Everything We Learned About Denis Villeneuve’s Dune From Vanity Fair’s Big Reveal

In a year without a new Star Wars film (and precious few Marvel films) Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune is probably one of the most anticipated movies of the year—a new take on the celebrated science fiction novel with a lot riding on it.

This week, Vanity Fair released a pair of articles that give us our first look at what to expect from the film.

The movie appears to still be slated for a December release

This summer has been a trial for studios and theaters alike, as many have closed for to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As a result, numerous films have had their theatrical releases delayed to later this year, or skipped the theatrical window altogether. Dune appears to be on track, according to Vanity Fair, although it’ll face competition from some other big films, like Black Widow, Godzilla vs. Kong, No Time to Die,  and Top Gun: Maverick.

There are indeed two films planned

Since the inception of the project, Villeneuve has talked about producing two films. Writer Anthony Breznican points out that Dune is an enormously complicated book, and Villeneuve notes “I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book with one single movie. The world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in details.”

He notes that that complexity is probably why the prior adaptations haven’t lived up to the books. “It’s a book that tackles politics, religion, ecology, spirituality—and with a lot of characters. I think that’s why it’s so difficult.”

The result will be something like It and It: Chapter Two: two big blockbusters that will allow Villeneuve to explore the complexity of the novel without making shortcuts.

The film retains its environmental message

One of the reasons for why Frank Herbert’s novel caught on with audiences in the 1970s was the environmentalist message embedded in the text, a holdover from the origins of the projects: a feature article about dune migration in the Pacific Northwest.

Villeneuve notes that “No matter what you believe, Earth is changing, and we will have to adapt.”

“That’s why I think that Dune, this book, was written in the 20th century. It was a distant portrait of the reality of the oil and the capitalism and the exploitation—the overexploitation—of Earth. Today, things are just worse. It’s a coming-of-age story, but also a call for action for the youth.”

The Stillsuits look pretty cool

One of the biggest challenges for a novel’s adaptation is the look and feel of the world—particularly the costume design. Filmmakers have to balance what looks good and natural for the film, against what’s practical to wear for the actors. With Dune, there’s been three (ish) prior adaptations, and in all three instances, I’ve never felt that any of them quite nailed the look and feel of the Stillsuits that the Fremen wear to protect themselves from the desert environment.

Villeneuve’s adaptation looks like they’ve nailed the look: Vanity Fair’s piece shows off several pictures of the costume, which look rugged and like they could exist in the real-world.

Moreover, the costumes helped with the actors’ performance: Timothée Chalamet noted that they were performing in extremely hot conditions, and that the costumes were pretty oppressive to wear. “In a really grounded way, it was helpful to be in the stillsuits and to be at that level of exhaustion.”

It looks as though Villeneuve is updating the story a bit

Dune might be a classic novel, but it’s attracted some criticism over the years for some of his portrayals: women don’t play as big a role, and some of the characters, like House Harkonnen’s Baron Vladimir (played by Stellan Skarsgård) are portrayed as grotesque.

Villeneuve notes that the character is still a “mammoth,” but “As much as I deeply love the book, I felt that the baron was flirting very often with caricature. And I tried to bring him a bit more dimension.” The director notes that Skarsgård portrays the character most like a predator, and less a power-crazed ruler.

Vanity Fair reports that some of the roles will change a bit: Lady Jessica’s (played by Rebecca Ferguson) role has been expanded, and is described more as a “warrior princess,” than a “space nun.” Ferguson notes that the character is “respectful” of the novel, but “the quality of the arcs for much of the women have been brought up to a new level. There were some shifts he did, and they are beautifully portrayed now.”

Another character, Liet Kynes, an ecologist on Arrakis, is a male character in the book, but for the film, will be played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Rogue One), a woman of color.

Atreides Anti-hero

Actor Timothée Chalamet will portray Paul Atreides, “a child of privilege raised by a powerful family, but not one strong enough to protect him from the dangers ahead.” Chalamet provided some insight into his take on the character yesterday, noting that he’s “on an anti-hero’s-journey of sorts.”

“He thinks he’s going to be sort of a young general studying his father and his leadership of a fighting force before he comes of age, hopefully a decade later, or something like that.”

Readers of the novel will know that that’s not what’s in store for the young Atreides: his family will be overthrown by rival House Harkonnen, which seeks to take control of the planet Arrakis. It looks as though Villeneuve and Chalamet’s take on the character is nuanced and complicated, and that it’ll take into consideration some of the character’s privilege in becoming the leader of the indigenous Fremen tribesmen.

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