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Warning: The following contains some SPOILERS for Frank Herbert’s Dune novels!
With fingers tightly crossed that there won’t be any delays, next year will see the release of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. The Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and Sicario filmmaker has become one of the industry’s most exciting directors, telling bold and visually striking stories each time out, and he has put together an incredible cast to bring Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 sci-fi novel to the big screen for the first time since David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation.
A talented, Oscar-nominated filmmaker working with a talented cast to bring a beloved story to life is exciting in its own right, but there may be a lot more reason to get invested in Dune beyond merely next year’s movie. Dune could be the start of something that extends well past 2020.
That’s because Dune is not intended as just a one-off in the way other modern science fiction movies like Arrival, Interstellar or Looper were. Dune is meant to be the beginning of at least a 2-part series based on the property, which has an abundance of expansive source material. Which raises the question, how many Dune movies could Denis Villeneuve potentially make?
For a while now it has been said that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is being envisioned as a 2-parter. The first movie will cover approximately the first half of Frank Herbert’s novel with the second movie covering the second half. It's a 2-movie model akin to the cinematic adaptations of other beloved novels like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and IT.
This approach makes sense so as to not shortchange the story. Dune is an expansive novel, and while David Lynch’s film covers the whole book, it is not an especially faithful adaptation. In contrast, the Dune mini-series on the then-Sci-fi Channel was a 3 episode, 4 hour and 25 minute telling of the story. Frank Herbert’s novel is extremely complex with tons of characters and moving pieces, not unlike Game of Thrones. So it is advantageous from a storytelling perspective to give the novel two films to tell the story of Paul Atreides.
However, unlike something like The Lord of the Rings, Dune parts one and two are not filming back to back. They will shoot individually, and presumably the second one getting made will hinge on the success of the first one. I’ve already written about what a financial gamble Dune might be so it’s not impossible that we only get one Denis Villeneuve Dune movie. But let’s air on the side of optimism and assume that Dune is great and a hit, what then? Denis Villeneuve has said that his goal is to make two films, maybe more.
That ‘maybe more’ coda opens up a whole range of possibilities where two films could give way to an entire series and franchise. Dune can be like Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope in terms of franchise potential; only here the story for more films already exists. Frank Herbert wrote six mainline Dune books before his death in 1986: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune.
What starts as a hero’s journey to avenge his family, free his people and overthrow an evil empire morphs over time into a metaphysical family saga, rife with political intrigue and religious elements that is interstellar in scope, taking place over literally thousands of years. If Dune is Robert’s Rebellion against the Mad King, the rest of the series is A Song of Ice and Fire, what comes after happily ever after. And things get weird too; we’re talking half-human, half giant sandworm weird.
The series is considered to waver in quality from title to title, and there is a major question of ‘filmability’ with parts of the Dune saga and how well this challenging material will land with mass audiences, but based on the sheer amount of story from Frank Herbert’s six novels alone, Denis Villeneuve could do at least a few more movies after the Dune two-parter.
The most obvious way for this series to be adapted would be to only focus on the first three novels, Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. Those three novels take place in the same basic time period and follow many of the same characters. After that, there are massive time jumps. If that approach were taken, the series would theoretically require at least four movies, two for the first book and one each for the other two, unless somehow Messiah and Children were combined into one to form a tidy trilogy.
Only after those would it make sense to dig into the other novels. If it's successful, the mythology is dense enough to extend out even beyond Frank Herbert’s books. The author died after Chapterhouse: Dune and that novel ended with a cliffhanger, leaving some of the series’ story arcs unresolved. So years later, his son Brian Herbert and author Kevin J. Anderson used Frank Herbert’s notes to complete the saga with Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. If Dune became a full-fledged cinematic series going that far into the story, the films would have to incorporate some elements from these later books, if not adapt them outright to complete the story in a satisfying manner.
Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson also wrote several trilogies in the Dune universe with events that take place before Frank Herbert’s work or fit into the timeline of that 6-book narrative. The events of these books could serve as either a prequel series or they could be cherry-picked and elements from them could be added to the main series of films.
Legendary also has the TV rights to Dune, so maybe it could take some of the stories, either by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson or Frank Herbert himself, and put those into television series, to complement the films, similar to what was supposed to happen with The Dark Tower and what is happening with The Kingkiller Chronicle.
A successful franchise is what every company in Hollywood wants, and Dune could be one for Legendary and Warner Bros. Essentially, if the success is there, Denis Villeneuve could basically live in the Dune universe for as long as he wants, becoming for this property what David Yates is for Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts.
That said, how many Dune movies there will be and how many Denis Villeneuve will make may be two separate questions. If Denis Villeneuve makes two films and they are successful, maybe he decides to leave it at that, but Legendary keeps the franchise going with a new director or directors.
A lot is riding, on the success of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, perhaps an entire franchise. So how many Dune movies could Denis Villeneuve potentially make? At least 1, maybe 2 and hopefully a lot more.