Anyone remotely interested in science fiction would have heard of Dune. Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel blended geopolitics, environmental science and fantasy in a way that remains accessible and perhaps more relevant today. Dune introduced concepts that have since then been borrowed by modern-day science and fantasy offerings – lone warrior overthrowing an evil empire, men taking control of nature, and anti-imperialist ideas.
One would only imagine that a book laden with such innovative ideas would lead to a movie adaption for the ages. Sadly, so far, that hasn’t happened for Dune, David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation notwithstanding.
In the early 1970s, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to direct his dream project, also titled Dune. The ensemble cast included towering personalities of the time, including Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles. Pink Floyd were signed on to score the music. It would have been a collaboration like no other, a dizzying and eclectic mix of weirdness technical panache that Jodorowsky was known for.
However, Hollywood’s stifling studio culture didn’t finance the project, and Jodorowsky’s screenplay, immortalised in a story board, ended up as an unproduced gem. In 1977, Star Wars was released and changed the landscape of sci-fi films forever, begging the question – what if Dune had come first? Jodorowsky’s struggle to finance the film and gather the right team to execute his vision was beautifully encapsulated in Frank Pavich’s 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.
We deserve a fantastic Dune film, and thanks to the studio Legendary Pictures, we might just get it.
The Hollywood studio Legendary Pictures had acquired the rights to the Dune series from the Frank Herbert estate. There have been reports that Canadian director Denis Villeneuve will direct the adaptation. Villeneuve is one of the most talented directors working today. His most recent film Arrival, an adaptation of a complicated Ted Chiang novella, was released to massive acclaim and commercial success. A teaser of the upcoming Blade Runner sequel, directed by Villeneuve, holds out the promise that Villeneuve is the right choice for a movie that is not only a challenge to make due to its tonal and visual complications, but also because of is subtle themes.
Humanity and its weakness and powers has been a recurring theme in Villeneuve’s movies. His characters always have a fulfilling arc, such as Hugh Jackman as a desperate father in Prisoners, Emily Blunt playing a helpless intelligence agent in Sicario or Amy Adams as a linguist grappling with life-altering choices in Arrival. Dune is filled with characters that are not only pawns in a larger story, but have a dimensionality that characters in modern day sci-fi films often lack.
And then there are the worlds of Dune, spanning from the arid lands of Arrakis to the unique architecture of the evil Harkonnens. In the hands of Villeneuve, we can perhaps be assured that the characters in Dune will retain their defining values, the worlds will be captured in all their splendour, and the seemingly simple but actually layered plot will translate well on the screen.
In Arrival, Villeneuve showed a gift for adapting a mind-bending story into a satisfying film that transcends the traditional blockbuster. He knows how to build tension, a craft that was amply on display in Prisoners and Sicario, and has a brilliant sense of cinematography. His collaborations with Roger Deakins have resulted in some of the finest camerawork we have seen in recent times. Even in Arrival, Villeneuve was able to attach a sense of otherworldliness to aliens and their technology, an impressive feat considering how often we see aliens in movies nowadays.
Villeneuve is a self-confessed fan of the book and has in the past expressed interest in directing a film based on it. Clearly, Villeneuve is an ideal choice, but if not him, who else? Perhaps Alfonso Cuaron, who has shown flair and originality in working with adapted screenplays (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), or Guillermo Del Toro, who has a unique visual style for presenting fantastical elements (Pan’s Labyrinth).
But speculations aside, do we really need a Dune movie?
The business of films has radically changed since the release of Dune, as have audience tastes and expectations. We live in a world in which Anthony Hopkins is in a Transformers film and sequels are abundant. Producers are reluctant to fund original ideas and directors are hesitant to take risks. The recent Star Wars films and the multitude of Marvel films of late are just symptomatic of a larger reality – the sci-fi genre badly needs a boost.
Sure, making Dune would be a challenge. Every element that makes Dune such a brilliant and original piece of science fiction has now trickled down to other franchises.
In a world ruled by Disney, would Dune make any noise? Well, we need it to. Amidst all the Jedi-like magic, giant sandworms and mind-altering spices, Dune is a classic good-trumping-evil tale. What sets Dune apart from the average CGI fest out on every Friday is that it still manages to seamlessly be a commentary on anti-imperialism and human potential as well as a reminder of how puny humankind is and will always be before the might of nature. The science fiction genre was defined by Dune; perhaps it can be redefined by the new adaptation.