Frank Herbert’s Dune is a towering science fiction classic, but it’s never had a screen adaptation that really satisfied the fans. Maybe that’s because the resources to do it justice were never available, maybe it’s because the right person for the job never came along, or maybe it was a bit of both. But director Denis Villeneuve seems like the perfect fit for the material, in part because he really, really loves it.
“What really captured my mind at the time was the relationship of the humans with the desert, the environment,” Villeneuve told Wired about reading the book as a teenager. “The Fremen designed a way of living, a technology to be able to survive the desert conditions. Frank Herbert was fascinated by nature and by plants. At the time I was studying science, and it’s like, for me, this love of life meant everything for me. There was something about the precision and the poetry, how he described the ecosystems and the logic of it, and the complexity and beauty. For me, Dune is a kind of homage to ecosystems and life, and dedicated to ecology. It’s a beautiful poem about lifeforms, and at the time, it deeply touched me.”
But how do you go about turning that kind of complex story into a movie? First, Villeneuve had to prepare. “Once I did Blade Runner 2049, I had the chops, skill, and the knowledge to be able to tackle something that was this big of a challenge,” he said. “I knew that I was ready to tackle this. I knew that I was able to do it.”
First of all, I asked for time. Time to dream and to design every single element of this movie with very close partners that I chose at the beginning. I built a very small unit of the people that I deeply love to work with. One of them being my old friend Patrice Vermette, my production designer for years. I wanted the design of the movie to be as close to reality as possible, in some ways. We are far away in the future, but I wanted something very grounded, something that feels real, something that people will relate to from the subconscious point of view, that feels familiar.
How Denis Villeneuve brought Dune into the 21st century
So Villeneuve has his vision down. When it comes to telling the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a scion of a noble house who becomes a hero to the Fremen people of the desert planet Arrakis, he had to keep things relatable. “All the things—the political themes, religious themes, and environmental themes—need to be there. But the most important thing for me is to keep the sense of adventure and that sense of an epic,” Villeneuve said. “I didn’t want the complexity of the story to be in the way of the entertainment value, of the power of the movie, the emotional value of the movie. I wanted the movie to be quite a ride.”
Paul Atreides is an exceptional human being. He has been raised in an exceptional family. He’s a true hero. But what’s important is that people identify with him, that people relate to him as a real human being. I didn’t want Paul Atreides to be seen as a prince, a brat. I wanted him to feel real. In the movie, the camera is just above Paul’s shoulders. We are behind him, with him; we are following him into this journey. The first movie is really about a boy losing his illusions about the world. At the beginning, he’s just a traumatized boy who’s sent to a new planet that will be brutal, someone who is trying to understand what is happening to his family, what is happening to his people, what is happening in the world, who is discovering how politics is corrupt. It was important to make sure that we were telling a human journey and not the superhero journey; that’s a very important distinction.
It was also important for Villeneuve bring Dune “into the 21st century,” something he mentioned a couple of times. That meant updating this nearly 60-year-old text, including by highlighting the role of women in the story. To that end, Villeneuve decided to gender-flip the character of planetary ecologist Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) from male to female.
“I already had three strong female characters: Lady Jessica [Rebecca Ferguson], the Reverend Mother [Charlotte Rampling], and Chani [Zendaya],” Villeneuve explained. “But I felt that I needed more. So with Jon Spaihts, we had this idea to take a character and change it. And it works. I mean, I think it’s something that could’ve been thought of by Frank Herbert himself, if the book had been written today. It’s very close to the spirit of the book. Of course, when you make a movie adaptation, you make decisions, but these decisions are made in deep relationship with the book. This idea of making Kynes a woman makes the most sense and doesn’t change the nature of the book.”
Why Dune changed the gender of Liet-Kynes
Villeneuve was also careful with his approach to the character of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who Wired called “sort of a caricature villain.” I dunno if I agree with that, but Villeneuve played along. “[Dune] has some weaknesses, and it was a space for me to explore. Baron was one of those elements,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that it was not, as you said, a caricature or a goofy bad guy. I wanted the Baron to be threatening, to be intelligent, to be sophisticated in his own ways. He has radical views about the world, but the more we are impressed and mesmerized by the Baron, the more powerful he will be. That’s why we took great care to keep the essence of the Baron, but bring him into the 21st century. That’s why I went for Stellan Skarsgård. Stellan Skarsgård is a brilliant human being. He has this intelligence in the eyes, and he has that depth. We talked a lot about the character. It was a great joy to work with him.”
And finally, to give the movie that extra bit of verisimilitude, Villeneuve made sure to film in actual deserts:
One of the things that was very, very important for me was to shoot the environment on the planet kind of directly. This planet is a planet, and that planet is a character. It’s the main character of the movie, this planet, these fantastic deserts. For me, it was crucial to go there for real, to embrace nature, embrace the strength of nature. It’s something very memorable and powerful at the same time. I wanted to capture it on camera live. That’s why I insisted, and the studio agreed, that we go into real environments. Most of what you see in the movie is real, because it’s something that I wanted to feel, This planet that is not Earth but is Arrakis. The audience will feel the light, the wind, the sound.
The movie sounds like it’s going to be a blast. Hopefully enough people feel that way to give it a sequel, since it only adapts the first half of Herbert’s novel. “The decision I made right at the beginning, and everybody agreed with it, is that the book is—there’s so much to tell. It was too much for one movie,” Villeneuve said. “Or you make a five-hour movie and everybody hates you because it’s too long. So we decided to make it in two parts. The story of the first movie sustains itself. When you look at it, I think it’s satisfying. But to complete the story, you need a second movie.”
So far, Dune has been raking it in at the international box office. Let’s hope that streak holds. “If it’s a success, of course, there will be a second one. I hope. That’s the logic of these big movies.”
Dune opens in U.S. theaters and HBO Max on October 22.