Hollywood keeps repeating “Dune”. Why this latest adaptation might be the one that takes off


Prepare to let the spices flow.

After a number of pandemic-induced delays, the latest film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel “Dune” hits theaters and on HBO Max this weekend. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, with his stars including Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya and Oscar Isaac, the film is one of the most anticipated releases of this year. (Warner Bros. “Dune” studio, HBO Max, and CNN are all part of WarnerMedia.)

But the film is not the novel’s first screen adaptation – a much-maligned film was released in 1984, while a TV miniseries followed nearly two decades later. Even so, the source material has long been considered almost impossible to adapt.

Set on Arrakis, an inhospitable desert planet appreciated for its hallucinogenic “spice”, the novel follows the journey of young Paul Atreides (Chalamet) whose family has been tasked with watching over the planet – taking the place of their rivals, the Harkonnens. The story features everything from spaceships and alien life forms summoned to the sands to themes revolving around betrayal, politics, and religion.

The world set in “Dune” and its sequels is full of layers, many of which have been difficult to translate on the big screen. Here’s a look back at previous adaptations and why audiences today are likely to enjoy Villeneuve’s adaptation.

The first adaptation of ‘Dune’ didn’t go so well

It took over a decade for the first film adaptation of “Dune” to be made after the rights to the film changed hands several times during the 1970s. Director Alejandro Jodorowsky (“El Topo”) – subject from the documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune” – was at the helm at one point, with awe-inspiring casting plans that included Orson Welles and Salvador Dali. But the project eventually collapsed in part due to a growing budget and heavy execution.

A “Dune” movie came true when director David Lynch – after the success of “The Elephant Man” – took over the project. Released in 1984, Lynch’s “Dune” was a commercial and critical disaster, grossing just $ 30.9 million at the domestic box office on a budget of $ 40 million.

“This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured and unnecessary excursion into the darkest realms of one of the most confusing storylines of all time,” Roger Ebert wrote in his One Star review of Lynch’s adaptation, calling it a “project that was seriously out of control from the start.”

“The producers crossed their fingers and hoped that everyone who read the books will want to see the film,” his review concluded. “Not if the word gets out, they won’t.”

Although 1984’s “Dune” has gained some sort of cult following over the years, Lynch himself does not praise the film, calling it a “huge and gigantic sadness in my life” during a question and answer session. -virtual responses in 2020.

Sci-fi and movie buffs have a few theories as to why those early attempts to tell the story of “Dune” on screen didn’t click.

Jodorowsky and Lynch “tried too hard to be eccentric in their own way – to balance their own style and [source material’s] complex functionality – and as a result, their efforts have come across as somewhat contrived and possibly overkill, ”Marina Hassapopoulou, professor of film studies at New York University, said in an email to CNN.

Lynch’s version, in particular, tried to do too much in a limited amount of time, YouTube video essayist Patrick Willems told CNN, noting that “the movie is what people who don’t like it. science fiction thinks that all science fiction is, which is essentially just cold and dense and emotionless and basically nothing but news and lore. “

Unlike “Star Wars,” which used its opening exploration to catch up with audiences in the story and provided reasons to be invested in character journeys, Lynch’s adaptation of “Dune” immediately “pours out. all of those terms, names and information about you, ”Willems said.

“It lasts about two hours and they tried so hard to fit into it that it really looks like a CliffsNotes version of a manual,” he said. “You can see the elements of a compelling story – it’s just that it’s so condensed, and it feels a lot more like a dump of information than a real emotional story about characters.”

A 2000 miniseries fare better

The failures of Lynch’s adaptation did not prevent the creation of another “Dune”. In 2000, the Sci Fi Channel (now styled as SyFy) released “Frank Herbert’s Dune,” a three-part television miniseries written and directed by John Harrison that more closely adheres to the source material. The miniseries was a triumph over Lynch’s big-screen adaptation, giving Sci Fi its highest marks at the time. Over 3 million people watched the first part, according to the New York Times.

Although the miniseries had its detractors, it won two Emmy Awards for Cinematography and Special Visual Effects. This led the channel to release a back-to-back miniseries, “Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune,” starring a then relatively unknown James McAvoy, which combined the events of the author’s follow-up books “Dune Messiah” and “Children. of Dune “.

Of course, while these versions of the “Dune” story found their audiences, they didn’t have the broad reach of a big budget theatrical release.

“This was the pre-Battlestar Galactica era of the Sci Fi Channel – nothing they did was really connect with a larger audience,” Willems said.

Despite complex source material, directors remain drawn to ‘Dune’

“Dune” has often been considered “infilmable”. As Hassapopoulou says, “the source material is too sublime to be adapted (and limited to) an audiovisual medium like cinema, and this makes it difficult to adapt the book to the film”.

As Villeneuve’s release this year indicates, filmmakers remain drawn to the source material – in part because of the complexities and challenges involved. Villeneuve told the Los Angeles Times “it took a long time to find the right balance” between keeping the main script and capturing some of the complexities of the text, while still retaining a certain sense of “mystery.”

“It was very important to me that we didn’t explain everything,” he told The Times.

Despite some of its denser themes, the story of “Dune” has many universally recognizable elements. The feud between House Atreides and House Harkonnen is a trope that readers of classic literature – such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Wuthering Heights” – are already familiar with.

“It’s the kind of thing people have been making movies about since the dawn of cinema,” Willems said. “The aspects of the story are really universal, but then you have sand worms, you have spaceships – you have all these funny, weird sci-fi things to play with.”

Is the public ready for the “Dune” of 2021?

As of this writing, Villeneuve’s “Dune” has grossed over $ 100 million at the international box office. The film received an 8-minute standing ovation at its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival and reviews are mostly positive when it opens in US theaters.

While the film’s ultimate box office performance is yet to be known, Hassapopoulou believes Villeneuve’s “‘Dune’ will be the most commercially successful of all adaptations to date,” pointing to the director’s previous work as reasons for which his vision will succeed.

“As he did with the legacy of Blade Runner via ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017), Villeneuve is able to attract new fans and generate renewed interest in source materials,” he said. she declared. “His film ‘Arrival’ demonstrates that he is able to handle complex storytelling in a way that always makes it accessible to the general public.”

Plus, today’s mainstream audience may just be more ready than ever for an adaptation of “Dune” than they were before. Hassapopoulou said Hollywood production since the 1990s has been “increasingly demanding of more intellectually active and critically engaged viewers”, meaning the new “Dune” may appeal to new generations who “are not put off by aesthetic experimentation and convoluted stories”.

Willems feels the same, pointing out just how more mainstream “media nerds” have become over the past 15 years. The average person today can name a number of previously obscure Marvel characters, while shows like “Game of Thrones” – “This really dense fantasy thing with dragons and ice zombies” – have become so popular. It was even something his parents cared about, he noted.

But even with various factors lining up in favor of the new film, there are still risks. On the one hand, Villeneuve’s “Dune” doesn’t cover the whole novel – and it’s not yet confirmed that a second film will be made for good. “Will enough people watch it to make sure Warner Bros. can justify doing… part two?” Willems asked, while observing that splitting the most recent film adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” into two parts “worked” for the studio, which ultimately committed to completing the story in a second. movie.

While “Dune” is something people have heard of, it isn’t necessarily a “known and proven franchise,” he said. But that didn’t stop her own excitement from seeing the movie.

“I’m really curious how the general public will react and react,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of movies like ‘Dune’, so personally I hope people show up.”

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