Some say “Dune” is unfilmable, but “Arrival” director Denis Villeneuve is exactly the right person to try

dune novels
dune novels
Image: Flickr/Maria Morri
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The Hollywood trade magazines all reported yesterday that Denis Villeneuve, the director of Arrival and next year’s Blade Runner sequel, is in talks to take on perhaps the most daunting challenge in science fiction: adapting Dune to film.

Frank Herbert’s cult 1965 novel, considered one of the greatest sci-fi works of all time, tells the futuristic tale of noble houses clashing over control of the desert planet Arrakis, which stores a precious resource capable of imparting long life and precognition to its users. Dune‘s expansive plot and complex political dynamics cannot truly be distilled into a pithy description, but one way to think about the novel, for those unfamiliar, is like Game of Thrones in space.

Unless it’s seriously altered and trimmed down, there’s simply too much going on for one film. It would more likely be a film series, or perhaps some combination of films and a television series (Legendary Entertainment picked up the book’s film and TV rights last month). Deadline reported that the studio is developing the project as a film franchise, with Villeneuve directing the first one (at least).

Renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke held that the only comparable work to Dune was The Lord of the Rings. Star Wars, released 12 years after Dune, borrowed heavily from the novel.

But the reason Dune is not as well-known today as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings is because it’s never been successfully adapted to film. The trials and tribulations of trying to turn Dune into a movie have become the stuff of legend, leading some to wonder if it’s “unadaptable.”

  • In 1971, production company Apjac International acquired the film rights, but couldn’t get anything off the ground.
  • In 1974, the rights changed hands and visionary Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky was tapped to direct a massive 10-hour film adaptation. A script was written, actors were cast, and elaborate storyboards were created, but the production eventually ran out of money.
  • In 1976, prominent Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis obtained the rights and hired Ridley Scott to direct the adaptation. The project moved too slowly for Scott, who dropped out and then directed Blade Runner.
  • In 1984, David Lynch finally directed a Dune adaptation. The film was an utter failure, panned by critics as it failed to make back its $40 million budget. (Today, though, it’s viewed a bit more favorably.)

Since Lynch’s film, Dune has also been adapted into a TV miniseries and even served as the inspiration for a puppet show-within-a-show on HBO’s Togetherness—neither of which can really claim to be the definitive Dune adaptation. In 2014, a documentary about Jodorowsky’s failed adaptation was released, to critical acclaim.

But Villeneuve’s film could finally be the one. The director knows a little something about adapting the impossible. Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life, a story about intricate alien linguistics, was thought to be “unadaptable”—until Villeneuve made it into the stunning film Arrival. And the Blade Runner sequel, which he’s now directing, has a history of failed attempts nearly as long as Dune‘s.

In any case, Villeneuve seems up for the challenge. He told Variety earlier this year that adapting the novel was his “longstanding dream.” Now it looks like he’ll have the chance to fulfill it.

Image by Maria Morri on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.