Dune: What Denis Villeneuve Changed from the Book

Denis Villeneuve has dreamed of adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune since he was a child. But he still made some prudent changes to the material.

Rebecca Ferguson in Dune
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

This article contains major Dune spoilers, for both the page and screen.

Denis Villeneuve first daydreamed of making the definitive adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune when he was 14-years-old. He’s said as much when he confided to Den of Geek that “the bible is the book…. I want people who love the book to feel like we put a camera in their minds.” Yet even so, books are books, and films are films, and changes must be made when transitioning between the two mediums.

To be sure, Villeneuve made arguably the most faithful recreation of Herbert’s vision of the desert planet Arrakis we’ve ever seen in a movie, but he also updated it in slight ways for a new century and a new cinematic experience. Despite being nearly three hours in length, and with the second half of the book left for a second picture, there is still too much of Herbert’s world-building to fit into a single movie’s running time. Choices are made, and changes implemented. Some seem slight, others significant. Here are some of the most striking differences between the Dune movie and Dune book.

Whose Arrakis Is This?

One of the most profound changes that’s already made headlines (including here) is the shifting of focus during the film’s prologue. Suddenly, this story is reframed from being one of feudal warfare between the universe’s ruling class to a tale about relentless oppression. Of course Herbert always intended to make the oppression of the Fremen population on the desert planet Arrakis pivotal in his saga, with this indigenous culture accepting Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet in the film) as one of their own. However, nearly every chapter in the book begins with events being foreshadowed by an excerpt from historical texts written somewhere down the line by Princess Irulan.

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It’s an interesting literary device where the book actively hints at plot developments (“spoilers” in the modern parlance) a few pages, or maybe a few dozen, before they occur. However, it also creates the impression that this is a tale of historical significance within its universe in the most old-fashioned understanding of history: events which occur to “great men” like Paul Atreides, who from the first page of the novel is introduced as Paul Muad’Dib, a messianic figure.

There is a deliberate irony to Herbert’s approach. Over the course of the novel, and even more so in its sequel, the author methodically deconstructs the concepts of messiahs and great men, but this is still nonetheless a story told from the perspective of the wealthy and powerful. Which is what makes one of Villeneuve’s first changes his biggest. Rather than having an interstellar princess narrate these events—a princess who we soon learn in the book is the daughter of the current Padishah Emperor of the Imperium—we are instead introduced to Arrakis through the eyes of Chani (Zendaya in the film), a character who was frankly always underwritten by Herbert.

While Chani surely has a bigger role than Zendaya’s brief walk-on in Villeneuve’s first volume of Dune, the literary character remained a passive presence throughout the saga on the page. By contrast with the film, she’s our first blue-eyed character onscreen. It’s through her gaze we peer into Arrakis and the oppression inflicted upon the Fremen people by the dastardly House Harkonnen. We watch as she watches that great house’s military assemble. This is not the perspective of a rival family vying to overtake their monopoly; it’s the impression made by a person with a boot held to her face. After she reveals the emperor ordered the Harkonnens to leave Arrakis, she raises the question of “who will our next oppressors be?” Instantly, the audience is asked to be skeptical of the motivations and effectiveness of young Paul Arteides’ noble house.

This change is clever on multiple levels. On the first, it provides audiences an immediate understanding of what the spice is by seeing it, at least as a substance floating on literal sand dunes if not a hallucinogenic opioid as we later learn it can be. It also shows us the stakes of the story, with a human face being put to those who are exploited by the Harkonnens. It also brings the tale into the 21st century. When Herbert wrote Dune, his science fiction allegory about tensions between the West and Middle East, and the oil for which so much blood is shed, seemed more abstract to many young American readers.

In 2021, after the events of the last 20 years, there is no reason to play coy about the allegorical implications of this story, nor to evade the level of complicity the Atreides share in perpetuating this system. That was ultimately Herbert’s point, but the movie can go straight for the jugular instead of building to it for hours.

Additionally, there is a bit of canny Hollywood revision at play with the removal of Irulan as a framing device. Without her interluding anecdotes about the man Paul Atreides will become (or at least is romanticized to be in Irulan’s texts), we are left to experience this story as Paul does: chronologically and in real time. For a film already dense in trenchant world-building, streamlining the narrative whenever possible seems prudent, at least from a commercial perspective.

