This morning, we learned that Denis Villeneuve, who directed Sicario and the heavily Oscar-nominated Arrival, not to mention the upcoming sequel Blade Runner 2049, has signed on to direct a new adaptation of Dune, Frank Herbert’s classic novel about the machinations surrounding a desert planet which supplies the universe’s most valuable commodity. This is excellent news: Villeneuve is an outstanding director. But it’s also interesting because this could be the start of a much bigger franchise.
Frank Herbert’s son Brian, who has co-written more than a dozen Dune books of his own, recently alluded to big things on the horizon for the series. Last fall, rumors broke that Legendary Entertainment picked up the rights to the Dune franchise, which culminated in rumors that Villeneuve would helm the movie. Dune has been adapted for the screen a few times already; Twin Peaks creator David Lynch took his own liberties with the novel for a 1984 theatrical movie. Later, what was then called the SCI FI Channel adapted the book as a miniseries, and followed up with a second series, Children of Dune. There was also a famous failed adaptation attempt from El Topo writer-director Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Dune is a dry novel (sorry, not sorry), and it’s a tough book to adapt, since it covers everything from interstellar politics to ecological activism to metaphysics. The adaptations have gotten mixed receptions from book fans and moviegoers alike. But there’s never been a better time to adapt a dense, complicated book for film or television, and Villeneuve might be the best person to take on the challenge.
Cinematic Universes are big right now
Dune and its sequels created a huge world, and his son and fellow author Kevin J. Anderson picked up that world and expanded it, drawing from Herbert’s notes to create further spinoffs. With the successes of franchises like Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the DC Cinematic Universe, studios are looking for ways to ensure their properties can have long-lasting series potential. Studios are increasingly turning to book series for source material, and Dune is one of the best-known big fictional works that would work with the type of sprawling production a cinematic universe requires.
For one thing, it’s massive. Including the books published after Frank Herbert’s death, the Dune sequence includes 20 novels, spanning millennia and worlds. While the story originally revolved around the Atreides family, there’s plenty of palace intrigue and interstellar politics to keep the novel moving along. Even though the book was written almost half a century ago, its story of revolution against oppressors still rings true and relevant. The original six novels alone have enough material to keep filmmakers working for years, and there are plenty of options available if Legendary wants a spinoff television series or video game story. This bodes well for fans of the series: Villeneuve has a solid track record demonstrating that he’s good at getting right to the heart of a story, its characters, and its world.
An immersive world
Villeneuve’s ability to recognize the humanity in a science fiction story isn’t a trivial concern. Films like Star Wars and Alien owe their appearance and existence to Dune, either through the books of movie productions. Herbert’s novel has an outsized footprint in the larger science fiction canon. The book has endured because it deals with some heady issues that remain relevant today: environmentalism, politics, and religion. Even half a century after it was written, the book is still an exciting, thought-provoking read.
But that means that when it comes to the big screen, it has to differentiate itself from the slew of other big-budget science fiction summer blockbusters out there. There’s an incredible amount of competition for dollars at the box office, and even though Dune is a classic, Villeneuve’s adaptation will have to work hard not just to break out of the existing science-fiction-franchise pack, but also to leave behind the legacy of Lynch’s film and the SCI FI series.
Dune has some big advantages here, and it can probably overcome those barriers. Herbert designed an incredibly large universe with interstellar intrigue, huge number of characters, and the detailed world of Arrakis. If a Dune reboot works with audiences, it can be used as a much larger stepping-stone for a larger franchise. Herbert's original novel and the events on Arrakis are just one small piece in a larger galactic history. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s books precede the first novel, helping set up the larger story that brought the Atreides family to the planet Arrakis, while the sequel novels continue the story of Paul Atreides, the jihad he wages across the galaxy, and his attempts to come to terms with the movement he creates.
One of the intriguing things about Villeneuve is that he’s quickly becoming a huge director, with an A-list of science fiction properties under his belt. Arrival earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Picture, and Adapted Screenplay, among others. Arrival (which was also an adaptation from the literary side of the genre) also showed that he can balance a personal story set against much larger happenings.
His next project is taking on a sequel to Blade Runner, one of the most beloved films in the science fiction film canon. A successful adaptation of Dune would essentially be the triple crown of science fiction film directing.
The most notable thing about Villeneuve’s style is his restraint. He ignores most of the flashy action and set design that characterizes so many science fiction summer blockbusters. Instead, his films tell deeply personal stories in wonderfully constructed worlds. Sicario follows a cop grappling with the violence of the war on drugs, while Arrival uses the arrival of extraterrestrials to tell a heartbreaking story about parenting. Dune has the same kind of personal story embedded in it: the story of Paul Atreides as a nobleman-turned-savior is set against the backdrop of a larger interstellar conflict. It’s a personal epic as well as a space-opera epic.
There’s no guarantee that we’ll ever actually see a Villeneuve adaptation of Dune. Filmmakers have been working on a reboot of the series for years without results. Peter Berg (Battleship, Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day) and Paramount started work on one in 2008, followed by Pierre Morel (District 13, Taken) a couple of years later. Dune is a huge undertaking, which means that while it’s got plenty of potential for a huge franchise, it could also be a costly failure if the studio doesn’t navigate the right path between story and visuals. But Arrival has demonstrated that Villeneuve can do justice to a complicated story. Hopefully he’ll be the one to crack this particular series, and the first to really do it justice on-screen.