Pitfalls of Epic Adaptation: Why 'Dune' Was So Hard to Get Right Onscreen

Finding the story subtlety in this vast world of Dune proves to be a plot challenge.
by David Young - updated on March 6, 2024

The iconic sci-fi fantasy epic Dune is a franchise whose first novel has inspired a series of books, games and even multiple films. That said, the ’84 cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s legendary novel failed spectacularly and television adaptations of Dune and its sequels suffered reservations from a very loyal fanbase. Even the newest foray into movie-making using this literary classic met several challenges along the way before it ultimately succeeded. But why is that?

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The Political Fantasy Perspective Problem

Anyone who remembers the David Lynch movie from 1984 will cringe at the thought. And as you cringe, you might remember something distinct about the disaster that was Dune’s first cinematic attempt: The perspective problem. Fans will obviously already know that Dune is a sci-fi fantasy epic involving high-stakes political plots.

More than that, the people involved in those politics have their own motivations, musings, and manipulations to consider along the way. This interpersonal intricacy leads Dune to the forefront of the zeitgeist, with many political fantasies drawing inspiration from it time and again. A famous example of this inspiration is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, whose interwoven betrayals and dastardly intrigue were adapted into the award-winning series, Game of Thrones.

Consider the interplay between Lady Jessica and Duke Leto Atreides, who are forced to play into a game of seeming mistrust. Perception is everything, and the reader only knows what the Duke knows thanks to the fantasy convention of multiple-perspective writing. Much like the insider’s perspectives that we get from the characters in Martin’s novels, the same applies here — and it requires thoughtful work to demonstrate those perspectives in the same intricate manner. If you fail, you wind up with Lynch’s forced internal monologue moments, an absolute travesty in the world of screenwriting.

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Why Dune Was So Hard to Get Right Onscreen

Dune (2021)

High-Density Lore and Exposition

In the same vein as high-density dialogue that speaks to perspective, there are also places where dialogue must deliver the specifics about the science-fiction world in question. That said, Dune is a novel that uses everything from internal musings to open conflict to deliver exposition and even worldbuilding lore, such as the reason computers have been eradicated.

But, to deliver all of this in character speeches would diminish the narrative. Everyone knows that it’s better to show, not tell — especially when you’re writing an adapted screenplay. How can you show the years of royal family feuds and bad blood, the centuries of human skill advancement, all in one movie? The truth is that you simply can’t do that.

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Instead, a filmmaker is forced to pick small moments and explain them as succinctly as possible. Showing a mentat or Bene Gesserit using their skills or having a political figure explain a single choice gives insight into the world — but it doesn’t force the window open for too long. An audience can’t be subjected to an entire encyclopedia of Frank Herbert’s vast universe, with its keen worldbuilding and stunning backstories. Instead, exposition comes from unique, actionable moments that affect the development of a character or storyline.

Lady Jessica being told that she was instructed to conceive a daughter shows how Bene Gesserit can control their bodies. Baron Harkonnen’s malicious actions betray his desire to unravel House Atreides — and he explains very little about the history between them, making the revelations more organic and engaging by default.

The Loudness of Subtlety

One of the most unique things about the world of Dune is its focus on acts of subtlety. Body language, tone of voice, and other methodologies of essentially mind-reading come up throughout the series. That said, a movie can carry some of that weight very well in most stories. Dune is the exception because the story necessitates a valuable skill in the protagonists: Paul and Lady Jessica each can exercise superhuman detection of these minutiae.

Their ability to detect lying, deference, and bodily workings beyond normal perception makes this story riveting even in a room with no true “action.” These subtleties are loud and can be perceived by the reader thanks to these kinds of perspectives — but when attempting to recreate these subtleties on screen, this loudness dissipates. The creativity then has to flow as filmmakers decide how to convey specifics like heightened levels of fear, habitual tells, and other openings only a trained assassin could spot.

In the 2021 adaptation, one creative maneuver involved changing the conflict. Instead of discovering through body language — and failure — that one of the Harkonnen soldiers was deaf and immune to the Voice, the movie showed the same deaf soldier turning away when the Voice was finally used to orchestrate Paul and Lady Jessica’s escape. It’s this kind of maneuver that saves time and energy in belaboring the point: We know that Paul and Jessica understand the human body, so why drive it home in a spot too laborious to do so?

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In Summary: Rationale, Memory, and Attention

It’s easy to pin down specific moments where book-to-movie changes happen. What’s not so easy is finding out why.

The big umbrellas under which these problems come up have yet to be defined — so let’s define them. Firstly, we mention perspectives and the problems that come with that transition onto the big screen. Essentially, that’s the character’s rationale. The way they think — and why they think that way — create very important signposts for the audience, but the modality simply changes between book and movie. That’s a major difference.

The next challenge was Dune’s use of lore and exposition: the world’s memory, so to speak. Memory is a powerful device that can be conveyed through flashbacks, dialogue, and character actions, but the context for it is often lost when moving something from page to film. This is a difficulty even in original screenplays — but in adaptations, you risk cutting and losing the wrong things in translation.

Finally, there’s the issue of plot attention, made clear in Dune by the more specific challenge of communicating major plot points through subtle actions. Between these three major categories, you can see why any adaptation might be difficult — and why Dune most of all has such complex hurdles to overcome for any filmmaker. There are other challenges, too, like communicating the planetary scale of the conflicts in the story. Luckily, with a bit of ingenuity, adaptations like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (and its upcoming Part Two) can deliver on these challenges in fascinating, successful ways, making fans happy in a way that the 1984 film never could.

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