In December 2020, Warner Bro’s is scheduled to release one of the most highly-anticipated films of the year. The novel on which it’s based helped build the foundations of contemporary science fiction – and inspired cinematic juggernauts like Star Wars– and is comparable only, perhaps, to The Lord of The Rings Trilogy. I’m talking, of course, about Frank Herbert’s Dune.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you need to sit down and have a good long think about what you’ve been doing with your life and then go out and buy yourself a copy. Luckily, you’ve got a few months to prepare.
In the meantime, here’s everything you need to in know in anticipation of this monumental cinematic event.
The book that defined a genre
Dune is widely considered to be “the greatest novel in the science fiction canon” and it won the two most prestigious prizes after its release in 1965. It was cited as the world’s best-selling science fiction novel in 2003, and in fact, the entire Star Wars media franchise– in itself a massive pop culture phenomenon – wouldn’t exist without it.
The novel’s complex plot depicts a messianic journey that spans multiple planets, and dives deep into the psyche of its characters, particularly that of the powerful Atreides family, as they’re forced to move from their paradisiacal home planet, Caladan, to the hostile desert planet of Arrakis, colloquially referred to as Dune.
In this great article about the history of the novel, Hari Kunzru explains how the novel came to give voice to the zeitgeist of the sixties, and in a way define the concerns of the generation (many of which contemporary society is still grappling with).
“Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it”, he writes. “If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters, is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius.”
“Its concerns – environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness and the developing countries’ revolution against imperialism – are blended together into an era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation.”
An entire other book could be written in praise of Herbert’s novel– the strength and depth of his female characters, his handling of the bedouin natives of the planet of Arrakis as the novel’s moral centre and not a tribe to be conquered, his deft handling of the complexity of religion– but right now we’re here to discuss why it’s so exciting that Warner Bro’s has elected to take on the gargantuan task of depicting this intricate storyline on the silver screen.
Let’s start with why producing Dune is different from producing any other film.
Firstly, The films are probably cursed
1984 | 2020 pic.twitter.com/hf77IidX6j— ⊃∪∩⪽ (@DuneNews) April 22, 2020
Every attempt at recreating Dune on screen has been a catastrophic failure, and yet, clearly filmmakers are still tempted by its unfaltering brilliance.
“You can imagine why Hollywood felt so compelled to bring Herbert’s novel to life”, writes Gunseli Yalcinkaya for Dazed. “The phantasmagorical plot, characterised by its warring noble houses, ruthless galactic emperors, desert nomads, and magical spices that grant superhuman abilities, is box-office gold – on paper.”
Despite this, out of all those who attempted the task only one rendition, David Lynch’s 1984 version, made it to the big screen, and even then it was a disappointing commercial flop. According to Yalcinkaya, after finally pushing hard enough to get his film to cinemas, Universal released a two hour cut Lynch hated so much that he had his name removed from the credits. It was a theatrical calamity that critics proclaimed the worst movie of the year.
Yalcinkaya quotes writer Harlan Ellison, who later said about the film: “It was a book that shouldn’t have been shot. It was a script that couldn’t have been written. It was a directorial job that was beyond anyone’s doing … and yet the film was made.”
Even with all the backlash the Lynch film garnered from critics, fans, other Sci-Fi creators, and the director himself, the film fared far better than most of its counterparts.
After Arthur P. Jacobs of the Planet of the Apes fame optioned the rights to Dune in 1971 and got David Lean and Robert Bolt on board as directer and screenwriter, production grinded to a halt when Jacobs unexpectedly passed away in ’73 (then 51 years old) , just a year before the film was scheduled to begin shooting.
In 1975 Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky decided to transform the novel into a 15-hour Sci-Fi epic, starring Orson Welles and Salvador Dali, without even reading the book. He even planned an accompanying soundtrack by Pink Floyd! Pre-production for this bonkers (or genius) interpretation was actually set up in Paris, but stalled for financial reasons after two and a half years (and millions of dollars in spending). According to Yalcinkaya, Jodorowsky’s Dune received rave reviews at Cannes and (somehow) “remains the most successful film associated with the book to date”– despite never even being made.
In 1979, a young Ridley Scott was hired to turn the story into two films, but dropped out seven months into production and produced Blade Runner instead.
Finally, in 2000, Richard P. Rubinstein released a mini-series based on the book, which did actually do pretty well. So well, in fact, that in 2008 he partnered up with Paramount Pictures to produce a feature film version with Peter Berg and Pierre Morel as directors. This, however, also fell flat, and the project was abandoned after four years, depriving us once again of a cinematic representation of Herbert’s fantastic universe.
It is very exciting then, that now, 55 years after the publication of the original Sci-Fi classic, Warner Bro’s and Legendary Entertainment have bravely chosen to give this repeatedly bungled story another go, with director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy and Sicario) at the helm.
What we know about Villeneuve’s Dune
The film (which allegedly also comes with a companion series on HBO Max) is scheduled for release in December 2020, and stars everyone’s new favourite hearthrob Timothee Chalamet as the messianic protagonist Paul Atreides, Oscar Isaac as his father Duke Leto, and Rebecca Fergusson as his mother, Lady Jessica.
Other notable names include Jason Momoa as the rugged Duncan Idaho, Stellan Skarsgard as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Zendaya as Chani, and Javier Bardem as the bedouin leader, Stilgar.
With a cast like this, there’s hope that finally, the characters in all their depth, and the universe they inhabit, will finally be successfully depicted outside of reader imagination. It may help that Villeneuve is, wisely– and in a move that demonstrates his understanding of the complexity of the tale, splitting the story into two films.
“I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book with one single movie,” he told Vanity Fair. “The world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in details.”
Villenueve, who has been known to create opportunities for the actresses in his films to play stronger and less gender-bound roles, has taken some creative liberties with the characters in an effort to give them real life off of the page, including updating Dr. Liet Kynes, usually depicted as a white-skinned man, and giving the role to Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Rogue One) .
Duncan-Brewster told Vanity Fair that the character “manages to basically keep the peace amongst many people. Women are very good at that, so why can’t Kynes be a woman? Why shouldn’t Kynes be a woman?”
Dune’s breadth, it’s detail, and the strange familiarity of the world in which it takes place are but some of the challenges that filmmakers have had to face when tackling it, and Villeneuve is no exception. “It’s a book that tackles politics, religion, ecology, spirituality—and with a lot of characters,” he said “I think that’s why it’s so difficult. Honestly, it’s by far the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life.”
Not to mention, he’ll have to tackle it twice.
This whole year has been a massive disaster. We’ve had wildfires across the globe, plagues of locusts and then, to top it all off, the planet got hit by a pandemic that forces us all to cower in our homes. It’s been ages since any of us saw the inside of a cinema, and while nobody can be sure when we next will, here at least is something to look forward to.
If you haven’t read Herbert’s masterpiece before, get your hands on a copy and make the most of the time you have in quarantine to broaden your literary horizons. Its gripping plot and multi-dimensional world are the perfect way to distract yourself from everything that’s going on right now, and once you’re done you’ll have something exciting to keep you going for the next few months.
This film may be a monumental flop just like all the ones before it, in which case the build up to it might be the most exciting part of this whole journey. I’m choosing to have faith in Villeneuve and his very able team, but if that does happen we can always fall back on the inferior knock-off version that did manage to build an entire commercial empire which milks it for everything it’s got by stealing many of its concepts from Dune and churning out annual instalments: Star Wars.
Yes I said it. come at me.