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Duke Leto and the Trap

Villeneuve and his co-writers, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, commit to a very faithful adaptation of the Atreides family and their retainers onscreen. Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto and Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica are perfectly cast interpretations of Paul’s parents. And while the lessons of Paul’s various mentors in Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), and especially Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) are greatly pared down, their functions in the story remain largely the same.

Yet perhaps one of the biggest changes in my eyes to the text is how much more helpless these characters appear. While readers know almost immediately that poor Duke Leto is doomed before he ever sets foot on Arrakis (see more about the Irulan character above), both he and his son take bold steps to counteract the Harkonnen movements that they’re keenly aware of. But in the movie, Duke Leto and his most loyal men look closer to sitting ducks, oblivious to the threat they’ve walked into.

Most likely these changes were at the expense of narrative efficiency. At over two and a half hours, Villeneuve’s Dune is already fairly talky and cerebral for a blockbuster entertainment, and more long scenes of old men sitting around tables and debating tactics which the trailers have already teased are doomed seem like ripe sequences to cut at a screenplay stage. Still, having Leto not instruct his son in the full breadth of their strategy and to keenly teach him that “you must first see the trap to avoid it” does feel like a missed opportunity in raising the tragic tension being placed on both generations of Atreides’ shoulders.

There’s some hint of this in Villeneuve’s film where (in a scene invented for the movie), Paul and Leto visit the grave of Leto’s father, who died fighting a bull—if you haven’t read the book, the bull’s head you see the Atreides transport from Caladan to the dining hall on Arrakis is the same bull’s head which killed Leto’s papa. In the graveside movie scene, Leto suggests he is eager to recruit the Fremen as glorified bannermen for House Atreides because their household army has become the best equipped to stand up against the whims of the emperor among the other noble lineages. This is a streamlining of the plotting in the book.

On the page, Leto clearly states to Paul he knows they’re entering a trap, but he’s also aware that Atreides, like all the other great houses, is vulnerable to the emperor’s power because of the allegedly unbeatable nature of the Sardaukar (the emperor’s army you see in white armor). The Sardaukar are raised in the veritable bowels of hell on a prison planet called Salusa Secundus. And it’s occurred to Leto and his mentat that the Fremen are born and raised in a setting on Arrakis just as violent and rigorous as the emperor’s brainwashing centers on Salusa Secundus. Leto is gambling he can recruit the Fremen to fight the Sardaukar and Harkonnens before any major moves are made against his family in the years to come (he overestimates how little time he actually has).

This is also because he is aware that the emperor and Baron Harkonnen specifically gave him Arrakis so that when they’re wiped out, supposedly by only the Baron’s men, it would create a spice shortage throughout the imperium (think high gas prices in your car). It would spike up the value of the Baron and emperor’s private spice melange reserves that are Offworld. All of these machinations are glossed over in the movie, but it leads to the development of Leto, Paul, and Thufir successfully scheming a retribution against the assassination attempt on Paul’s life by bombing one of the Baron’s spice reserves. The success of this mission gives fleeting hope in the book that the Atreides aren’t doomed.

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For the sake of narrative expediency, all of these elements are excised, as are interesting world-building exercises on the non-Fremen side of Arrakis, such as Paul being forced to play host at his father’s party among the planet’s mercantile and bourgeois classes. It also leads to the deletion of a cloak and dagger intrigue subplot which involves the Lady Jessica. She’s framed by the Baron as the traitor in order to throw off suspicion on Dr. Yeuh. And it’s given credence by some characters due to her “concubine” status in the eyes of polite society…

Removing Most of the Luridness

Speaking of Jessica, her second class status among the Atreides household and as a Bene Gesserit feels like one of several changes made in order to correct some of the dated social mores of the novel. Yes, in the book the Baron plays a manipulative game where he sends a message suggesting that Lady Jessica is his spy (if you’ve seen No Time to Die this month, it’s pretty much that plot point from the Bond movie’s prologue).

Leto dismisses it as preposterous, and yet his mentat Thufir does not—which if the character’s significance in Dune Part Two is not erased might become an issue. The reason Thufir believes the lie, like so many other characters on the page not named Atreides, is he looks down on Jessica. Her actual title is “official concubine of the Duke Leto Atreides.” She’s not seen the same as a wife in the eyes of many. Without the marital vows, she is viewed by some, including old Thufir, as at best an insubordinate servant and at worst a disloyal witch and spy.

