The Dune Issue

Good evening, dear readers! We have another chunky one for you today: A feature on the 2021 film adaption of Dune and an two important questions: Is it a good movie, and is it a good adaption?

Generally speaking, the cinematic adaption of an existing work from another medium needs to do two things to be successful. It needs to attract fans of the source material to come and watch their beloved book/ game on screen (preferably un-butchered). On the other hand, it needs to stand as an independent entity that establishes its own world, plot and characters etc. without an intimate knowledge of the original. Film adaptions can be bland retellings – especially prevalent with video game adaptions – but the change of medium can sometimes be used to actually adapt the source material in a meaningful way with interesting changes. When adapting a novel, plenty can be lost in translation between the language of the page and the audio-visual language of the screen by even the most talented writers and directors.

In this vein, we come to Dune. A famously hard to adapt book series, tackled by greats such as David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky (the latter of which never saw the light of day, but is the subject of a fascinating 2013 documentary) Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 adaption of the book was surrounded by a large amount of buzz – part trepidation, part hope, part shock that someone was once again attempting the impossible.

I’ll briefly review the movie before I continue. Villeneuve’s Dune is a bloody good movie from so many angles. I don’t think a single performance was anything below “very good”, regardless of how little or how much each actor had to do in the film. The visuals of the movie, from the cinematography to the set design to the CGI, is absolutely breath-taking and there are some shots that look like quintessential SF concept art brought to life on the big screen (and I mean that as a compliment). Even in terms of sound design the movie does work, and Hans Zimmer has brought his best to the soundtrack with an impressive amount of variety that still has that Zimmer stamp on things. From a technical standpoint, the movie is so good, and for that reason alone I recommend people go watch it.

Dune (2021) is a beautifully acted, scored and realised adaption of the source material in many ways. But unfortunately, I’d argue it doesn’t quite count as a great film on the whole. As I said before, things are always going to be lost in the process of adapting work from one medium to another, and such a complex book as Dune is no exception: How do you condense hundreds of pages of rich prose, world-building, politicking and inner monologues into something comprehensible and enjoyable for movie-goers?

While Dune looks and sounds fantastic, the pacing and narrative is certainly the most problematic element of the film. Often when a novel is adapted for the screen the main plot is slightly adjusted to account for the change of medium, although this isn’t always necessary. The plot of the movie will usually be fairly close to the source material and make enough sense with what information is given to us through the film to avoid alienating newcomers: The “rewards” for being a fan of the source material is generally relegated to subtle nods, in-jokes and fan-favourite lines popping up.

In Dune the plot presented is a very concentrated, bare-bones version of the plot from the book, which would usually be excusable for an adaption. However, I don’t think the audience gets anywhere near the same experience if they haven’t read the source material, leaving me genuinely wishing I could mind-meld with a Tom of another universe who hadn’t finished the book just before the movie came out. As someone who’d read the book, it was clear to me that some parts of the narrative were too vague and unexplained because the film just didn’t have room for them. Readers known why X character does Y thing, or what Z’s motivations in that scene were, but the movie often fails to properly communicate this to the unfamiliar audience. It’s always expected that the experience will be a little different, but with Dune (2021) it is incredibly jarring just how much the film is made with the book’s audience in mind and is just about accessible to everyone else.

Tying in with this is the pacing issue. Put simply, Dune (2021) is Part 1 of a presumed 2-part adaption of the book. This gives the film a very odd feel as naturally much of it is set-up for things that will be paid off in the second part of the adaption (which has thankfully now been green-lit by the studio). This even impacts the ending, which does carry some thematic meaning but feels like very much like a film ending in the middle of a story because, well, it is. Furthermore, I think that thematic meaning is much clearer to people like me who have read the book!

Despite these frankly glaring issues, I’d still recommend watching Dune (2021) on the big screen if you can. The movie is a proper “cinema experience” to behold, and if anything the questions raised may drive you to check out the book, which is widely regarded as a SF classic for many very good reasons. I still look forward to Part 2 of Villeneuve’s adaption, but I can’t help but wish Dune had been given the same budget and talent but adapted into a TV series. Much like Game of Thrones, Dune’s material would benefit from far more time to flesh out its world and characters, and give it ample room to include the tense politicking and various narrative threads that are so integral to the original’s plot.

So that’s all for this month! Please feel free to discuss in the comments below what you thought of Dune (2021) – are you a long time fan or perhaps a recent convert due to the movie? Would it have worked better as a series, or is this the best adaption we’ll get? If you’d rather debate on Twitter, or have any feedback on my writing in general, please find me here as usual. Have a good day and take care!

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