How Denis Villeneuve's 'Dune' Differs From Frank Herbert's Book

·9 min read

Ever since the tender age of fourteen, director Denis Villeneuve has dreamed about adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune for the big screen. With decades to think about it, he landed at a simple imperative: stick to the source material. (Or so the legend goes.) And when he finally got his chance to get the story right for live-action, he stuck with it. “When you adapt, it’s an act of vandalism,” Villeneuve told Den of Geek this year. “You will change things. But from the beginning, I said to the crew, to the studio, to the actors: ‘The bible is the book. We will, as much as possible, stay as close as possible to the book.’ I want people who love the book to feel like we put a camera in their minds.”

But when you’re compressing a sprawling, spacetime-folding novel—which eventually strings its story out across 21 books, mind you—into a blockbuster movie (or two, as Villeneuve hopes to slot the back half of the novel into a second movie), something’s got to give. From modernizing the storyline to axing some characters entirely, Villeneuve had to make some changes. Read on for a full breakdown of the key differences between Villeneuve’s Dune from that of Herbert.

Photo credit: Chia Bella James
Photo credit: Chia Bella James

Farewell, Princess Irulan

Readers of the novel will remember that chapters are anchored by epigraphs from Princess Irulan (Paul Atreides’ future wife), whose quasi-historical texts about the powerful man Paul will become, written long into the future, foreshadow events mere pages before they unfold. Villeneuve does away with this framing device entirely, allowing us to experience the narrative as Paul lives it. The result is a more fiercely interior experience of Paul’s journey to messianic prominence, well-suited to the Dune newbie awash in Herbert’s strange and complex world. From removing Princess Irulan to axing the book’s discursive internal monologues, it’s all part of a quest to make something decisively cinematic, not literary.

“The book is very internal,” Villeneuve told The Los Angeles Times. “We are hearing the thought processes of different characters. The way we adapted this is, first of all, we embraced Paul and Jessica’s point of view and tried to stay as close as possible to those two characters. Then we tried to develop ideas that would allow us to feel what their mind-set is without having a voice-over.”

The only significant voiceover we hear in Villeneuve’s Dune is the opening sequence, spoken by Chani. As control of Arrakis transfers to House Atreides, Chani reflects on the Fremen’s suffering at the hands of House Harkonnen, wondering aloud, “Who will our next oppressors be?” This line, newly written for the film, gets at the heart of Herbert’s allegorical vision. Dune is, after all, an ecological allegory about the oil wars haunting the modern Middle East. Herbert draws on the geopolitical tetris between the Middle East and the West in his vision of noble houses feuding over spice, Arrakis’ treasured natural resource. To shift any sort of frame device from the royal Princess Irulan to the indigenous Chani is to provide a welcome juxtaposition to the frequent focus on noble political power brokers. From the opening gate, Villeneuve asks us to question the motivations and morality of any interloper on Arrakis, be they Harkonnen or Atreides. This suspicion of when power tips over into oppression always existed in Herbert’s novel, but in 2021, Villeneuve has turned the dial up to 11.

Lady Jessica and Liet Kynes Get a Makeover

Like most midcentury works of science fiction, Dune doesn’t always do right by the women in its pages. Villeneuve made it part of his mission to bring the women of Dune into the twenty-first century, starting with his development of Lady Jessica.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

“As a filmmaker, I’ve always been attracted by femininity, and in a lot of my movies the main protagonist is female,” Villeneuve said. “Femininity is there in the book, but I thought it should be up front. I said to [co-writers] Eric [Roth] and Jon [Spaihts], ‘We need to make sure that Lady Jessica is not an expensive extra.’ She’s such a beautiful and complex character.”

In Herbert’s galactic future, marriage is viewed as a political expediency to unite great houses, meaning that love matches are scarce. As a result, Lady Jessica, very much in love with her partner but not of a ruling class, is treated as a second class citizen in the Atreides household, owing to her title as “the official concubine of Duke Leto Atreides.” Some see her as a disobedient servant grasping at nobility; others see her as a scheming spy or Bene Gesserit witch. Villeneuve makes no move to alter the cold political calculus preventing Duke Leto from marrying Lady Jessica, but he does raise her station, framing her as a true partner to the Duke, free from shame or suspicion. And the matter of marriage comes up in the film, with a twist: when Duke Leto admits in Herbert’s novel that he should have married Lady Jessica, it’s to Paul, but in the film, he admits it to Lady Jessica herself. Villeneuve goes even further in shedding the subordinate status attached to the character by axing a subplot in which the Baron Harkonnen claims that Lady Jessica is his spy, arousing suspicion among loyal members of House Atreides.

