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An Unlikely Cinematic Triumph

Efforts to produce a worthy film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ seemed doomed to failure—until Denis Villeneuve gave us his two-part blockbuster.

· 14 min read
An Unlikely Cinematic Triumph
Actors Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet.

Note to readers: This article contains spoilers for Dune: Part One, but none for Part Two.

Denis Villeneuve’s two-part adaptation of Dune is a masterpiece, both as a mass-appeal spectacle and a work of cinematic art. Visually stunning, thematically rich, and meticulously crafted, it’s also something of a miracle: Since its publication in 1965, Frank Herbert’s 896-page science-fiction epic has represented to filmmakers what Moby Dick was to mariners: a doomed quest to land a mythical beast. The scope of Villeneuve’s triumph is all the greater considering the failures that preceded him.

Though revered as the author of what some call the greatest science-fiction novel of all time, author Frank Herbert (1920–86) was dysfunctional and often abusive in his personal life. Raised in the Pacific Northwest by raging binge drinkers, his first marriage barely lasted the time it took to produce a daughter; and much of his second was spent on the move, in a bid to dodge child-support payments. (A son recalled twenty such moves during his childhood.)

Herbert’s second wife, Beverley, supported the family, while he wrote and tormented their children. If they denied his random accusations, he’d hook them up to a lie detector (which they believed to be rigged), and strike them with a belt. A homophobe in both life and art, he rejected his gay son, Bruce, who died of AIDS in 1993. All in all, a nasty piece of work. 

Although Herbert carried himself like an artistic icon—bushy beard, bomber jacket, a hearse for a car—by his late thirties, he was still wallowing in obscurity. He’d spent a few years as a reporter for local papers, had stories published in science-fiction magazines, and had written a pair of unread novels. But that was it. As he pursued his big break, H kept circling back to an idea he’d first had while researching an article about the U.S. government’s use of imported grass species to stabilize the shifting sand dunes on America’s west coast: What if there was a planet that was all desert—a planet of dunes?

The cover of the February 1960 edition of Fantastic magazine, featuring Frank Herbert’s story, The Priests of Psi—in which protagonist Lewis Orne is recruited by the galactic government to investigate a mysterious planet ruled by powerful priests.
The cover of the February 1960 edition of Fantastic magazine, featuring Frank Herbert’s story, The Priests of Psi—in which protagonist Lewis Orne is recruited by the galactic government to investigate a mysterious planet ruled by powerful priests.

Herbert researched the desert cultures of the Middle East and the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious prophets it produced. Much of his boyhood had been spent on Puget Sound, home to Indigenous communities that gave him an appreciation for the environment, as well as the remains of utopian socialist and anarchist communes to which his grandparents had once migrated. Stir in a streak of libertarian radicalism, an interest in Zen Buddhism and Jungian psychology, and sprinkle with peyote and magic mushrooms (which Herbert used to overcome writer’s block), and you have the recipe for Dune.

Rather than write a pre-history lost to time, as with Lord of the Rings or Star Wars (which borrowed heavily from Dune), Herbert imagined a future that will exist 10,000 years after humans defeat the sentient robots that (Terminator-style) bring civilization to its knees.

Shaddam IV, the hereditary Padishah Emperor, rules a galactic empire (the “Imperium”) in concert with aristocratic houses that exercise local control, following the style of medieval kings who stood atop feudal networks populated by lesser nobles. The most important planet under the Imperium is Arrakis (colloquially known as Dune), being the only known source of a psychotropic spice (“melange”) that gives users the preternatural abilities required for intergalactic travel. The local strongman is Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a brutal colonialist who mines melange while subjugating the Fremen—mystical Indigenous nomads who’ve mastered the art of riding the fearsome four-hundred-meter-long sandworms that live under the planet’s surface. 

Fearing that a charismatic upstart, Duke Leto Atreides, may lead a rebellion, the Emperor conspires with the evil Harkonnen to destroy House Atreides. Duke Leto and his army are slaughtered, as planned; but his concubine, the Lady Jessica, and their son, Paul, escape into the desert, where they are taken in by the Fremen. These planetary stewards come to believe that Paul may be the prophesied messiah figure who’ll lead them on what is, in effect, a holy jihad against the Imperium. As it happens, Paul’s mother belongs to the Bene Gesserit, a mystical cult-like sisterhood that’s engaged in a long-running eugenics project aimed at marrying one of its disciples to the Imperial throne.

That extremely abbreviated précis covers a little more than half of Herbert’s original Dune novel—and all of Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One, released in 2021. But Dune’s plot took form even earlier, having been stitched together from two works that Herbert serialized in Analog magazine—Dune World (1963–64) and Prophet of Dune (1965). Even once Herbert undertook massive revisions to turn his works into the novel we now know, his manuscript was rejected by all 23 of the publishers he originally pitched.

