With the news that Legendary Entertainment has acquired the rights to make a new movie based on Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, there has been much speculation as to how this new adaption will be done. Dune has been adapted twice before. Once as a feature film by David Lynch in 1984, and later in 2000 as a TV mini series on the Sci-Fi Channel. Both projects had positive and negative aspects that fans continue to debate. Lynch’s film had the grand and epic feel of the novel, but also added new features to the story that were not in the original(ex: the weirding modules). The Sci-Fi mini series was more faithful to the book since it had more time to adapt the story, but suffered from a limited TV budget, and the look and feel of the set pieces and costumes were not at the same level as the movie.
This brings to mind the question of what new adaption should be done by Legendary Entertainment. In terms of adapting just the first Dune novel, a big budget, multi-part movie series similar to The Lord Of The Rings is something I think would be great. The story itself is very complex and needs many hours to tell. Trying to squeeze it into a single tow-or three-hour movie will inevitably lead to significant reductions in the many layers Herbert’s story has to offer. This is exactly what plagued Lynch’s version. He got the basics right, but was still unable to touch on many plot points and had to condense everything. The book itself is divided into 3three parts which would fit nicely into a trilogy of films that can do the whole thing justice. All of the plots and schemes of the various feuding houses and galactic intrigue can be explored, as well as the hero Paul Atriedes’ journey from merely a ducal heir to a full blown messiah. Having all of this with a big budget would seem to merge the positive aspects of the previous movie and the miniseries, plenty of time to tell the story and the resources to create Frank Herbert’s rich and diverse universe.
Having said that, if Legendary was feeling bold, they could attempt to adapt the entire original Dune Chronicles, which includes six books. If this was the case, then the only way to do this would be a Game of Thrones-style show hopefully on a cable network like HBO or Showtime. Books two and three (Dune Messiah and Children of Dune) were adapted by the Sci-Fi Channel in 2003 and was well done. Unfortunately, the other books were not adapted and the story came to an abrupt end just as it was getting good. The fourth novel God Emperor of Dune takes place 3,500 years after the original book and features Paul Atriedes’ son Leto II still alive due to his body merging with the desert planet’s massive worms. Subsequent novels take place thousands of years after this book and feature warring factions of matriarchal institutions and more galactic politics and intrigue. All of this would be very difficult to adapt in any meaningful way in theatrical films. Only the long commitment of an ongoing TV series could hope to truly bring all of these fantastic tales to life.
Legendary Entertainment has a rich portfolio of films under its belt (Godzilla, Pacific Rim) and the fact that they are now in charge of the Dune franchise is definitely a positive development. The fact that talented director Denis Villeneuve wants to take on the task of making a Dune film is also a very good sign. He directed the well received sci-fi film Arrival and was entrusted with directing this year’s Blade Runner 2049. This shows me he has the skill to develop high-quality genre films. Hopefully, whatever they decide to do, it will be something that will do justice to Frank Herbert’s epic tale.
Last week, we learned a bit about Neill Blomkamp’s upcoming science fiction movie Elysium and while intriguing one thing revealed is that despite rumors the film isn’t set in the far future. On the other hand, earlier we found out that Will Smith’s next science fiction film After Earth takes place some one thousand years after humanity abandoned Earth. The settings for both films point out how there is very little science fiction films that take place in the far future. It seems as if filmmakers are uncomfortable producing films that take place beyond the 25th century. In fact, the average future date they tackle is the 22nd to 23rd centuries. Just look at Star Trek, Alien and other recent films. If not date is set and they want to depict a far future, the date is left vague like in THX-1138.
This contrasts with science fiction literature that is filled with books and stories taking place thousands, millions and even billions of years from now. Some of the most famous examples are H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga and Frank Herbert’s Dune books. As everyone knows, the first Dune book was adapted into a poorly received film by David Lynch. One complaint leveled against the adaptation was how confusing Dune’s premise was to the general audience who couldn’t relate to a tale in a galaxy-spanning society. This could be why there are so few films set far into the future. The reality is that no one can accurately predict how humanity will evolve. It’s very likely that we wouldn’t relate to them at all. That isn’t to say that it’s not possible to make the characters relatable. If it weren’t possible there wouldn’t be so many sci-fi books taking place in the far future.
Obviously the ones to blame for this attitude are movie executives who try to sell films to the general audience and often underestimate their customers’ intelligence levels. While someone who is only into romantic comedies and mindless action flicks probably don’t want to be bothered with a sci-fi movie whose setting needs some explaining. Many of them point to the failure of Dune and assume that no one wants to see a film set in an unrecognizable society. Unfortunately this has become a convenient fallback for executives (never mind that the Sci-Fi Channel produced two successful adaptations of Dune and its sequels). Also their inability to simply explain a film’s setting is due to their lack of storytelling skills. But that is debatable.
Then again one problem facing filmmakers is presenting a far future that won’t look dated years after the film is released. Not to mention they usually don’t have the budget to present a full-fledged future in detail.
One way around this challenge was to depict a dystopian future where society has collapsed and nature has reclaimed the Earth. Planet Of The Apes comes to mind when using this depiction. It takes place in 3978 long after humanity has devolved into mute savages and simians have inherited the Earth. The Time Machine is another example where humanity has evolved into two separate species millions of years from now. Or just do away with the Earth like Don Bluth’s animated film Titan, A.E. did. After the world was destroyed in the film’s beginning, humanity has become a refugee species, having lost any cultural and technological advancements. This meant that they were relatable to modern-day audiences (who related to time-placed heroes from our era in The Time Machine and Planet Of The Apes).
It is a challenge to put out a sci-fi film that takes place far into the future but it isn’t impossible. This conception that people won’t be able to relate to the characters and setting is ridiculous. After all, films come out that depict our distant past yet audiences care about those characters and understand what is going on. So it shouldn’t be difficult for the average moviegoer to understand a character in the far-flung future. It has been done and hopefully will be done in the future.
Lewis T. Grove