The latest attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s legendary sci-fi novel “Dune” to film is a great attempt at a faithful adaptation to the source material. The film is ambitious and visually stunning. But it tries too hard to recreate that magic of the original novel, which is nearly impossible to do on the big screen.
The original “Dune” novel, published in 1965, is one of those stories that completely envelops you in both its narrative and its world. Its complex political intrigue and monumental worldbuilding make it difficult to adapt into a visual medium. For example, chapters in the novel usually start with a foreword from a piece of in-universe fiction written far after the events of the novel. These forewords often shed light on the political ramifications of the chapter’s events, and are often written by characters that have yet to have been introduced into the story. This concept would be almost impossible to adapt verbatim into a film as it is, not to mention the massive Tolkien-esque levels of world building that a truly faithful adaptation would have to somehow implement in a reasonable run time. The 2021 “Dune” film follows the event of its source material but glosses over some of the more intricate world building and political machinations.
The film attempts to follow the events of the novel to its own detriment, due to the scope of the source material the film only adapts part of the original novel. The film makes it abundantly clear from the beginning that this is part one of a series of films. In the age of cinematic universes and trilogies, established franchises often leave plot points and character arc unresolved for future films to pick up on. “Dune” follows this trend. The choice to split up the movies is a logical one because it would be impossible to adapt the entire novel into the span of even a two hour film. However, this also leaves the film feeling incomplete.
For the most part, the film follows the plot of the novel. The protagonist, Paul Atreides, played by Timothee Chalmet, and his father the Duke Leto Atreidies played by Oscaar Isaac are ordered to take over the dangerous but resource rich desert planet Arrakis from their rival nobles House Harkonnen. The Harkonnens later orchestrate the downfall of the House Atreides and Paul flees to the native Freman of Arrakis to hide and plan a counter attack on the House Harkonnen. This story makes up only the first act of the novel. While the film is painstakingly accurate to that portion of its source material, it does leave off on a cliffhanger. There is very little doubt that we will see a continuation of this story, but on its own the film lacks a complete story or a satisfying resolution.
Despite the film’s flaw of being part one, it does succeed in capturing the audience’s imagination and immersing them in the world of “Dune.” The film forgoes the intricate world building of the novel in favor of world building through visual storytelling. Much of the movie consists of setting up the intriguing and dangerous world of Arrakis and the universe in which it takes place. The audience is shown an odd yet compelling mixture of sci-fi aesthetics, religious imagery and medieval elements. There are spaceships and great machines, but also scenes of ritual sacrifice and a religious prophecy of a messiah who will save the people of Arrakis. There are no guns and fighting takes place with swords and high powered personal shield generators. This film’s dedication to its unique aesthetic is a testament to its clear love of the source material which shares its unique sci-fi imagery.
While the film is visually spectacular, there is a distinct lack of context for most of it. The most we learn about the greater lore about the world pertains to the mythical Spice that is produced on Arrakis and makes space travel possible. Other aspects of the world of “Dune” are shown but not explained. For example, fans of the novel would recognize the characters of Thufir Hawat and Piter de Vries, played by Stephen Mckinley Henderson and David Dastmalchian. The characters are “mentats” who are essentially human supercomputers developed to replace the outlawed thinking machines. In the film, none of this is mentioned or brought up. This is both the right and wrong choice to make. On one hand it would take up too much time to explain what a mentat is and the history behind them. On the other hand, we don’t really get a good idea of either character’s background or capabilities in the film.
The lack of context is most apparent in the character of Doctor Yueh played by Chang Chen. In both the film and the novel, Yueh plays an essential role as the spy for House Harkonnen within House Atreides. The novel peeks into Yueh’s perspective and examines his personal motivations and his relationship with the other members of house Atreides, whom he will eventually betray. The film does not have the same ability to shift perspective, and as a result, Yueh’s betrayal has less emotional impact and his actions seem out of place. Yueh is one of many characters in “Dune” who lack the depth of their literary counterparts.
Although the film imagery is amazing, without the proper context and world building, the plot feels shallow. Someone who has read the book would most likely recognize the major story beats and the significance of certain characters because the film goes out of its way to stay truthful to the events of the original novel. But to the everyday movie goer, the film lacks substance. It should be praised for its dedication and clear admiration for its source material. However, its ambitious attempt to re-create the world of “Dune” on the big screen falls short as an individual film due to the overwhelming complexity of what it was trying to adapt.