Denis Villeneuve does not escape the curse of ‘Dune’, a novel unsuitable for cinema


The truth is Dune it was not easy for him. After its release was postponed for a whole year due to the pandemic, the industrial context in which Denis Villeneuve’s new film arrives remains enormously complex. As much as the box office of Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings has gone better than expected – no need for China to lift his veto-, Dune premieres in the United States within the controversial hybrid model of Warner, according to which it would arrive simultaneously to theaters and to HBO Max. A decision that Villeneuve himself, as he learned last December, defined as something that “would kill Dune“That is, not only to reduce the collection due to the streaming and derivative piracy, but also, in his view, annihilate his chances of creating a franchise.

That the study sees fit to extend Dune is more important than it seems, not just because the Serie for HBO Max which is in development (The Sisterhood) but because Dune it is an incomplete movie. In fact, its true title, although it has to be placed in front of the big screen to confirm it, is Dune: Part I. When Villeneuve offered Warner to direct the film, he made it an unappealable condition that he be allowed to divide Frank Herbert’s original novel into two halves. Only in this way could it replicate the complexity of the material in great detail, and this has led to the main promotion strategy —vehiculated by the enigmatic “Begins” of the poster— being to insist on the need for the second part to exist, which is still it is not shot nor has it received a green light.



Taking as a precedent the collapse at the box office that he starred in four years ago Blade Runner 2049 -other ambitious science fiction sponsored by Warner, with which Villeneuve blindly entrusted himself to the public’s interest in a masterpiece of the genre—, the repeated daring of the studio and the confidence in which this Dune it will not be added to the string of failed projects that have tried to translate Herbert’s essential work into images.

All for the spice

Of the enormous difficulties it presents Dune to be adapted, perhaps the greatest of them is the exceptionality of its historical moment. Published in 1965, the novel linked, a decade later, with the fantastic-epic postulates of The Lord of the rings, and subjected them to a critical review based on the reading of Joseph Campbell and the much-aided journey of the hero. This rebellious zeal was found in polyhedral characters with conflicting ambitions and equivocal moral compasses. This approach was in dialogue with the counterculture that was shaking the United States at the time – establishing through the movement hippie a deep questioning of the authority and the foreign policy of the country, engulfed in the Vietnam War, and with an enormous concern for its imperialist overtones. Immersed in this exploration of the spirit of his time, Herbert also did not forget environmental concerns, or the spirituality cultivated by alternative religions, or the interest in psychedelic drugs as a door to momentous experiences. The spice Melange, a substance that moves the entire plot of Dune, is in that sense an inspired fusion of LSD and coveted fossil fuels.

The scale of the project put Lynch’s career on track in the most painful way: with a critical and public failure that taught him that this type of cinema was not for him.

Herbert’s novel did not pretend to be an escapist fiction but started from reflection and a strenuous intellectual ambition. Set in the future 10,000 years away, it contributed to establishing the appreciation of science fiction, consolidated in its audiovisual aspect a few years later by 2001: A Space Odyssey (and, in its own way, by the original series of Star trek). In the 70s, with the countercultural assimilation and the succession of economic crises, phenomena such as Dune and Stanley Kubrick’s film were doomed to a more underground cult, replaced by a burgeoning pop culture that made a frivolous flagship of Star Wars by George Lucas: a work that at a discursive level could not be more different from Dune without that preventing him from being inspired by his literary universe.



As a consequence of Star Wars and the blockbuster modernization that it established, the great paradox occurred: Hollywood’s interest in adapting Dune and repeat Lucas’s success, even though it would not have been possible without Herbert. It is true that the first attempts to bring the novel to the cinema had taken place in the mid-70s, with Alejandro Jodorowsky determined to develop a bizarre adaptation that would have featured Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles or Mick Jagger in its cast.

It was not until the success of Star wars that the public’s fondness for the space opera, and producer Dino De Laurentiis turned to David Lynch to headline a blockbuster. Lynch, very much in vogue in the early 1980s thanks to the commercial success of The elephant Man, immediately demonstrated not being the right person for a project of this nature. Although his sensitivity could fit with the more sinister aspects of the novel, the scale of the project, due to the interference of the studio, put Lynch’s trajectory on the track in the most painful way: with a critical and public failure that taught him that this type cinema was not for him.


