Perhaps the greatest lesson that can be drawn from Denis Villeneuve's Dune is that ultimately an entirely satisfying adaptation of the novel is impossible. Nonetheless, Villeneuve's version is the closest at succeeding so far, and is one of the more enjoyable theatrical experiences of 2021.
What might even shock readers of the novel by Frank Herbert at first is the first couple scenes’ absence from the source. It is only after a series of events that were only hinted at in the novel that we are finally introduced with corresponding scenes. From there on however, Villeneuve stays very adherent to the original work, even in the smaller elements. There are a few omissions however, scenes that carried a brief storyline element or that held thematic importance, or some equivalences (the palm trees, also seen in the trailer, replace a botanical garden briefly featured in the novel). While these omissions do not damage the storyline, they do damage the characters of the film. Thufir Hawat, Gurney Halleck, even Lady Jessica could have all benefited from their presence. All in all however, Villeneuve’s Dune is an exact cinematic replica of Herbert’s novel, at least of half of it. As it has been often pointed out, this version of Dune is divided in two parts, with the second part yet to be produced.
What works best in Dune is the flawless casting. Whoever has read the novel could hardly imagine different actors to portray characters such as Paul (Timothée Chalamet, who always fits well for such roles of young teenager aristocratic leaders, as proven by David Michôd’s The King), Chani (Zendaya), Stilgar (Javier Bardem), Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), Thufir Hawatt (Stehen McKinley Henderson), Piter de Vries (David Dastmalchian), Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista), Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) as well as all the others.
Sharon-Duncan Brewster’s gender reversed role fits quite well the shoes of Liet-Kynes, previously portraid in Lynch’s version by the monumental Max von Sydow.
Dune also succeeds in rendering the alien scape of the desertic planet Arrakis, as well as the other planets that are even only hinted in the novel, without reduntantly using the strong saturated colours of Lynch’s version. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is truly a feast for the eyes, aided by a desaturated yet captivating coloring. Rest assured: the sky is never blue, which is something that the latest promotional poster seemed to suggest.
Villeneuve’s version has however not rendered from the novel the sense of mistery that permeates from the beginning. The novel immediately submerges its reader in the world of Dune, without any introduction, and the complex situation is slowly unraveled throughout the narrative. Villeneuve’s previous films prove that this approach could have been undertaken by him, but the 2021 film chose instead to rely on several expository scenes that explain too much to the audience. Some of the revelations that are hinted at very early were not as clear until the second half of the novel (yet to be adapted). A choice dictated by the destination to a wider target audience, for sure, but that ultimately adds dryness to the film.
Another slight disappointment might come from the score by Hans Zimmer. It does render the majestic epic scale of the film, but it perhaps remains overly somber and ambiental in scenes where it could have charged up the tense situation depicted (something that Zimmer did very well in Dunkirk). It is likely that Zimmer is keeping his better themes for the second part of the film.
There have been few attempts at adapting Dune, the never filmed version by Alejandro Jodorowsky, the failed attempt by David Lynch (which however, as the comparison with this film proves, was true in its adaptation of the first half, but sadly rushed the second half of the novel), both surrealist filmmakers.
Villeneuve is also surrealist in his own way, having made straight-forwardly surreal films such as Maelström, the short Next Floor, or Enemy, but his surrealism is also accompanied by a permeating rationality. Thus, his Dune is very far from the spirituality that Jodorowsky envisioned in his own version, or the idiosincrasies of Lynch. Most of what was supernatural in the other works, for example the Bene Gesserit conspiracy, is here explicitly bond to political undertones. The prologue makes it extremely clear that this is a film that is to be interpreted from a post-colonial standpoint.
On the other hand, what the film does borrow from the never made Jodorowsky version is some of the production design elements, especially for the Harkonnens. The castle of the Harkonnens is surprisingly similarly shaped to how it was supposed to appear in Jodorowsky’s film.
The referentialist aspect of the film is worthy of note. Baron Harkonnen’s first appearance somehow echoes Colonel Kurtz’s entrance in Apocalypse Now, for example. The overall look of the film obviusly reminds closely of Star Wars. Cinematographer Greig Fraser ha also photographed some of the most recent products of the Lucasfilm franchise, including Rogue One and The Mandalorian, thus it is very hard not to notice the visual similarities, not to mention all the elements that George Lucas borrowed back in 1977 from the original novel: the voice, the spice, the desert planet, the Imperium etc.
Ultimately, even if Villeneuve did not make the perfect Dune film (and it is fairly possible to say at this point that such a film cannot exist), it is an entertaining film. It is entertaining and keeps the viewer glued to the screen even despite its slow nature, leaves the viewer wanting for more, and that alone makes up for all the small imperfections it features.