Dune: Denis Villeneuve on Updating a Classic for the 21st Century

Director Denis Villeneuve speaks about finally getting Dune right on screen with a two-film adaptation, and how it needed to be approached with a modern sensibility.

Timothée Chalamet in Dune
Photo: Warner Bros.

Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve knows a thing or two about stepping into deep waters with even deeper legacies. A versatile filmmaker who as of late has been working in science fiction, his last movie Blade Runner 2049 was the decades-later sequel to a 1980s cult classic lionized for its genre-defining imagery. For most filmmakers such a prospect would be intimidating, but for Villeneuve it might only be pretext since his next film is a new big screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Dune has technically been brought to the screen before, but in such an unfortunate and incomprehensible way by director David Lynch that no one really counts it. The influential novel similarly felled iconoclast filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky in the 1970s when he attempted to bring it to the screen in a production so legendary that it inspired an excellent documentary about what almost was. It’s perhaps for that reason Villeneuve is fairly open about creative decisions and changes being made to make Dune work on screen in 2020. Speaking with Vanity Fair he’s opened up about the challenges of adapting Herbert’s novel, beginning by cutting it in half.

“I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book with one single movie,” Villeneuve said. “The world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in details.” But despite its intricacy, Villeneuve is certain the story of a feudal intergalactic society is more timely than ever. Indeed, much of the first film will be centered on Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a young scion of his wealthy house, learning the ways of planet Arrakis, a desert world ruled by monstrous sandworms and sole location of “spice.” Spice is a mind-altering substance more precious than oil and that the entire galaxy is desperate to acquire.

“No matter what you believe, Earth is changing, and we will have to adapt,” Villeneuve said. “That’s why I think that Dune, this book, was written in the 20th century. It was a distant portrait of the reality of the oil and the capitalism and the exploitation—the overexploitation—of Earth. Today things are just worse. It’s a coming-of-age story, but also a call for action for the youth.”

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It is also an invitation for finding ways to better introduce Herbert’s timeless themes to today’s audiences. For instance, in the new Vanity Fair exposé, the Canadian filmmaker and his cast teased some significant changes to familiar characters in the novel.

For instance, consider Lady Jessica, who is Paul’s mother and is played by Rebecca Ferguson in the film. Like the literary character, Lady Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood of “concubines” who work to lead from behind-the-scenes (some have also described them as science fiction witches), but in the new film she is also credited as “a warrior priestess” and as much a physical leader as her husband Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac).

“She’s a mother, she’s a concubine, she’s a soldier,” Ferguson said. “Denis was very respectful of Frank’s work in the book, [but] the quality of the arcs for much of the women have been brought up to a new level. There were some shifts he did, and they are beautifully portrayed now.” It’s for that reason Dr. Liet Kynes will be played in the film by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, a black woman instead of a white man like in the book.

“What Denis had stated to me was there was a lack of female characters in his cast, and he had always been very feminist, pro-women, and wanted to write the role for a woman,” Duncan-Brewster said. “This human being manages to basically keep the peace amongst many people. Women are very good at that, so why can’t Kynes be a woman? Why shouldn’t Kynes be a woman?”

These were just some of the insights gleaned in Vanity Fair’s exclusive. You can find more by going here, including more pictures like those below.

Dune itself, meanwhile, is still currently slated for Dec. 18, 2020.

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