What Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Does Better Than the Book

Frank Herbert’s masterpiece can never be topped. And yet, the new Dune film does get across a few things more effectively than its source material.

Dune Sandworm
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

This Dune article contains spoilers.

It remains to be seen if Dune will win Best Picture at the 2022 Oscars. For certain fans of science fiction cinema, it certainly feels like it should. Just like the novel it adapts, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is more than just a good science fiction story, it’s a good movie first and a good science fiction film second. This means that arguably it’s a good Dune adaptation third. Although the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel version of Dune was pretty faithful to the text, it wasn’t a crowd-pleaser. Villeneuve’s goal was to cast a bigger net, to make a movie that would work for “someone who had never heard about Dune.” 

The Best Picture nomination is sideways proof that perhaps he succeeded. And as Dune heads back to HBO Max, many fans — casual sandworms and spice addicts alike — are doubtlessly ready to reassess whether or not this latest Dune is really the masterpiece they’ve been waiting for. And, one thing everyone might forget while watching the new film is not just how well it adapts the Frank Herbert novel, but also, the ways in which it improves upon some of those concepts. 

Here are three ways that Villeneuve’s Dune improves upon the book:

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Paul’s Visions Work Better Visually 

Something that’s slightly muddled in the first Dune novel, which gets slightly clarified in the second book — Dune Messiah — is just how, exactly, Paul’s visions of the future actually work. In Messiah, Herbert establishes the rules for how and why Paul’s visions are vague, and at what point his prescience fails and when it succeeds. Because Paul eventually will use his oracular powers in place of his actual eyes, it’s a bit muddy on how these powers work early in the game.

This is a place where Villeneuve’s take is actually brilliant. Instead of having Paul’s visions be literal, Villeneuve makes everything impressionistic. A good example of this is the way in which Paul perceives Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun) in his visions, versus what happens in actuality. In the vision, a voice tells Paul a “friend” will guide him. This is only partially true. Jamis does guide Paul into understanding the ways of the Fremen, but not on purpose. None of the conversations that Paul and Jamis have in the visions exist in their scenes in “real life.” But the purpose of these visions only becomes clear to Paul after the fact. 

This isn’t just clever misdirection, it creates something visually interesting and helps the audience experience the bewildering quality of Paul’s visions first hand. In the book, you’re kind of taking Herbert’s word for it. In this version of the film, you are in those visions, and that difference matters.

Lady Jessica Gets a Bigger Role in Villeneuve’s Dune

There are a few memes that poke fun at the strange disconnect between a general perception of the Herbert text and Denis Villeneuve’s statements about Dune’s need for female characters to push the narrative forward. To be clear, the Dune novels are (mostly) not sexist in intent, but the female characters do experience sexism and are often the victims of a patriarchal society. Lady Jessica is referred to as a “concubine” after all. Herbert wasn’t saying this was good, but it is depicted. 

Structurally, Villeneuve does a way better job than Herbert at putting the pivotal female characters more central to the story. We open with Chani’s (Zendaya) perception of how the Empire treats her planet. Lady Jessica has more screen time than Duke Leto, and Rebecca Ferguson’s portrayal of Jessica as a powerful warrior, on many occasions, makes her seem like the star of the film.

Furthermore, the famous scene which opens the novel, in which Paul is tested by the Reverend Mother, is moved 30 minutes into the film. This fact interestingly gives the whole sequence much more weight, and we feel Jessica’s conflict over what is happening more keenly. Part of this is because we’ve come to get a better sense of Jessica as a mother and a member of the Bene Gesserit at this point in the movie, which isn’t possible if she’s being introduced to the audience at the same moment she’s submitting her son to a test involving the Gom Jabbar. Paul has more than one birthright, and arguably, the birthright connected to his mother is more important to the overall story. This fact exists in the Herbert books, of course, but Villeneuve’s take never lets you forget it.

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Everything About Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho 

There’s a fine line between saying that Jason Momoa nailed the concept of Duncan in the book and saying that he actually exceeded what’s on the page. In terms of cinematic Duncans, Momoa’s is easily the best. His easy confidence combined with his fierce loyalty is communicated wordlessly. The notion of Duncan’s backstory — and the idea that he’s not from Caladan — is not communicated in the film at all, but somehow Momoa’s performance implies that Duncan is an outsider in nearly all situations. 

From him teasing Paul about “putting on some muscle,” to his genuine admiration for the Fremen, Momoa brings a lightness and earnestness to the role simultaneously. He’s much more than a killer badass and has more gravitas than simply being the Han Solo-type of this movie. However, you could again argue that all of that is on the page, and Momoa was simply a conduit for the great characterizations of Frank Herbert. But that would mean you hadn’t seen Duncan’s death scene in the 2021 film.

Unlike the book, we actually see his death happen. And, also, unlike the book, we see Duncan rise up from near death, pull a sword out, and proceed to destroy the Sardaukar surrounding him. From the very first photos released for Dune, we kind of knew that was going to be Duncan’s best death scene. But, what we didn’t know is that it would be one of the best death scenes ever.

And, because Villeneuve plans to adapt Dune Messiah after Dune: Part 2, that means, it’s very possible we’ll get Momoa’s comeback as the Ghola duplicate of Duncan, creepily known as “Hayt.” More Momoa in Dune? We don’t hayt it. 

Dune (2021) is streaming on HBO Max right now.