Past attempts to adapt the material for the big screen collapsed under their own weight.
Denis Villeneuve and his next project, Dune, are back in the news. The director appeared at the Rendez-Vous du Cinema Quebecois and shared some good news and some bad. On the downside, it won’t be out for a couple years. So, for those of you excited about one of the genre’s hottest directors linking up with the book that can’t be adapted: patience. But! There’s a payoff: “The goal is to make two films, maybe more,” he told the audience (as quoted by The Playlist). That’s right, Dune will be at least two films.
This is very promising news for nervous fans of the property. The density of Frank Herbert‘s classic sci-fi novel has been a stumbling block for, well, pretty much everyone trying to work with the story. The book has some heft to it. Even the Kindle version weighs in at 892 pages. “Dune” is the entry point to a fully articulated universe that features characters as complex as anything you’d see in Game of Thrones. And HBO took nearly 10 hours to adapt the first novel in that series.
At the same time, while the fantastical elements of Game of Thrones are slowly weaved into the story at a digestible pace, Dune doesn’t quite have that luxury. The plot is propelled by futuristic technologies and the trade alliances which support their development. Herbert’s work is heady and very much in the realm of hard science fiction. Filmmakers are stuck with the question of how to ease people into the story without shredding its epic nature.
The journey to the previous cinematic adaptation, David Lynch’s Dune from 1984, is instructive in just how damn hard the story is to adapt. That version was practically the realization of a quixotic quest. In fact, the only equally troubled production which comes to mind is Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Both had (have, in Gilliam’s case) long-running histories of people trying and failing to make it all come together.
The project that would wind up Lynch’s was first conceived in 1971 and passed through many filmmakers’ hands. At one point, Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) was slated to direct. While that fell through, he made it deep into pre-production territory. The beautiful but utterly mad pre-production work is showcased in the recent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.
Eventually, Lynch directed his adaptation, which was flayed by critics upon release. Roger Ebert’s major complaint was that it’s practically impossible to follow. “The movie has so many characters, so many unexplained or incomplete relationships, and so many parallel courses of action that it’s sometimes a toss-up whether we’re watching a story, or just an assembly of meditations on themes introduced by the novels (the movie is like a dream).”
That was the running consensus. There is just too damned much squeezed into that 137 minutes. The edits to cut the material down led to voiceovers, confusing narratives, and a shotgun blast of that hard science fictional universe building.
The introduction voiceover to the film even features the line “Oh, yes. I forgot to tell you…” The story just didn’t survive the editing process.
Villeneuve is no stranger to working in the very long form. Blade Runner 2049 was reported to have an assembly cut from him on the order of four hours. To that end, he also clearly isn’t afraid to work with established canon and work in spaces previously mined by great directors.
While the work certainly has more challenges than adapting the story to a suitable length, this sounds like a step in the right direction. We’ve got some time to see how this drama plays out. Hopefully, Villeneuve fares better than the filmmakers who came before him.