Frank Herbert’s Dune is a massive novel — somewhere between 400 and 500 pages depending on your edition — but more than just the page count, it’s an incredibly dense book. Herbert created a distant future in which humankind has spread far and wide across the galaxy, although his far-flung empire was a unique mix of feudalism, mysticism and high technology.
Instead of democracies and free societies, Herbert’s empire was ruled by an oligarchic cluster of powerful families for which political infighting was a normal way of life and for whom control of melange, also known as “the spice,” was the key to increased power and dominion.
The complex relationships between the Houses Atreides and Harkonnen, along with those of the Emperor himself, the mystical society of psychically powered women known as the Bene Gesserit, and the tribal people of the planet Arrakis, the Fremen, made for a multi-leveled web of politics, religion, environmental science, and prophecy that packed a lot into those several hundred pages.
So it hardly comes as a surprise that director Denis Villeneuve envisioned his upcoming adaptation as two movies — much in the way that another filmmaker, Andy Muschietti, divided his recent adaptation of Stephen King’s It into two distinct films as well.
Speaking with Stephen Colbert during an extended discussion about Dune (portions of which have been posted online by Warner Bros. Pictures), Villeneuve said that adapting the classic sci-fi novel in two parts was the only way he could see doing it.
“It was right at the start,” he recalled. “When I started the conversation with Legendary (Pictures), I said to them, ‘I cannot make a movie out of this book. It needs to be minimum two movies, because the story is so rich and complex, that in order to be faithful to the book, we’ll need to make at least two movies.’ And that was the deal right at the start.”
But Villeneuve added that Dune lent itself to being split into two parts, although he was also quick to remark that the movie coming out in December stands on its own as a complete story (Villeneuve co-wrote the screenplay with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth).
“That’s something natural for us as screenwriters, to break the story in two parts, but the movie itself has its own arc,” he explained. “It definitely sustains itself as one journey. But to tell the story, we needed two movies.”
Dune represents something of a risk for Warner Bros. and production partner Legendary Pictures, being a massive space opera based on a 55-year-old book, and it’s even more of a gamble when one considers that there’s a whole second movie yet to be filmed. But if all works out, giving this universe-spanning story the space to breathe over two movies may end up looking like the right choice.
Dune opens in theaters December 18.