Denis Villeneuve has produced the first great “Dune” adaptation

Photo: Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson / Chiabella James © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved

Frank Herbert’s bestselling science-fiction novel has proved tricky material for film-makers in the past

BOOKS ARE often described as “unfilmable”. Steven Soderbergh described his attempts to bring “A Confederacy Of Dunces”, John Kennedy Toole’s cult novel, to the screen as “cursed”; film-makers have never quite known what to do with stories that focus on the inner lives of their characters, such as James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Virginia Woolf’s “To The Lighthouse”. Science fiction offers a different, particular challenge to directors: that of recreating elaborate worlds and complex plots without becoming confusing or bogged down in exposition. “Dune”, Frank Herbert’s bestselling epic novel of 1965, was one such work long considered unwieldy.

“Dune” is set on a desert planet, Arrakis (also known as Dune), where a valuable spice is mined from the earth. At the behest of the emperor of the universe, the House Atreides, a noble family led by Duke Leto, takes control of the planet and the spice operation from their enemies, the House Harkonnen. The assignment is a trap, however, and Leto is killed. His son, Paul, manages to flee into the desert with his mother to live among the native peoples.

The novel is long and detailed, set in a realm akin to the Middle Ages with spaceships. It tells of warring noble families held in check by an overarching imperium, and combines a Byzantine political drama with discussions of religion and descriptions of interstellar travel. Yet at its heart, the story is familiar: a young man, who might be the prophesied redeemer, comes of age to lead a political uprising and avenge his father. As such, “Dune” has influenced films including “Star Wars” (1977) and “The Matrix” (1999).

That theme has tempted film-makers to adapt it, but without much success. Alejandro Jodorowsky planned a cinematic iteration of the book in the mid-1970s starring Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí, but the Chilean-French director struggled to work the dense material into a feasible screenplay—he wrote a script “the size of a phone book”, according to Herbert, which would have produced a 14-hour film. After years of development, Mr Jodorowsky could not raise the money for the budget and the project stalled. (A documentary, “Jodorowsky’s Dune”, detailed these travails in 2013.)

In the late 1970s Ridley Scott also worked on a version of the book before dropping out to make “Blade Runner” (1982). David Lynch finally managed to finish an adaptation in 1984 but, despite winning over Herbert, Mr Lynch’s “Dune” was a financial and critical failure. The film had run over budget and the producers seized control of the final edit, cutting down the running time to such an extent that the already complicated story became almost incoherent.

Now a new film version directed by Denis Villeneuve has just had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and it aims to avoid past missteps. Timothée Chalamet (pictured) stars as Paul, with Oscar Isaac as his father, Duke Leto, and Rebecca Ferguson (also pictured) as his mother, Jessica. Mr Villeneuve and Greig Fraser, the cinematographer, have produced a visually stunning film, with rippling sands, monstrous sandworms and enormous spaceships. The film-makers have created a credible universe which captures the medieval texture of the book (the ships are carpeted, the soldiers fight with armour and blades and agreements are sealed with wax and signet rings).

It is also refreshing to see a serious piece of science fiction on screen. Without being humourless, “Dune” is a sincere work which doesn’t undercut itself with irony, as is fashionable in many genre films today. The ecological and political themes of Mr Herbert’s book are retained: it is revealed that the planet is kept in a ruinous state so that the natural resources can more easily be exploited. The powerful families come and go from Dune while the indigenous peoples—the Fremen—have been oppressed by all, and are in danger of extermination.

“Dune” only covers half the material of the book so that those themes can be fully drawn out. “I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book with one single movie,” Mr Villeneuve has said. “The world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in details.” That is a sensible decision, and in fact mirrors the original publication of the book, which Herbert divided up into serials. (Mr Scott also planned to divide the story into two parts.)

Mr Villeneuve has said that he is working on the script for the second half. Whether it gets made will depend on this film’s performance at the box office, and whether it recoups its budget of around $165m. That is not guaranteed. “Dune” will be released simultaneously in cinemas and on HBO Max, a streaming service, in October; traditional ticket revenue may well suffer as a result. And Mr Villeneuve’s previous project, “Blade Runner 2049”, was a commercial disappointment. But it would be a shame if the second part did not come to fruition. “Dune” is the most faithful and most successful film version of the book to date.

The Economist