‘Dune’: Villeneuve saves a very complicated adaptation and manages to replicate part of the epic and complexity of the original novel
Let’s start from a more or less indisputable fact: to perfectly replicate all the nuances, narrative meanders and cosmic delusions of the classic of the space opera Frank Herbert’s literary work from 1965 is a practically impossible task. Not because the novel is especially complex at the narrative level, not even because it is too long (more than six hundred pages, but it does not happen many things), but because the novel is not very cinematographic.
In the book there are important characters that die off and ellipsis that last for years. The thoughts of the characters are continuously read, something unthinkable on screen. The lore of the world in which ‘Dune’ takes place is explained not only with very long digressions, but also with appendices and extra documents. ‘Dune’, despite the epic of its concept, also flees from the spectacularity.
In a certain sense (and that is where all the similarities end, let’s not get upset) it has elements in common with ‘Fundación’, which will also soon face a tricky adaptation: in Asimov’s novel there are no clear protagonists, ellipsis that last decades and we do not visualize confrontations or action, only struggles of intellects and politics. In Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ we have a little more action, but dialogues, misunderstandings and references to conflicts that happen out of the field are constant.
That is, adaptation, infidelity to the letter is mandatory. And Denis Villeneuve succeeds in the effort, in the same way that he came out of another pair of adaptations (‘Enemy’ and ‘The Arrival’) that were based on literary originals that at times border on abstraction. Here Villeneuve removes chapters that serve in the book to enrich the world and stops where you can scratch off some spectacularity, like the hand-to-hand combat that Herbert dispatches in a few pages. And above all, at the core of the film: the attack on the Atreides base in Arrakis, a chapter to which Herbert does not give too much importance – despite being essential to the plot.
The result It indisputably hits the mark: Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ is undoubtedly ‘Dune’. There is no need to eliminate characters or to condense several into one (something we see so often in adaptations), and even the changes of race and gender, inevitable because of the decades between book and film, feel logical and meditated. All the characters physically and behaviorally refer to the originals, although obviously Villeneuve takes liberties with scenarios described very briefly by Herbert.
Perhaps Villeneuve’s great finds are in the visualization of elements of the novel that here remain somewhat underexplained for the casual spectator, but that the reader of Herbert will identify No problem. The speed of calculation of the Mentats, for example, is made explicit with an almost robotic facial gesture. And the political character of the prophecy that sustains the history and the readings on the eugenics of the Bene Gesserit acts are only mentioned here, but they are there.
The dune show
Would this world have been richer if we had seen more and better of the imperial guard, the Sardaukar? Sure, but with a scene where the troops are blessed and a Sardaukar talks to Baron Harkonnen’s Mentat, we get the hang of it. Would we like to see more scary and loathing sequences at the Harkonnen Palace? Of course, but eBetween Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgård we already had a great repulsive recital from the noble family.
Maybe now The question remains whether ‘Dune’ works as a science fiction film on its own, and not just as a good adaptation. Perhaps this is where the project laps a bit more: throughout the footage we are being prepared for a third act that simply never comes, because even though we have already been warned, the truth is that this first part of ‘Dune’ ends abruptly and without concluding his story, not even partially. (What’s more, it consumes well beyond half the book, although that’s a problem we won’t have to worry about for a while.)
In between, Villeneuve deduce how the spectacularity and grandeur that was in Herbert’s novel works sometimes just between the lines and it works for him. The oppressive wardrobe and rites of the Bene Gesserit, the immense motherships, the legions of troops from the different Houses … Villeneuve understands what has fascinated thousands of readers of the saga for decades, and puts it seriously on screen ( sometimes too much: what little man given to humor) and a solemn and overwhelmed sense of spectacularity.
Maybe Villeneuve has played excessively to leave gaps in the action and characterization of the characters, because he knows that the devotees of the literary franchise will fill them out without problems. But … and the rest of the spectators? Will they tolerate an ending with a totally open “to be continued”? Will you forgive that some characters only appear in a couple of scenes just because in the book they are more developed? This is a risky bet, no doubt, but one that, for the moment, is paying off with very remarkable results.