Dune it would later be adapted as a discreet television series The literary sequels at the hands of Herbert and other authors did not stop flowing, but what happened with Lynch would maintain a decisive character. That it was then advertised as an “anti Star wars“—That is, as an antagonistic or arrogant response to a fiercely popular phenomenon—, without this resulting in anything other than failure, it perfectly illustrated the curse that had fallen on the starting material: its extemporaneous nature. due to the sociocultural changes and the fame of the same works that had come to influence, of transmitting something relevant about their present. Dune he can boast about how current his theses remain, but they are so attached to exhausted imaginaries that they can hardly function through an adaptation. Proof of this is, yes, Denis Villeneuve’s film.

The fan’s crossroads

At a certain moment of Jodorowsky’s Dune —Memorial documentary that traces the failed odyssey of Alejandro Jodorowsky to develop his own film of Dune-, the Chilean artist was convinced that the best thing to do for an adaptation of Herbert to work was to take all the licenses in the world, reducing the novel to an ambiguous starting point. “I want to rape Dune, but with love, “he synthesized. When Lynch had to approach the material, he also took liberties, both to maintain his authorial imprint and to make the original ending more digestible, in the end the element most criticized by readers. Instead of the gloomy ending, the director opted for a festive one, with messianic overtones, which spoiled everything that could have distinguished the Dune from Star wars while exhibiting an affable concern for the tastes of the public.

The insistence with which its protagonists insist on the proximity of vital events that the footage will hide from us borders on the ridiculous

To adapt Dune Through betrayal or lightness, it can be motivated either by the intention of adjusting the work to a certain production model, or by the need for personal expression of the person who adapts. The most striking thing about Denis Villeneuve’s version, which makes it a blockbuster so incredibly eccentric, it seems that he does not go for any of these options.

From the first field, Dune presents some brave but ultimately incongruous decisions: except for the elimination of the voices as thoughts of the characters – omnipresent in the book and preserved by Lynch – there is an apparent lack of interest in adapting the narrative development to the agility of exposition that we usually associate to big budget cinema, as well as to disguise that Dune it is only the first part of a story. Perhaps this is what comes to upset the viewer the most: in the best of cases we could consider Dune a prologue, but at worst a mere teaser from Dune: Part II. The insistence with which its protagonists insist on the proximity of vital events that the footage will hide from us borders on the ridiculous, although at the same time it does not fail to show that Dune, in all his self-absorption and imposed maturity, he cannot escape certain inertia of the mainstream current.

The dependence on a new film that continues the story aligns Villeneuve’s title with serialization and an unpleasant air of a pilot episode, while the solutions to adapt a prose as motley as Herbert’s end up mutating into open concessions to the public. The terribly dysfunctional humor of Jason Momoa’s character, the replacement of thoughts with exhausting script lines that patiently explain each element of the plot, or the inclusion of abysmally performed action scenes – all add to the impression that Dune it depends more on the enjoyment of the audience than it seems, and its combination with the persistent solemnity of the film underpin a very serious internal confusion, which could be explained from the second way of betraying the novel: depending on the wishes of the adapter.



These wishes, unfortunately, do not go beyond rendering an immobile homage to Frank Herbert. You can talk about Dune What “blockbuster author “around its obvious peculiarities and its claim to satisfy above all the filmmaker of the day —in this case, a Villeneuve passionate about the novel—, but it is still ironic when the fundamental creative guideline has been to keep loyalty to the written work no matter how slow the narration may become or the arrhythmias it incurs -particularly painful in the last hour of the film-, and when not even aesthetics manage to endorse this exceptionality. The generic soundtrack of Hans Zimmer nor the vague prophetic visions of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), devoid of any lysergic charge. Not even the punctual visual discoveries – limited to some ship design or the physics of the Arrakis sand -, sacrificed for a setting on stage, self-conscious by the enormity that it must constantly reflect, gravity confused with dullness and a taste for bombastic but ultimately inexpressive shots.

Each of the problems listed refers us both to an insurmountable crossroads —that of the filmmaker devoured by the reactionary fan— and to the already mentioned inability to Dune to resonate in our day to day. Of course his discourse around power, the despotic lust for so-called civilization, energy dependence, faith, or the destruction of the environment is as current today as it was in 1965 (even more so), but the film fails prove it for herself, limited to the events of distant characters and a show that prefers to impress rather than penetrate. One so self-convinced of its importance, so dead and out of date, as finally ignorant of the fact that the foundational nature of Dune it has already been squeezed and profitable to spare, and that it is urgent to contribute something beyond the delight in what it has been. Dune Denis Villeneuve’s is, in that sense, a relic, not at all lacking in interest but what the original novel never lacked: something to say.



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