Denis Villeneuve is a true, visionary director. By cinematic and artistic standards, he’s already been truly successful, directing some of the most breathtaking, heart-wrenching and powerful movies in the last decade, including Blade Runner 2049, Arrival and Sicario. But he hasn’t exactly delivered a true box office smash hit yet. Blade Runner 2049 looked like it could have been that movie, but unfortunately, that didn’t end up happening.
With Dune, Denis Villeneuve has a big chance to deliver a huge box office success. Dune has a huge, devoted and loyal fanbase, and the story itself is on a grand scale, similar to Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and Star Wars. Many of those franchises also delivered on the seemingly impossible, so it’s not without question that Dune can capture the same magic. Here are some things I think would help take Dune across the finish line.
Ignore The Original Movie
Anytime a remake happens, the temptation is to try to fix and improve the movie that came before rather than going back to the source material. Sometimes this works out fine and sometimes it doesn’t. In Dune’s case, it likely wouldn’t work out too well.
Make no mistake, the original Dune has plenty of problems to fix; even its visionary director, David Lynch, tried to disown the movie. To this day, he considers it a heartache, wants nothing to do with it and won’t even see Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation. Still, even though it has problems, David Lynch’s Dune is his unique vision and over time has garnered a cult fanbase. I say leave it be.
The good news is that it shouldn’t be too hard to ignore the original movie and go back to the source material as the main guide. The Dune movie doesn’t have a rabid fanbase demanding the same kind of tone and style, like Star Wars, but the Dune novel does. Fortunately, it looks like they’re way ahead of me and have made steps to stay true to the source material.
Avoid The Exposition
When studios adapt a science fiction or fantasy novel into a movie, the demand for exposition is high. Sometimes they’ll throw exposition at you at the very beginning (like the original Dune), or they’ll mix voiceover exposition with the action playing out on-screen (like the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), but rarely do they cast exposition to the wayside and let the audience figure it out on their own through other visual and storytelling means.
The problem with exposition is that it bogs down the story and acts as an information dump that can be fairly boring and too much to process all at once. The original Dune’s opening features Princess Irulan giving a painful monologue, explaining the intimate details about the world of Dune. Most of it is unnecessary.
It would better serve the movie if they avoided the exposition when possible, and thankfully, Denis Villeneuve doesn’t do this too much, so I doubt he’ll be very heavy-handed with his version.
Don’t Only Cater To The Fans
Dune is a dense science fiction novel full of strange lingo and terminology like “Gom Jabbar,” “Shai-Hulud” and “Bene Gesserit.” There’s also plenty of backstories, history and political strife on top of that. There’s so much of it that if you head to the back of the novel, you’ll find an appendix and a glossary that helps explain the mythology. Fans eat this stuff up, so it would be easy to only appeal to them and hope newcomers can keep up, but I think this would be a mistake.
Just like how Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings balanced the mythology in their adaptations, Dune would do well to follow the same rules. Both of those did a great job both appealing to the old fandom while building a totally new fanbase in the process. By convincing newcomers that they can get in on the fun, too, Dune has a solid chance of exploding in popularity.
Bridle The Poetic Introspection
In a lot of ways, Dune is a journey inward. Paul Atreides has to overcome his mind, fear and internal obstacles before he can overcome his external ones. This might work well for a novel, but for a movie, it can slow down the narrative and become boring.
Denis Villeneuve has a tendency to be cerebral, poetic and ethereal in his directorial style. Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and Enemy aren’t edge-of-your-seat thrill rides; they take their time and they often focus a lot on a character’s internal struggles. From a cinematic standpoint, all those movies are gorgeous successes (and my personal favorites), but none of them became box office smash hits that broke records.
For Dune to become the mega-blockbuster it was meant to be, it'll have to bridle the introspective tone and keep the focus on the external struggles between the Atreides and the Harkonnens. Otherwise, all that could slow down the narrative and make it come across as pretentious. I’m not saying they can’t include Paul grappling with who he is (that’s a big part of the story), but if the movie focuses more on that than the external conflict, then it might turn audiences off.
Embrace The Weird
Dune is weird. Perhaps the one thing David Lynch did right with his Dune was make it excessively weird. There’s no getting around it and there’s no use even trying. Dune has weird terminology, weird sandworms, weird bodysuits and weird tests to prove someone is human.
Often, studios tamp down on "the weird factor," afraid audiences won't like it. But weird can be good, mostly because it makes the story memorable and shows a wealth of imagination. Details and imagination can go a long way in a story and make people fall in love with the world.
Unfortunately, when most science fiction movies dive deep into imagination and embrace their weird world, they also leave good storytelling at the wayside. But for Dune, I don’t think that will be a problem. From the look of the first trailer, Denis Villeneuve is already embracing the weird.
Make People Fall In Love With Paul Atreides
Paul Atreides is a fascinating and nuanced anti-hero. While his story at first seems like it’s going to be a classic hero's journey, it doesn’t really become that at all. In fact, he has a surprising similarity to Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones or Al Pacino’s Godfather character.
Regardless of Paul Atreides' hero’s arc, it’s imperative that Denis Villeneuve and Timothee Chalamet find ways to make Paul Atreides lovable and convince the audience to take his side throughout the story. Obviously, he’s the protagonist, but it’s not enough to simply expect people to get on board. They need to empathize with him and become a full-on supporter of his cause.
After waiting a long time, the Dune trailer is out and already we’re getting a good peek at what Timothee Chalamet’s Paul Atreides will be like. So far, he looks fairly pensive and brooding, with a slight glimmer of joy when greeted by Duncan Idaho. Only time will tell how Chalamet will play the character, but hopefully, he can become the charismatic leader that many have come to love from the books. If so, the filmmakers will have won a huge battle already.
Make People Hate Baron Harkonnen
Similar to how Game of Thrones excelled at getting people to hate Joffrey Baratheon, Denis Villeneuve needs to do the same with Baron Harkonnen. The good news is that this shouldn’t be too hard, as Baron Harkonnen is considered one of the most evil villains in all of science fiction.
Baron Harkonnen is written as an ugly, monstrous, depraved and sadistic figure who is also cunning and intelligent. He does whatever he wants without regard to morality, and does whatever it takes to get his way, including manipulating, killing, raping and torturing. So with that said, it shouldn’t be too hard to make people hate him. But it can’t be overstated just how important this aspect of the story is.
Baron Harkonnen is Duke Leto’s arch enemy. After Duke Leto gains control of Arrakis, Baron Harkonnen, the former ruler, is less than pleased and conspires to kill Duke Leto. Duke Leto knows he’s setting a trap, but he goes there anyway because Arrakis holds melange, a.k.a. spice, the most powerful resource in the universe.
If Denis Villeneuve can make the audience loathe Harkonnen, then that helps elevate the tension, the stakes, and the empathy for Paul and House Atreides, creating a super compelling drama. As much as it might seem typical for an epic of this scale to stir up fierce emotions, this kind of storytelling works really well.
I’ll admit there’s no silver-bullet formula to create a blockbuster mega-hit. Often this stuff is just lightning in a bottle. Still, science fiction and fantasy TV show and movie adaptations before it have found ways to explode in popularity and become major success stories because they were able to tell stories that appealed to a wider audience. Since Dune is one of the most epic science fiction stories of all time, it has a real chance to do the same if it can tap into the same playbook. Already, it looks like they’re heading in that direction. I, for one, am optimistic it’ll crush the box office when it releases.
Dune is slated to open in theaters on December 18, and keep checking back with CinemaBlend for more updates.