Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and a Brief History of its Adaptation

In recent years Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has become one of the most sought after directors in science fiction, which is all the more impressive when you consider that he first ventured into the genre in 2016 with the Oscar-nominated Arrival. In 2017 he followed Arrival with Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic. The latter solidified Villeneuve’s status within the science fiction genre, consequently securing his role as writer and director for the highly coveted upcoming adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Adapting such a beloved staple of science fiction literature is no easy undertaking, however, as has been proven on more than one occasion. 

The first attempt came in the mid-1970s when Chilean director  Alejandro Jodorowsky, who fostered a wildly creative vision for the onscreen adaptation of Herbert’s novel with the intention of it being fourteen hours in length. The screenplay was, as Herbert himself recalled, “the size of a phone book.” Sadly, Jodorowsky failed to secure the required funding for his ambitious project, with the rights to the film lapsing in 1982.

The rights were then picked up by the late Italian super-producer Dino De Laurentiis, and David Lynch was hired to write and direct what went on to be the first successful onscreen adaptation of Dune. And by successful, I mean that they managed to actually make the film, as the rest is a hotly debated topic.

Lynch’s version is intensely divisive, to the point that the director even refuses to discuss it in interviews. This goes beyond reception for Lynch, however. Bear in mind that this is a director who practically revels in the contentious nature of his most surreal works. According to Lynch, interference from producers and investors constricted the level of control he had over the film, in addition to the fact that he was denied final cut privilege. This resulted in several different cuts of the film, which led to Lynch requesting that his name be replaced with Alan Smithee in the credits, a pseudonym used by directors who wish to distance themselves from works they feel do not represent their intended vision, particularly due to interference from producers or studios.

It is also worth noting that De Laurentiis’ daughter Raffaella, who is the primary producer credited, hired Lynch based on his work in The Elephant Man, which is a wonderful film, but certainly not one that would suggest an eye for science fiction. Lynch is a uniquely gifted filmmaker, but I think it’s fair to say that he was never the right fit for a genre film such as this.

Villeneuve is now the latest filmmaker to try his hand at adapting Dune, and in spite of the release date having just been moved back by a month, it’s at least a sure thing that the film will be made. Whether or not it will be a creative success is another thing entirely. Though given the robust cast involved, which includes Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Stellan Skarsgård, and Dave Bautista, along with a slew of other heavy-hitters that are too numerous to name, one can assume that there is great faith in the material. And, as these actors clearly understand, if Villeneuve has earned anything by this stage of his career, primarily in the science fiction genre, it’s his trust. 


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