In fact, it’s likely that no one today would know Herbert’s name if it weren’t for a stroke of luck that came courtesy of an outfit known as the Chilton Company, a small trade and hobby operation that published magazines such as Motor Age and Jewelers’ Circular. Editor Sterling Lanier wasn’t put off by Herbert’s strange themes and prose style. A science-fiction fan who’d loved Herbert’s Analog serializations, he managed to convince his bosses to publish a limited hardcover edition of Dune, which would go on to win the prestigious Hugo and Nebula Awards.

No doubt, you’re thinking that this turned Lanier into a corporate hero at Chilton Co. But you’d be wrong. Awards notwithstanding, the reviews were poor, and sales were so bad that Lanier was fired. (Years later, Lanier would publish his own epic science-fiction novel, Hiero’s Journeya post-apocalyptic tale of a telepathic priest who fights off mutants while riding a genetically-altered moose named Klootz.)

That could have been the end of Herbert’s tale. But timing is everything, and his book began catching a wave with a young generation fascinated by sex, drugs, rebellion, new-age spirituality, environmental activism, and anti-colonial agitation. Herbert’s trippy masterwork was a natural fit for college campuses and hippie communes. It also had a champion in the Whole Earth Catalogue, the sixties-vintage countercultural bible of survivalism and ecological self-sufficiency. Soon, the mainstream press took note, with the Boston Globe reporting that, “word is spreading on the West Coast grapevine about an epic science-fiction novel titled Dune.” The book would go on to sell over 20-million copies.

Naturally, Hollywood came calling. Producer Arthur P. Jacobs (Planet of the Apes) bought the rights in 1972, and offered the project to Lawrence of Arabia director David Lean, who could revisit the desert, this time with sandworms. While Lean eventually dropped out, the government of Turkey promised to help fund Jacob’s project, and even to declare the film’s locations national monuments. Soon, Jacobs had a budget, storyboards, A-list stars, Hollywood Ten screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and production designer Terence Marsh. The final hurdle was the 1973 writers’ strike. It ended on June 24. Three days later, Jacobs died of a heart attack.

His widow sold the Dune rights to a French consortium headed by producer Jean-Paul Gibon. He and producer Michel Seydoux weren’t much interested in the novel, but they did want a chance to work with Alejandro Jodorowsky, the hotshot auteur who’d won the hearts of cineastes with his 1970 “acid Western,” El Topo. When asked what he’d like to direct next, Jodorowsky had replied, “Dune,” even though he hadn’t read the book. He wanted audiences to experience LSD without drugs. Dune was his vehicle, not his subject.

 More specifically, Jodorowsky imagined:

whore-ships driven by the semen of our passionate ejaculations…humming-bird ornithopters which fly us to sip the ancient nectar of the dwarf stars giving us the juice of eternity…machines greater than suns wandering crazed and rusted, whimpering like dogs seeking a master…thinking wheels hidden behind meteorites, waiting, camouflaged as metallic rocks, for a drop of life to pass through those lost galactic fringes to slake thirsty tanks with psychic secretions.

In Jodorowsky’s imagined ending, Paul would turn into a sentient planet. Plans also included psychedelic designs by French cartoonist Jean “Moebius” Giraud (who created over 3,000 storyboards), a score by Pink Floyd, and a cast starring Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dalí. (The Spanish surrealist had been lured by a fee of $100,000 per hour. By comparison, Welles’ demand—having his favourite Parisian chef on set during the entire shoot—was a relative bargain. 

However, Jodorowsky lost actress Charlotte Rampling, who was supposed to play Lady Jessica. “I can’t be in a movie where there’s 2,000 extras defecating on screen,” Rampling protested (not unreasonably). “I need to be in a movie that people are actually going to see.” Five decades later, she’d play Gaius Helen Mohiam, a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, in Villeneuve’s 2021 film.

Charlotte Rampling as Gaius Helen Mohiam in Dune: Part I.
Charlotte Rampling as Gaius Helen Mohiam in Dune: Part I.

Despite all this madness, the real sticking point was Jodorowsky’s fourteen-hour shooting script, described as “the size of a phone book.” Known as the most influential movie never made, its failure, ironically, became Jodorowsky’s claim to fame. And the entire glorious mess was commemorated in the award-winning 2014 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. It’s huge fun.

Flamboyant cheese king Dino De Laurentis (later of Mandingo infamy), swooped in next. He hired Ridley Scott, fresh off Alien, to direct. Scott wanted Harlan Ellison to write the screenplay, but Ellison was no fool: “I told him that I’d rather spend my declining years vacationing on Devil’s Island.” After a year’s work, Scott resigned to deal with the death of his brother. (It proved a lucky escape. His next film was Blade Runner.) De Laurentis turned to up-and-comer David Lynch.

