Since the tender age of fourteen, director Denis Villeneuve has dreamed of adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune for the big screen. With decades to think about it, he landed on a simple imperative: stick to the source material. (or so the legend says). and when he finally got the chance to make the story suitable for live action, he stuck with it. “When you adapt, it’s an act of vandalism,” Villeneuve told Den of Geek earlier this year. “You will change things. But from the beginning I told the crew, the studio, the actors: ‘The bible is the book. we will stay, as far as possible, as close to the book as possible. I want people who love the book to feel like we put a camera in their minds.”
but when you’re compressing a sprawling novel that folds up in space-time, ultimately unfolding its story across 21 books, mind you, a blockbuster movie (or two, since villeneuve hopes to place the back half of the novel into a second film), something has to give. From revamping the story to completely removing some characters, Villeneuve had to make some changes. Read on for a full breakdown of the key differences between the Villeneuve Dune and the Herbert Dune.
goodbye, princess irulan
Readers of the novel will recall that the chapters are anchored by epigraphs from Princess Irulan (Paul Atreides’s future wife), whose quasi-historical texts about the powerful man Paul will become, written long in the future, foreshadow events mere pages before they unfold. Villeneuve completely removes this framing device, allowing us to experience the narrative as Paul lives it. The result is a fiercer interior experience of Paul’s journey to Messianic prominence, well suited to the novice immersed in Herbert’s strange and complex world. from removing princess irulan to removing the book’s discursive internal monologues, it’s all part of a quest to make something decidedly cinematic, not literary.
“The book is very internal,” Villeneuve told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re listening to the thought processes of different characters. The way we adapt this is, first of all, we take Paul and Jessica’s point of view and try to stay as close to those two characters as possible. then we tried to develop ideas that would allow us to feel what their way of thinking is without having a voiceover.”
The only significant voiceover we hear in Dune de Villeneuve is the opening sequence, spoken by chani. As control of the Arrakis is transferred to House Atreides, Chani reflects on the Fremen’s suffering at the hands of House Harkonnen, wondering aloud, “Who will be our next oppressors?” This line, newly written for the film, gets to the heart of Herbert’s allegorical vision. Dune is, after all, an ecological allegory about the oil wars that stalk the modern Middle East. herbert draws on the geopolitical tetris between the middle east and the west in his vision of noble houses fighting over spices, the arrakis’ precious natural resource. to change any kind of frame device from the irulan royal princess to the indigenous chani is to provide a welcome juxtaposition to the frequent focus on the noble intermediaries of political power. From the front door, Villeneuve asks us to question the motivations and morality of any interloper on Arrakis, be they Harkonnen or Atreides. This suspicion of when power becomes oppression always existed in Herbert’s novel, but in 2021, Villeneuve turned the dial up to 11.
lady jessica and liet kynes are renewed
Like most mid-century science fiction, Dune doesn’t always do the right thing for the women in its pages. Villeneuve made it part of her mission to bring the women of Dune into the 21st century, beginning with her development of Lady Jessica.
“As a filmmaker, I have always been attracted to femininity, and in many of my films the main character is a woman,” said villeneuve. “Femininity is in the book, but I thought she should be up front. I told [co-writers] eric [roth] and jon [spaihts], ‘we need to make sure that lady jessica is not an expensive extra.’ she is a beautiful and complex character. “
In herbert’s galactic future, marriage is seen as a political expediency to unite great houses, which means that love matches are rare. As a result, Lady Jessica, very much in love with her partner but not of a ruling class, is treated as a second-class citizen in House Atreides, due to her title as “Duke Leto Atreides’ Official Concubine”. some see her as a disobedient servant clinging to nobility; others see her as a scheming spy or beneficent witch. Villeneuve makes no move to alter the cold political calculus that prevents the Duke Leto from marrying Lady Jessica, but she elevates her position, framing her as a true partner of the Duke, free from shame or suspicion. And the marriage issue comes up in the film, with a twist: when Duke Leto admits in Herbert’s novel that he should have married Lady Jessica, it is to Paul, but in the film, he himself admits to Lady Jessica. Villeneuve goes even further in shedding the subordinate status associated with the character by deleting a subplot in which Baron Harkonnen claims that Lady Jessica is his spy, raising suspicion among loyal members of House Atreides.