By allowing Lady Jessica to come into her own power, Villeneuve also strengthens and modernizes her ties with the Bene Gesserit. Where Herbert’s novel sees Lady Jessica use “the Voice” to seduce her and Paul’s captors, Villeneuve cuts to the chase, rewriting the scene to show Lady Jessica instead commanding their captors to simply kill themselves. Meanwhile, the series of hand symbols Paul and Jessica exchange, which allow them to communicate without speaking, are entirely a Villeneuve invention. In Villeneuve’s Dune, Lady Jessica is powerful and free in her own right—she’s nobody’s second class consort.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Following on his changes to Lady Jessica, Villeneuve made another move to foreground femininity: rewriting Dr. Liet Kynes, who viewers first meet as the Atreides arrive in the desert, as a woman. Readers of the novel will remember the character as a man appointed by the Imperium to act as the Judge of the Change, overseeing the hand-off of Arrakis from House Harkonnen to House Atreides. When Spaihts suggested gender-swapping the character, Villeneuve thought it was brilliant. “It doesn’t change the nature of the character,” Villeneuve said. “It just makes it closer to the world today, and more relevant and frankly more interesting.”

In Villeneuve’s Dune, Dr. Kynes meets a different fate than readers will remember. In the book, Dr. Kynes dies face down in the desert, owing to dehydration and delirium. Meanwhile, in the movie, Dr. Kynes meets a much more cinematic ending. Shot down in the desert by the Sardaukar, who have discovered her treacherous alliance with House Atreides, Dr. Kynes summons a sandworm to her location, which swallows her and her killers whole. It’s a thrilling visual, as well as a smart reminder that even the Sardaukar are no match for the dangerous mysteries of the desert—or the Fremen who’ve mastered them.

In Herbert’s book, Dr. Kynes is the father of Chani. Though Villeneuve’s Dune shows no evidence that Dr. Kynes is Chani’s mother, Dune Part Two may reveal those family links. Chani gets her own glow-up in this adaptation; while she doesn’t appear at all in the first half of Herbert’s novel, Villeneuve has sketched her into the story through Paul’s visions of the future.

Feyd-Rautha Who?

Chani and Dr. Kynes aren’t the only characters who get shuffled around on film. Herbert’s Dune has an enormous cast of side characters, many of whom didn’t make it to the big screen. We had to say goodbye to Feyd-Rautha, Baron Harkonnen’s scheming nephew, who was so memorably played by Sting in David Lynch’s Dune. Meanwhile, Thufir Hawat and Piter De Vries, the “mentat” advisors (basically, human supercomputers) to Duke Leto Atreides and the Baron Harkonnen, figure far less prominently in the film than they do the novel.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

“There are some characters that are less developed that I’m keeping for the second film—that’s the way I found the equilibrium,” Villeneuve explained. “We tried in this movie to stay as close as possible to Paul’s experience. Then, in the second one, I will have time to develop some characters that were left aside a little bit. That’s the theory. I hope it will work.”

Some characters who don’t get axed entirely get curtailed in the name of narrative expediency. Take the Baron Harkonnen, for example: Villeneuve has scaled back the Jabba the Hutt-style grotesqueness of the book’s big baddie, and has done away entirely with the dated, homophobic pederasty of the Baron’s private life. Villeneuve also cut out the Baron’s frequent evil speechifying, saying, “I wanted him to be a man of few words.”

“This movie is really focused on Paul, and I brought in a little bit of the Harkonnens just for context, to understand the geopolitics of the story,” Villeneuve said. “This movie just gives a little glimpse into the Harkonnens. The second movie is much more about them.”

Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

A Sleeker Dune

Even total spiceheads can get lost in the word soup of Dune. From the Spacing Guild to the Landsraad to the Missionaria Protectiva, Villeneuve’s Dune does away with the morass of political and economic organizations that make up the backdrop of the novel. Cutting the fat makes for a film that’s ultimately more user-friendly, especially for first-timers.

”The storyline is pretty simple—it’s more the density of the world and how rich and complex it is,” Villeneuve said. “The big challenge was to try not to crush the audience at the start with an insane amount of exposition. It took a long time to find the right equilibrium so that people who don’t know Dune will not feel left aside and will feel part of the story.”

If your favorite scene was axed or you want to see more of a beloved character, take heart. We’ve still got a whole second movie to look forward to.

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