A disaster for the ages, Lynch’s Dune (1984) was so bad that he later had his name removed. As he told AV Club, “I sold out before I finished…It’s a sad, sad, pathetic, ridiculous story.”

Lynch’s film might have been less incoherent if Universal Studios hadn’t chopped it to bits, though nothing could save a movie remembered for, among other horrors, the camp grotesqueries served up by Kenneth McMillan as he struggled to channel Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, sandworms that looked like vacuum cleaner bags, and Sting’s codpiece-cum-hood-ornament. If you must watch, do it on gummies.

You might do the same with John Harrison’s three-part TV series, Frank Herbert’s Dune, produced for the Sci-Fi Channel in 2000. While Harrison’s teleplays are at least comprehensible, the acting is wooden, the sets cardboard, the costumes silly, and its Emmys for cinematography and special effects explicable only in the context of early-aughts cable (see here, here, or here).

A generation later, Villeneuve’s project likewise came close to ruin, though not for reasons related to madness or incompetence. The production of Dune: Part Two depended on the financial success of Part One. But the box office prospects of the latter were jeopardized by COVID (which had already delayed the film’s theatrical release by a year), and the decision of AT&T, Warner Brothers’ owner, to stage a simultaneous release on HBO Max. Villeneuve was apoplectic. “Dune won’t have the chance to perform financially in order to be viable, and piracy will ultimately triumph,” he said. Watching Dune on television “would be like driving a speedboat in a bathtub.”

‘Dune’ Director Denis Villeneuve Blasts HBO Max Deal (EXCLUSIVE)
I learned in the news that Warner Bros. has decided to release “Dune” on HBO Max at the same time as our theatrical release.

Yet Dune: Part One was a hit, receiving Academy Award nominations in ten categories, and winning six. Its global box-office receipts of US$435 million (on a US$165-million budget) exceeded the combined tally of its nine competitors for Best Picture.

With Dune: Part Two now playing to packed theatres and critical accolades, no one can still claim that Herbert’s novel is unfilmable. It’s a Hollywood ending to a lifelong dream that began when a thirteen-year-old Villeneuve was creating Dune storyboards with his best friend in the small Quebec town of Gentilly.

Among Villeneuve’s skills is an apparent ability to attract and inspire top talent—including in key roles that, while often overlooked by casual moviegoers, are essential for an epic undertaking such as Dune. It’s hard to imagine that this project that would have achieved its sweep and grandeur without Villeneuve’s co-screenwriters, Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts; cinematographer Greig Fraser; production designer Patrice Vermette; composer Hans Zimmer; sound designers Mark Mangini and Richard King; editor Joe Walker; and casting directors Francine Maisler and Jina Jay.

Special praise goes to Roth, the six-time Oscar nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay sought out by Scorsese, Spielberg, and Kurosawa, among others. Dune, more than most novels, is discursive, with extended scenes of dialogue, interior monologues, backstories, and subplots. But film is a visual medium requiring a tight dramatic structure. The adaptor’s art is knowing how to cut while maintaining narrative coherence and the unique atmospherics that made the original work a success. While Villeneuve and Spaihts wrote the final draft of Part One and all of Part Two, Roth was the one who’d drawn up the blueprints. Without those documents, this pair of Dune adaptations would have suffered the fate of earlier attempts.

Roth has cleared the undergrowth of secondary characters and tangled political intrigues, philosophical tangents, science-fiction mumbo jumbo, and lengthy expository tracts. He plunges us into the heart of the action and expects us to connect the dots, a task he facilitates with a clear storyline for each film. Dune: Part One is about the destruction of House Atreides and the possibilities opened to Paul and his mother as desert refugees living with the Fremen. Part Two is about Paul’s relationship with Chani, a young Fremen, and the fulfillment, for good or evil, of the dreams and prophecies described in the first instalment. This structure enables Roth to withhold major characters such as the Emperor, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, and Princess Irulan, which simplifies the narrative in Part One while giving them more impact in Part Two. It is a tight narrative marvel.

Zendaya, playing Chani, in Dune: Part Two.
Zendaya, playing Chani, in Dune: Part Two.

It also remains largely true to the novel. The plot of Part One is essentially a pared down version of the book, while the few main changes in Part Two are those that were dramatically necessary (especially with respect to the emotionally satisfying fate of Baron Harkennon). The adaptation also finesses two elements of the novel that have provoked political controversy. In this screen version, Paul repeatedly insists that he must be guided by the Fremen—instead of vice-versa—a nod to the modern abhorrence of the “white saviour” trope. And Herbert’s wildly homophobic portrayal of the Baron as a sadistic, incestuous pedophile has been modified; instead, we see him at the end of his dining room table feasting his gaze on a naked Duke Atreides, artfully arranged as a martyred saint in a Renaissance painting.

