthful naivete and inner strength than protagonist Paul Atreides requires. Oscar Isaac and Stellan Skarsgård are fine as rival leaders of Atreides and Harkonnen. A fine range of actors fill the various supporting parts: Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, Charlotte Rampling, Javier Bardem, Zendaya, and a number of others. They are uniformly superb, yet as with the other elements of the film they feel very carefully arranged like figures in a doll house.
It would be hard not to recognise an allegory of the colonial oil trade in the Middle East within Herbert’s Dune. The film certainly does, with Hans Zimmer’s multi-layered score reflecting the music of the region and the costuming the fashion. The Fremen – indigenous peoples of the deserts of Arrakis – are simultaneously fetishised as an exotic 19th century Arabia and apparently cast entirely without actors of Middle Eastern ethnicity. It is not the best of looks; neither is the film’s apparent embrace of the ‘white saviour’ narrative – although that is more a result of splitting the story in two than anything else.
Dune is certainly worthy – oh so worthy – and handsomely produced, and should please most fans of Herbert’s iconic novel. At the same time it feels rather like a film made in fear: fear of making the wrong creative choice, or omitting the wrong bit of the book, or even the wrong delivery of a famous line. It would be a lie to claim I did not enjoy it, but like Lynch’s previous attempt I enjoyed with some fairly major caveats. To my mind both films together demonstrate that Dune is far from unfilmable – but that perhaps the best film version would exist somewhere between the two. It is hard to fully pass judgement of Villeneuve’s Dune. By the end of 2023 we can hopefully tell for sure.