It was the book they said couldn’t be filmed. Many before him tried— to varying degrees of success— but the Denis Villeneuve Dune adaptation stands as the definitive cinematic telling of this intimidating science fiction story. So, how was Villeneuve able to succeed where others failed? We’ll start by taking a brief look at Villeneuve’s filmography, then we’ll compare and contrast his version of Dune to past attempts. Finally, we’ll explore how Villeneuve’s directing style changed for Dune.
Watch: Dune — Denis Villeneuve on Directing an Epic
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Dune Denis Villeneuve
The work of Denis Villeneuve
Since directing his first feature film in 1998, August 32nd on Earth, Denis Villeneuve has crafted one of the film industry’s most varied and impressive filmographies. Be sure to check out our rundown of Denis Villeneuve’s best films. But, Villeneuve didn’t emerge fully formed.
He wasn’t completely satisfied with his debut film or even his sophomore effort, Maelstrom. He took a bit of a break before returning with his next feature nearly a decade later. 2009’s Polytechnique was the director’s first truly excellent piece of work.
Villeneuve went on to prove himself one of the most versatile filmmakers of the 2010s. Bouncing between different subject matter, filmmaking styles, and genres with remarkable aplomb. Villeneuve directed Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049 all within the decade. Any director could be proud of a filmography that strong, prolific, and varied.
Since he frequently jumps between different genres and types of stories, Villeneuve's directorial style must be flexible to accommodate such variety. It’s impressive just how distinctive his directorial fingerprint is despite the need to change up his style so drastically from film to film.
Beginning with Arrival, Villeneuve’s recent work has shifted toward a focus on science fiction as his budgets and creative freedom continue to grow. Find out how Villeneuve balanced fear and intrigue in Arrival. After taking on the monumental task of crafting a successful sequel to Blade Runner, Villeneuve set his sights even higher.
Dune by Denis Villeneuve
Past attempts at adapting Dune
For decades, Frank Herbert’s Dune novel was called “impossible to adapt.” But that didn’t stop people from trying. This epic sci-fi, fantasy novel is loaded with hours and hours of story, world-building, and rich lore. Packing everything encased in the 412 pages of the first book into a single film might not be physically possible.
This might explain why Villeneuve broke the story up into two parts when crafting his take on the material.
When David Lynch was making the first adaptation of Dune back in the 1980s, he also wanted to break the story up into two parts, but the studio refused. They also refused to budge on a theatrical runtime in the ballpark of two hours, despite Lynch’s initial cut of the film being closer to five hours.
The 1984 version of Dune certainly has its fans, but even its own director wanted his name removed from the project in the end. David Lynch and Denis Villeneuve both made it onto our list of the greatest directors of all time.
Even before David Lynch’s take on Dune, another surrealist filmmaker had plans to adapt the gargantuan sci-fi, fantasy novel. Alejandro Jodorowsky, known for fascinating and bizarre films like El Topo and The Holy Mountain, was deep into pre-production on his spin on Dune before the plug was pulled.
Jodorowsky’s ill-fated efforts were immortalized in the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune. And that’s all without even getting into the made-for-TV mini-series adaptation of Dune that the SciFi channel (now known as SyFy) made in 2000.
For all their differences, the 1984 version of Dune and the 2021 version have more in common than you might expect. Since both films are pulling from the same source material, some commonalities are to be expected. Check out our guide on how to write an adaptation to learn more about the process.
Villeneuve holds tremendous respect for David Lynch, even calling him “the master” in an interview with Empire. In comparing the two films, one can notice similarities in how certain sequences unfold and how individual shots are framed.
A larger budget than ever before gives 2021’s Dune a significant leg up over the past attempts at bringing this literary tale to the silver screen. Modern visual effects have progressed significantly since the last adaptation of Dune, and Villeneuve put all of those advancements to work.
Dune Denis Villeneuve
How Villeneuve’s style changed for Dune
Denis Villeneuve wasn’t able to bring his usual filmmaking style to Dune. The sheer scope of the project necessitated a few changes. The decision to divide the novel up into two parts came early on in the process and alleviated some of the narrative strain, but also incurred additional challenges.
Villeneuve first wanted to shoot both parts simultaneously, but the cost proved too exorbitant for the studio to greenlight. In the video below, he discusses the studio’s budgetary concerns in an interview with director Christopher Nolan.
Villeneuve found himself needing to use a second unit for the first time in his career. He described shooting with multiple camera units as “not the best way to work.” When speaking to Christopher Nolan, he said, "I love to work with one camera… but I didn't have a choice. I had to do it this way."
Compared to Villeneuve’s previous film Blade Runner 2049, which was massive in its own right, Dune is even larger in scope. If you’re a fan of that sci-fi sequel, you can grab a free copy of Blade Runner 2049’s screenplay and read our analysis. Villeneuve was pressured by producers to use as many as nine camera units for his Blade Runner sequel, but refused and stuck to a single-camera shooting style.
During an interview about the decision with Collider, Roger Deakins called multi-unit shooting “sloppy.” For more cinematography insights from Roger Deakins, check out our complete guide to his style.
More Denis Villeneuve Dune on the way
While a Dune: Part Two wasn’t a guarantee at the time of part one’s release, it didn’t take long for the sequel to be confirmed. Dune: Part 2 is now official in pre-production with a projected release date for sometime in 2023. Part two will finish telling the story of the first Dune novel.
If Dune: Part Two proves as popular as part one, there may be even more Dune on the horizon. There is a wealth of additional source material to pull from for additional sequels if the demand is there. When counting sequels, prequels, and spin-offs, there are a total of 21 books in the complete Dune saga. Also in the works is Dune: The Sisterhood, a spin-off TV series that follows the Bene Gesserit.
Denis Villeneuve Directing Style
If you are a fan of Dune and Denis Villeneuve’s work, then we have more analysis for you to enjoy. In our auteur directors series, we take a comprehensive look at the director’s entire filmography. See our breakdown of Denis Villeneuve’s directing style and filmmaking techniques, up next.