Like Herbert, Villeneuve and Spaihts portray the characters as archetypes rather than as nuanced individuals. But whereas Herbert was a gasbag with a tin ear for dialogue and a weakness for pretentious philosophizing, Villeneuve and Spaihts write dialogue as bullet points, leaving their casting directors to match the character archetypes to the star personas embodied by the cast.

Timothée Chalamet is splendid as man-child and possible messiah Paul Atreides. He’s always had a lock on callow, artistic youths (his best work pre-Dune was the virginal Kyle in the 2017 comedy/drama Lady Bird), so he was a perfect fit for Paul as a sensitive, young aristocrat in training. But his adult role as Henry V in the 2019 military thriller The King received mixed reviews; and while he could certainly front a boy band, I had my doubts as to whether he could lead an army of desert nomads. Suffice it to say that the final hour of Dune: Part Two put those fears to rest, with Chalamet emerging as a great poet warrior.  

Timothée Chalamet in Dune: Part Two.
Timothée Chalamet in Dune: Part Two.

Unfortunately, Chalamet lacks romantic chemistry with his co-stars. He has the chaste beauty of a porcelain doll, incapable of sweat—an advantage on Arrakis, granted, but not so much on the silver screen. And so what is meant as a smoldering gaze comes across as the pose of a runway model.

It is Chalamet’s (and Dune’s) only major flaw. But it is a significant one, which affects Villeneuve’s attempt to balance pyrotechnic battles with personal relationships that anchor our emotional investment. In Part One, it is Paul’s love for his parents that takes center stage; and the loss of his father is deeply moving. In Part Two, it is Paul’s love for Chani; and here there is a lack of connection. Chalamet sounds sincere when he tells Chani, “I will love you as long as I breathe,” but it has the ring of a teenager saying goodbye to friends at summer camp.

This makes the terrific performance of Zendaya as Chani even more remarkable. Tough, defiant, and torn, she fully embodies the anguish of a woman driven wild by her lover’s choices. It’s hard for one partner to carry the weight of a romance single-handed, but Zendaya is so alive to the moment that she brought me to tears.

Fortunately, Chalamet has strong chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially his mother, the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and Stilgar, his Fremen mentor and acolyte (Javier Bardem). Bardem has a blast as the wily fanatic, glorying in prophecies fulfilled and cunning in battle. 

Ferguson is also a standout. As tough and maternal as Linda Hamilton in the Terminator franchise, she excels as both a clearheaded politician and a mystic true to her Bene Gesserit roots. Together with Chani, the Reverend Mother, Princess Irulan, and others, Ferguson’s Lady Jessica highlights one of Dune’s great strengths: the abundant major roles for women of intelligence and conviction, a notable achievement in the too-often male-dominated world of science fiction.

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica in Dune: Part Two.
Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica in Dune: Part Two.

Wonderful as the rest of the uniformly fine cast may be, the true star of Dune is its production design and cinematography. Patrice Vermette drew inspiration from brutalist and Ziggurat architecture to capture Dune’s post-apocalyptic fortresses, amphitheatres, and palaces. His futuristic designs for military hardware are likewise superb. Battle-scarred helicopters look like dragonflies and, to my eyes, the baron’s flying tanks resemble forty-story-high upright beetles.

Meanwhile, Greig Fraser’s cinematography does for Wadi Rum and the Liwa Oasis what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand. Sand dunes and rock formations have never looked so spectacular. Innumerable images could be hung in art galleries. It is even more impressive considering the continuity challenges of filming in natural light with the sun’s movement affecting the shadows and colours of the sand and rock formations.

Indeed, the use of light for both interior and exterior spaces does much to create the film’s emotional tone, just as the designs and shots bring home the scale of the worlds portrayed. The seamless interplay of real-world practical effects and visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert’s CGI also merit attention: The three-minute scene in which Paul rides the giant sandworm while the Fremen watch like spectators at a sporting event took three months to shoot. It was time and money well spent.

As a Canadian viewer, it is hard not to feel a measure of national pride in regard to Denis Villeneuve. Once nicknamed “Spielberg” by his friends when he was still an aspiring teenage filmmaker, he’s created a film that belongs in the same sentence as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That Villeneuve made good on that light-hearted schoolboy prophecy with, of all things, Dune—a whale that swallowed up so many other screen legends before him—marks one of the great accomplishments in modern film history. 

I’ll let others debate whether Villeneuve deserves to be compared with Spielberg. For my own part, I’ll just call him Ishmael.

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