Much like Muad’Dib, the Lisan al Gaib of Arrakis, Denis Villeneuve has a vision: An elegant, self-contained trilogy consisting of three films. The first two are a dual adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal (and gargantuan) science fiction novel, Dune; the third film would meanwhile be a single adaptation of arguably Herbert’s darkest text, the slender second volume in the Atreides saga, Dune Messiah.
To fans of Herbert’s novels, this should sound like good and better news—the start of an epic series of films that bring all of Herbert’s books to the screen. Yet more than once Villeneuve has insisted his plan is to only adapt the first two of Herbert’s novels while leaving the remaining four books in the original series, including fan favorite Children of Dune, unadapted. And while speaking with Empire magazine, the filmmaker has revealed why.
“If I succeed in making a trilogy, that would be the dream,” Villeneuve told Empire, revealing he’s already attempted to better seed the plot developments of Dune Messiah into his two-part adaptation of the first book. However, he is adamant that a potential Dune: Part Three would be his last trip to Arrakis. “After that the books become more… esoteric.”
If you’ve read all the way into Herbert’s fourth novel, God Emperor of Dune, or even the much beloved immediate follow-up to Messiah, Children of Dune, you would know this is an understatement.
It also poses an interesting question for both fans and the studio who’s licensed the rights to Herbert’s overarching masterwork: Can the later Dune books be adapted or is there such a thing as “too esoteric” for mass consumption?
From a purely commercial vantage, it seems obvious that Dune as a movie franchise should continue as long as audiences keep buying tickets, and we imagine that will not change when Dune: Part Two (finally) sees a theatrical release in March 2024 or when the inevitable Part Three surely comes about down the road. As the first half of this decade continues, it’s becoming increasingly clear audiences want new stories at the multiplexes, even in their franchises, and indeed Dune was at that vanguard of that emerging trend when it was able to cross $400 million worldwide despite being released day-and-date on streaming during the height of the Delta wave of the pandemic in 2021.
So when Part Two eventually gets Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya on the red carpet, we suspect the excitement will be even higher for the sequel than the 2021 original. That’s unlikely to change either while headed into an adaptation of Messiah that will see all the popular characters return.
Yet without getting into major spoilers for Messiah/Dune: Part Three, or the stories that come afterward, WB is faced with quite a conundrum about how to continue the franchise. For starters, audiences will have to learn that Dune (as Herbert saw it) really isn’t Paul Atreides’ story or that of anyone you met in the first film. In fact, it’s a story that spans centuries and generations.
Paul is also the closest thing the series ever comes to a traditional hero (in the first book, anyway). As Herbert went on, he became less interested in conventions and archetypal characters than he was in exploring the bizarre, philosophical, and, indeed, esoteric elements of his world-building. And in the case of a potential Dune: Part Four, this would mean getting audiences to accept Chalamet is no longer the star of the franchise as it pivots to the next generation.
Admittedly, George Lucas’ Star Wars mythology is partially influenced by Dune, and he has thus conditioned audiences to treat sci-fi space operas as multi-generational affairs. To date there have been three trilogies in the mainline Star Wars series (which Disney has rechristened “the Skywalker Saga”), and each has followed a different set of protagonists in a different era.
Theoretically, it would make sense, then, for Villeneuve to depart the series after the books in which Paul Atreides is the main character are adapted—passing the baton onto another filmmaker who might bring a fresh voice or perspective to Arrakis some years later.
In theory that could also work for WB. What may not, however, is the actual source material they’d be forced to pull from. As Villeneuve has hinted, Paul might be the hero of the story… but he’s not a hero. His visions in Dune: Part One have already teased holy war and death. Those visions are surely only going to get stranger and more menacing in Part Two. However, the story is still crafted in such a way that it at least attracted readers/audiences by seeming like the classic Campbellian hero’s journey of a boy hero. There’s a reason Lucas nicked the image of a lonely youth on a desert planet when he made Star Wars.
Despite Children of Dune featuring children protagonists (among others), no one would mistake it as family entertainment… or the stuff of traditional Hollywood blockbusters. The children themselves are cold, unsettling intellects that in the wrong hands could appear as kitschy as Children of the Corn, but in the right hands might instead land closer to Linda Blair in The Exorcist. In fact, there is a demonic possession of sorts in that book (although not of the kids). Other characters die and return in increasingly oblique and spirituality-tinged ways, and should the series get so far as to a Dune: Part Five, audiences would have to accept a major character turning into a giant, psychically omnipotent sandworm (don’t worry you haven’t met them yet).
Frankly, as the films go on, the material seems more akin to the so-called “elevated horror” movies of the 2010s, or at least any film David Lynch made outside of his misbegotten swing at Dune, than it does Villeneuve’s still highly accessible Part One or so many other space operas of popularity.
While a studio might inevitably feel obligated to keep the franchise rolling should Dune Part Two and Three hit, WB is in a strange position: ignite the furious rage of nerd culture on its own holy war by ignoring the source material, or adapt books that will almost certainly turn off mainstream moviegoers who don’t actually care about debating the paradoxes inherent in precognition versus free will.
Maybe Dune really is better off as a trilogy on the big screen.