This element is certainly problematic to modern eyes. It’s also incredibly dated. While Dune imagines a medieval-esque society where marriage contracts are the same as peace treaties—indeed, Leto never married Jessica in order to keep open the option of one day securing a more powerful wife while retaining his concubine lover as a mistress—the conceit of a power couple living openly without wedding rings and in sin is not nearly so transgressive in 2021 as it was in 1965. In fact, it’s quite normal. Healthy, even.

While there is some acknowledgment of the Duke’s cold political machinations toward their relationship in the film, with Leto admitting to Jessica that he should’ve married her right before he dies (in the book he never does; he only tells Paul that), her subordinate status as an unmarried consort or “concubine” is largely removed.

But then by and large, Villeneuve’s Dune avoids most of the lascivious elements in Herbert’s novel. That includes other bits with Jessica and the Bene Gesserit, such as Jessica using “the Voice” to seduce her and Paul’s captors instead of cutting out the middleman and just telling them to kill themselves, as how it goes down in the film. But probably the most significant of these elements to be reworked is the Baron Harkonnen.

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In the book, the Baron is a caricature of grossness in every way that Herbert could imagine: The Baron’s so obese he cannot walk; he is broadly effeminate; and he keeps young boys as sex slaves—all while lusting after his own young nephew in his mind… It is incredibly disturbing and also trading in incredibly homophobic and dangerous stereotypes. Indulging in the “depraved homosexual” literary trope, Herbert equates homosexuality with deviancy and evil. It pivots on the prejudice that most gay men are child predators, and to be gay is a sign of wickedness.

It’s a facet of the Baron character that David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation leaned into with boorish results. Villeneuve and Stellan Skarsgård instead favor focusing on the Baron’s ruthless Machiavellian cunning. He still has the girth and unpleasantness of a humanoid Jabba the Hutt, but that vileness also comes from a focus on the character’s cruel intelligence and sleazy uncouthness… not from attempting to make a modern audience cringe because a male character is attracted to other males.

Dr. Liet Kynes

Here is the other element which got a lot of press attention when Sharon Duncan-Brewster was first cast as Dr. Liet Kynes, the official Judge of the Change and an imperium official who’s lived on Arrakis so long that she went native. Yes, Dr. Kynes is a man in the book and is played by a woman in the film adaptation.

But, to be totally candid, I initially struggled with including this as a subsection. Dr. Kynes might be of a different gender and complexion in the film, but she is still a faithful and accurate translation of this character—an Offworlder who’s lived on Arrakis so long that she’s become an honorary Fremen and secret leader of the group. She’s aware of the Atreides’ doom and doesn’t lift a finger to warn the Duke, but is nonetheless compelled to help Paul and Jessica when they show up at her door, even as it leads to her imminent death.

In fact, the reason this ultimately deserved its own section is because Villeneuve and company found a far more satisfying way of resolving Liet Kynes’ fate in the movie. On the page, Kynes is an intriguing character who is more or less disposed of by the author, as if the good doctor had become a loose plot thread the author was no longer interested in pulling on. There’s simply a random chapter where we find Kynes face down in the sand and hallucinating as he awaits his death from lack of water and heat.

In the film, when the Sardaukar discover Kynes’ treachery, they execute her on the spot, only she’s already applied a thumper to the sand and summoned a sandworm to the location. This is a savvy tweaking of the story, because in addition to giving us the sight of a maker swallowing four folks whole—and who doesn’t want to see that?—it allows Kynes to have a more satisfying death that is thematically in-keeping with the larger point of the Sardaukar confronting the Fremen: they might be great warriors, but they’re out of their depth in the desert. It also allows Villeneuve to foreshadow significant elements earlier in the story. In this scene, Kynes, like all good Fremen, can ride a sandworm (hence the equipment in her hands after she puts the thumper into the ground).

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As Villeneuve’s Dune divides the story into two films, the more sequences we get in the first part highlighting the resourcefulness of the Fremen, the better. Also since Kynes is the mother of Chani, it also underscores the deadly efficiency of Fremen women like the one whom Paul is already gaga about in his dreams.

As we’ve already established, by making Chani our first blue-spiced eyes into this world, the entire story has a renewed urgency for its 2021 moment. So did Kynes’ sendoff.

Dune is in theaters and on HBO Max now.