By allowing Lady Jessica to take her own power, Villeneuve also strengthens and modernizes her ties to the Bene Gesserit. Where Herbert’s novel sees Lady Jessica use her “voice” to seduce her and Paul’s captors, Villeneuve cuts to the chase, rewriting the scene to show Lady Jessica ordering her captors to simply kill themselves. meanwhile, the series of hand symbols that paul and jessica exchange, which allow them to communicate without speaking, are an entirely villeneuve invention. At Villeneuve Dune, Lady Jessica is powerful and free in her own right: she is no one’s second-class consort.
following her changes to lady jessica, villeneuve made another move to foreground femininity: she rewrote dr. liet kynes, whom viewers first meet when the atreides arrive in the desert, as a woman. Readers of the novel will remember the character as a man appointed by the Imperium to act as a judge of change, overseeing the transfer of the Arrakis from House Harkonnen to House Atreides. When Spaihts suggested changing the character’s gender, Villeneuve thought she was brilliant. “It doesn’t change the nature of the character,” Ella Villeneuve said. “It just makes it closer to today’s world, and more relevant and frankly more interesting.”
on the dune of villeneuve, dr. Kynes meets a different fate than the one readers will remember. in the book dr. Kynes dies face down in the desert, from dehydration and delirium. meanwhile, in the movie, dr. Kynes meets a much more cinematic ending. Shot down in the desert by the Sardaukar, who have discovered his treacherous alliance with House Atreides, Dr. Kynes summons a sandworm to her location, which swallows her and her killers whole. it’s an exciting image, as well as a clever reminder that even the Sardaukar are no match for the dangerous mysteries of the desert, or the Fremen who have mastered them.
in the book by herbert, dr. Kynes is Chani’s father. although the villeneuve dune shows no evidence that dr. kynes is the mother of chani, the second part of dune can reveal those family ties. chani gets her own glow in this adaptation; Although she does not appear at all in the first half of Herbert’s novel, Villeneuve has outlined her in the story through Paul’s visions of the future.
chani and dr. the kynes are not the only characters that appear in the film. Herbert’s Dune has a huge cast of supporting characters, many of whom didn’t make it to the big screen. We had to say goodbye to Feyd-Rautha, Baron Harkonnen’s scheming nephew, who was so memorably played by Sting in David Lynch’s Dune. Meanwhile, Thufir Hawat and Piter de Vries, the “mentat” advisers (basically human supercomputers) to Duke Leto Atreides and Baron Harkonnen, figure much less prominently in the film than they do in the novel.
“there are some characters that are less developed and I keep them for the second film; That’s how I found the balance,” explained Villeneuve. “We tried in this movie to stay as close to Paul’s experience as possible. then, in the second one, I’ll have time to develop some characters that were left a bit to the side. that’s the theory. I hope it works.”
some characters that are not completely removed are reduced in the name of narrative convenience. Take Baron Harkonnen, for example: Villeneuve has scaled back the Jabba, the grotesque Hutt-style of the book’s big bad, and completely eliminated old-fashioned, homophobic pederasty from the Baron’s private life. Villeneuve also eliminated the Baron’s frequent mean speeches, saying “he wanted him to be a man of few words.”
“this movie is really about paul, and i brought in a little bit of the harkonnens just for context, to understand the geopolitics of the story,” villeneuve said. “This movie only takes a small look at the Harkonnens. the second film is much more about them.”
a more elegant dune
even spice lovers can get lost in dune’s word soup. From the space guild to the landsraad to the protective missionary, the dune of villeneuve breaks down the morass of political and economic organizations that form the novel’s backdrop. cutting out the fat ultimately makes the film easier to use, especially for novices.
“The story is pretty simple: It’s more about the density of the world and how rich and complex it is,” said Villeneuve. “The big challenge was trying not to overwhelm the audience at first with an incredible amount of exposure. It took a long time to find the right balance so that people who don’t know dune don’t feel left out and feel part of the story.”
If your favorite scene was cut or you want to see more of a beloved character, go for it. we still have a second full movie to look forward to.