Denis Villeneuve’s Dune – An Adaptation Worthy of the Name

I just came home* from a screening of Dune**–what better time to write down a few thoughts on it from a book reader’s perspective?

Frank Herbert’s legacy is alive and thriving in the hands of Denis Villeneuve, who delivers the adaptation many of us could’ve only hoped for. Some of the most important scenes and lines from the book are drawn to life with such exquisite fidelity, they will easily transport you to the time you first came in contact with Dune; or else, render you speechless. Other scenes keep to the spirit of the novel, shifting towards reinterpretation. The entirety of the Litany Against Fear is delivered by Jessica as she waits, horrified, to be called back into the confrontation between the Bene Gesserit Mother with her Gom Jabbar, and Paul; a meeting that might very well cost him his life for all Jessica knows. It’s a powerful scene that reveals the inner reservoirs of willpower Paul possesses, as well as the gravity of the situation to any newcomer to Herbert’s world. Villeneuve is of course a fine enough filmmaker to recognize that the best adaptations don’t slavishly follow the original; the difference in mediums accounts for a number of additions which made for better pacing, some visually stunning additions, and several characters whose plot lines are considerably different from their counterparts.

Oscar Isaac as Leto is a potent force, the weight of command on his shoulders illustrating better than any piece of dialogue how dangerous a situation the Atreides House finds itself in. Timothée Chalamet brings such intensity to Paul, but also a sense of frailty, of a child forced to become a man before his time, eager to prove himself yet too brash, too reckless to take on the responsibility he’s asking for–at least in the opening hour. His growth is a thing of beauty to observe. Rebecca Fergusson as Lady Jessica is perfect casting; she is a lioness protecting her cub, unafraid to draw blood and fierce when she inevitably does so. The talent Fergusson displays is daunting, her emotions the rawest perhaps in all the movie, the most affecting. And Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen? Such menacing, voracious performance. The rest of the cast is fantastic, from Zendaya to Josh Brollin to Jason Momoa and even Bautista, but that main trio takes the cake.

Perhaps the single greatest negative I could point out in this adaptation has to do with the cutting of a chunk of intrigue smack-dab in the middle of House Atreides, and the smaller role Doctor Yueh plays overall. The conversation in the novel, between him and Lady Jessica, with her probing at his motifs only to back down out of compassion, has always been among my favourite scenes, and some of the best writing Herbert ever did in terms of both characterization and worldbuilding; but at a running time of over two hours and a half, sacrifices must be made.

Dune shines in its visuals, in the design of its worlds and its ships, and most of all, in its score, courtesy of Hans Zimmer. Zimmer has outdone himself, truly; the sound, the imagery, the sheer scope of this film, all demand that you go watch them in a movie theatre. if you have the opportunity to safely do so–you owe this pleasure to yourself. I don’t know how long until we see the second part of Vileneuve’s vision, but I have faith in his ability to deliver a riveting second chapter to what I hope will become another classic SFF trilogy.

*At the time I began writing this post.

**It’s been available here in Sweden for a month now, but I was reluctant to see it. Cinema-going experiences are quite a bit more expensive in Scandinavia, compared to good ol’ Bulgaria. I suppose the upside is, at least everyone is vaccinated here, whereas folks in Bulgaria are still dying by the dozens, day in and out.

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