Is Dune a worthy adaptation of its lofty source material?

Dune comes with a lot of baggage and high expectations. For a start, it’s based on one of the most critically and commercially successful science fiction novels of all time (whether it is grimdark or not is something I’ve tackled before).

Even more weighty is the fact that previous attempts to film Dune have resulted in multiple failures (one eventually producing the fascinating Jodorowsky’s Dune documentary,) a flawed and divisive motion picture by David Lynch and an often overlooked Sci Fi channel TV series.

To face that challenge is acclaimed director Denis Villenueve, who’s career since hitting Hollywood has seen a string of beautiful, emotionally resonant films such as Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. From that CV we know he can handle high concept sci-fi, work with an existing IP and wrangle an ensemble cast.

Speaking of the cast, it’s an impressive one, with Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgaard, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem and Zendaya all supporting Timothee Chalamet as our protagonist, Paul Atreides.

So, does Dune meet the challenge? Is it a worthy adaptation of its lofty source material or does it fall prey to the hazards that befell its predecessors?

Adaptation

Let’s start with how the plot of the book is adapted. The first important thing to say, which won’t be a surprise to anyone who has been following the production is that Dune is a duology, with the second half of the story to follow in 2023.

While this leaves everything very much up in the air and unresolved at the end of the film, it does allow the rich world building and nuances of character to play out in ways that the Lynch version couldn’t afford (of course, more time to lean into the weirdness might or might not have been a blessing with Lynch).  That extra running time allows a lot of the book to be included and while I can see where pieces have been moved around or scenes combined it’s an almost entirely faithful adaptation.

One slight change is in how two characters meet their fates, but it’s done in such a way that allows a neat exposition of information that partly comes from the novel’s appendices and gives a suitably heroic death to both characters.

I’m a little surprised there’s no visualisation of the Navigators folding space–a notorious highlight of the Lynch version–just some lingering shots of the massive Spacing Guild ships to give a sense of scale, and the weirdness of the Navigators isn’t really seen in the film.

Elsewhere I might have liked to have seen the dinner scene in Arrakeen or Jessica discovering the greenhouse but these are hardly key moments and their major import is moved to more economic scenes.

Story

Dune is a movie that feels very much about pace. It’s slow and measured but feels weighty, with no wasted screen time despite running over two and a half hours. There is a sense of events being important but also driven by a momentum that is far more than the actions of the characters. It’s almost… doomy.

We linger on Caladan–homeworld of the Atreides–for far longer than I’d expect, but that is effective in two ways. Firstly, it allows more interaction between the various family members and retainers and secondly it allows a distinct visual contrast between moisture rich Caladan, all mist shrouded grey / greens and arid Arrakis, all sand colours and harsh light. The glimpse we get of the Harkonnen homeworld, Geidi Prime offers another aesthetic, damp like Caladan, but sickly rather than verdant, with a stark black and white palette.

This is a visually stunning film. With moments of genuine awe mixed with a sense of great, elaborate detail. The way that spaceships land is deeply unsettling, as giant vehicles seem to move without respect of inertia, which is another example of how this movie uses pace and momentum to great effect. The attention to detail with uniforms, the styling of the various factions and so on is delightful.

There is some delicious brutalist architecture in Dune and it tallies with the styling of the ships to feel like it’s profoundly influenced by 70s sci fi artists like Chris Fiss, John Harris and Robert McCall, but with a 21st century sheen. Again, this styling adds to the sense of weight with the greater works of humanity being spartan and of grand scale, while more ornate detail exists only at a personal level.

Characters

Moving onto the performances, everyone is good, although a lot of the big names have little to do, which is to be expected in such an ensemble piece. Special credit goes to Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto, Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Kynes, Javier Barden as Stilgar and Babs Olusanmokun as Jamis. Hmm… seems like the Fremen get a lot of the good lines.

A quick note on Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck. He’s a lot of fun in the role, grim and serious in a very different way to Patrick Stewart – more the bitter survivor of Harkonnen slavery and sadly not uttering the “mood is for cattle and love play” line.

However, this movie belongs to Rebecca Ferguson and Timothee Chalamet as Lady Jessica and Paul Atreides.

Ferguson carries Dune, portraying Jessica in a far more human and vulnerable way than I’ve seen before. She weeps in private, is all but openly grieving for her son as he’s put through the Gom Jabbar and is every bit the scared subordinate to the Reverend Mother but her poise and power when she displays her Bene Gesserit training and does a little light murder. The result is a female character who can be both emotional and rational, sensitive and powerful and it’s brilliant.

It’s Paul who benefits from most of that power and emotion and Chalament is excellent in the role, although I can totally see a certain kind of person saying he just whispers and looks winsome a lot so he looks dreamy to teenage girls. Chalamet portrays a far more aware and cynical Paul than Kyle MacLachlan did, one who struggles with the order of the universe and is more aware of his awakening power. It is perhaps overplayed how much he foresees Chani more than all the other significant things going on, but he is still a teenage boy, I suppose.

The action

Lastly, the action scenes when they come are spectacular. Paul’s training duel with Gurney is a far more robust affair than in the Lynch version which serves to show Paul’s mean side, which later comes out in his duel with Jamis. The large-scale Harkonnen vs Atreides battle is visually impressive, if in parts tactically ludicrous. That silliness serves to illustrate the sense of scale, momentum and in some parts, futility of what’s going on. This is after all science fiction predicated on a drug produced by giant sandworms that makes you trip so hard you can see the future and pilot spaceships. I think I can live with just a little silliness in my military tactics.

Like the novel it’s based on, Dune won’t be for everyone and some will find the whole premise silly, some will find it too slow, some will dislike Chalamet or be annoyed that it didn’t get something (or lots of things) right as it seemed it should be in their head. This is always the way. However, I adored it and I’m very much looking forward to the second half of the adaptation.

So, does it live up to the hype?

Overall, Dune is an outstanding cinematic achievement. It is ambitious in scope but reaches the heights it aims for and leaves you wanting more. Dune is beautiful, superbly directed and well acted, with a plot that is arguably more relevant today than it was when it was written. As I’ve mentioned, I especially enjoyed the sense of weight and scale that imbued the film, conveyed through its pacing, the choices of shot, the soundtrack and the room given for the actors performances to breathe.

I can’t wait for October 2023 and Dune: Part Two.

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Chris Napier

Chris Napier lives in Glasgow, Scotland with his wife, two young sons and a head full of utter nonsense. An ecumenical geek, he especially delights in stories of hope in dark places and finding beauty in desolation. In between writing his own stories and posting to his Chaotic Good Story Club, he attends the Glasgow SF Writers Circle and contributes to Big Comic Page and Grimdark Magazine.