Dune by Frank Herbert—Adaptability Review

Whether it is in our movies, television, or novels, science-fiction is one of the most diverse and imaginative genres of storytelling today. From almost all of the major tentpoles in the genre, Star Trek for example, most of their creators will all list a specific novel as a major inspiration: Frank Herbert’s Dune. Written in 1965, Herbert’s space epic has inspired millions of readers over the years. With well-renowned director, Denis Villeneuve’s new film adaptation coming (originally slated for this December, the pandemic has caused the film to be pushed to October of 2021), I decided to finally sit down and experience the first novel in the Dune series that has, to date withstood the test of time.

Dune follows Paul Atreides, a next-in-line Duke of the Atreides, whose family rules the ocean planet of Caladan and has been tasked by the Padishah Emperor to move to the desert, wasteland planet of Arrakis to act as fief ruler. Arrakis is a planet that is mostly uninhabitable by all except the natives, Fremen, and the massive sandworms that roam the deserts. Arrakis, while uninhabitable, is the only planet that produces melange, or spice, which is the most sought after resource in the empire due to the mental abilities that it gives those who ingest it. Due to the high demand for the control of spice, Paul and his family must navigate the political schemes of the Emperor and the Harkonnen family while simultaneously embracing their role in the religious and ecological constructs of the Fremen natives.

After finishing Dune, I instantly knew why this novel is considered a modern classic. In many ways, I think this is a required reading for fans of sci-fi. One of the most intriguing and well-developed aspects of the novel is the political and religious conflicts which take the center stage while physical conflict takes more of a backseat. This more intellectual focus with action interspersed to further drive the political discourse creates an incredibly intricate and beautifully woven narrative that still resonates within our context of 2020.

With the political land disputes and theological themes throughout (that are incredibly similar to that of our world), Herbert interweaves these to create a very unique and insanely developed universe that ignites the imagination. From the spice-laden dunes to the terrifying sandworms, the Dune universe is enthralling and is primed to be cinematically presented. There have previously been two adaptations with David Lynch’s poorly divisive 1984 film and John Harrison’s more receptive 2000 mini-series. Both of these suffered from several issues including overly complex and hard-to-follow storytelling and from the lower technological prowess of their times. After seeing the way Villeneuve has handled plot and storytelling and the great headways in filmmaking technologies, now is the time for a new adaptation.

The biggest hurdle this new adaptation will have to face will actually not be how to adapt the visuals, but rather how to adapt just about everything else. First, the book conveys the inner thoughts of every single character. While most book-to-film movies navigate this well, Dune will be particularly difficult because the power of thought taught through the Bene Gesserit ways that both Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica, possess. Another difficulty will be the balance of the political conflict and action. In the novel, the climatic action scenes last only a few pages and major casualties are mentioned but are rolled past with little emotional weight, for the most part, and this type of balance will not do for modern film audiences. The fear that many fans of Dune have is that the film will take the same approach of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) series which reduced the heavy political themes of the source material in favor of large and visually loud action set pieces.

Dune is a masterpiece of modern literature and I cannot wait to pick up the next book in the series. I also am desperately awaiting Denis Villeneuve’s take, and am greatly saddened by its delayed release due to COVID. That said, this is an incredibly hard film to adapt. This isn’t just due to the novel’s dense material, but also having to find a balance that will both satisfy fans of the novel and the general moviegoing public. If anybody is to strike that balance, I’m happy that it is Oscar winner Villeneuve who has been given the task.

Book Review: 5/5

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Adaptability: 3/5

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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