Villenueve’s Dune: How to Adapt a Film

The success of the new novel to film adaption

Established novels turning to films are a dice roll. Sometimes you get “Harry Potter,” sometimes you get “Percy Jackson.” With turning written word into cinema, inevitably things must be changed, cut or adjusted to fit the medium. Add this on top of a past reputation as an impossible book to bring to the big screen, and you’d think “Dune” would find itself sinking to the bottom as another doomed adaptation of the sprawling saga. However, I am pleased to report that it exceeds expectations in ways that were never possible, and does so by sticking true to the source and keeping a firm grip on its run time.

In the past, Dune’s issues stem from the fact that it is a 700 page novel that can take upwards of half a day to read through, and then taking that and compressing it into a two hour film. Add this to an already ill-received David Lynch film from the ‘80’s and another similarly regarded miniseries in the early 2000’s and this issue is still present. For Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” the film stays planted in the first part of the original novel, and uses it’s two hour runtime to the full extent to tell that part of the story alone. This gives it time to breathe, while also sticking true to the original material and telling a story about Paul Atreides and his family’s fall from grace while taking over the spice production, as was present in the original novel. Much of what was implied in past adaptations is actually shown on screen, and the removal of extreme changes, such as turning the concept of ‘Muad’Dib’ into a weapon rather than just a name help the film feel more grounded and less in the realm of avant-garde cinema that Lynch attempted thirty years ago.

In addition to this, Villenueve also takes advantage of today’s modern lingo in films and taking advantage of a more naturalistic style in writing against the original novel and film’s Shakespearean prose and extended sequences of thoughts. Translating these to film is hard to do so in a convincing way, and instead of doing that, Villenueve takes this massive amount of dialogue and turns it in a more casual way that gets the same message across without taking up minutes of precious screentime that can be better spent elsewhere. In so doing, he even adds characterization that wasn’t present in the original story, such as Duncan Idaho becoming a joker and comic relief versus his original stoic and unassuming appearance in the novel. This helps strengthen each individual character’s personality and make them memorable versus their one-off appearances in the original source, and also keeps the pace of the movie brisk.

All in all, Villenueve’s “Dune” has done the impossible: adapt “Dune” to the big screen in a way that doesn’t leave the audience scratching their heads wondering what the hell they just watched. That in itself is a remarkable achievement, but making it also a great film on top of that makes it stand tall amongst its predecessors, and is a great showcase of just how to make a great film from a book: do right by the source and change the bells and whistles to make it have just as much relevance today as it did fifty years ago.