There is no such thing as an “unfilmable” book. The concept simply does not exist. What does exist is the concept of adaptation. When adapting one medium to another, excision is part of the process. Certain things have to go, certain things have to be changed, and in some cases, certain things must be added. There’s no way to capture the prose of a novel onscreen, just as there’s no way to make two readers conjure the exact same image in their heads. So yes, any book can be adapted to film, just as any film can be novelized. Sure, the result might not be an exact copy, but it is indeed an adaptation. With a property like Dune, where much of what makes the story special is in the words themselves, audiences who aren’t in the know will probably need some help understanding the plot (David Lynch’s Dune famously distributed lobby cards with a glossary of terms to ease audiences into the world of Arrakis). On the other hand, fans of Dune like myself will surely tend to view the latest version from a different angle.
What I mean is that nobody goes to a production of Romeo & Juliet to see how it ends, but rather to see how this particular production handles the material. That’s exactly how I think of any new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s gargantuan novel. I know what happens already, but I simply must know how Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation looks and feels . It’s for this very reason that Lynch’s Dune has only recently become a beloved film. Yeah, it’s pretty dysfunctional in most departments, but Lynch’s interpretation of how these characters look, sound, and move is very unique, and quite entertaining (and frequently disgusting in the best of ways). If it’s your entrance point to the material, you’re on your own. But once you get it, it’s a wild ride!
So with the caveat that non-Dune fans will have to do some research, I can say that Denis Villeneuve’s take is pretty awesome. I mean that literally. The scale of Arrakis has never been so grand, and the giant worms that live under its surface have never felt so huge. Shots of gigantic ships lifting off from a mountain of sand are simply breathtaking (even though I hate sand), and never does it ever feel like the flesh and blood actors are not integrated with the setting. It’s a remarkable visual achievement.
It’s also half of a movie.
This is by design, of course, since the book is way too much material for the length of a single feature (and really, it would best be served as a miniseries if I’m being honest). The plan is for two films, but with COVID-19 shaking up release schedules and box offices, there’s no guarantee that the conclusion to the story will be completed, although I am hopeful. Without a second chapter, Dune suffers greatly. As it is, the film ends at the most logical point, but it’s not a particularly cinematic moment, nor does it execute very well what should feel like a cliffhanger. I remain excited to see where it goes, but only because I know where it goes.
I once described Game of Thrones as “errrbody schemin’, errrbody fuckin’, here be dragons.” To apply this same format to Dune, my description would be “errrbody schemin’, sand gets you high, here be worms.” I don’t have the room to expound upon this much further, but Dune is an adventure that occurs at the intersection of space-politics, space-religion, and space-drug trade, centered around a brooding twink (Timothée Chalamet) who might be the chosen one.
It’s good stuff, and across the board the casting is perfect, most notably a beardless Jason Momoa as the hilariously named Duncan Idaho, Oscar Isaac as the stoic Duke Leto, and Rebecca Ferguson as perhaps the most important character in the whole tale, Lady Jessica. When reading Dune over the summer, I did my best to imagine my own character designs without being informed by Lynch’s visual style, and Villeneuve’s take on each and every one of them was pretty accurate to my own imagination (the settings in Lynch’s film, however, tend to favor the way I’d imagined them over Villeneuve’s).
There’s a sleepiness to Herbert’s novel that is captured remarkably well here that neither the previous film version nor the SyFy miniseries was able to pin down, and while this tone may bore some, I sense it’s the type of thing that will grow to be appreciated with repeat viewings. Plot accessibility for n00bs is also likely to grow upon rewatch. Valuable to this end is the fact that the film is disinterested in expressly explaining the historical/mythological details of the world. It’s not a passive watch, and it trusts the audience to do the work. This may be off-putting for some, but in a post-Game of Thrones world it’s not a tall order. I suspect audiences are up to the task — hopefully there are enough of us out there that the second half of the film will be made.