Mr. Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation falls to the Dune curse


Lindsay Taylor '24

Dune is a futuristic tale that masterfully integrates religious, political, and environmental commentary into its narrative.

Mr. Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965) is a science fiction classic, however, despite five attempts to create a film adaptation of the novel, the failure to faithfully adapt Dune into a film continues.  Mr. Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation of the novel received mixed reviews from critics.  Some praised Mr. Villeneuve’s epic visuals, but others found fault with the heartless, stripped-down version of the novel, according to  Despite the admittedly beautiful visuals and stellar performances from the actors in Mr. Villeneuve’s adaptation, his film falls to the curse of Dune due to its lack of proper context and oversimplified characters.

Set in the year 10,191, Dune is a story about a feudal space empire where noble houses fight for control over planets.  After a war against robots, humanity forbade the production of technology with human-like intelligence, forcing humans to evolve both technologically and physically with one product known as spice fuelling those advancements.  All space travel is reliant on spice for fuel and superhumans such as Mentats rely on spice as the source of their power.  Arrakis is the only planet that produces the immensely valuable spice.  House Harkonnen ruled over the planet Arrakis for decades with an iron fist, which significantly increased their wealth and power, but also created enmity between them and the Fremen, the natives of Arrakis.  The novel commences as House Atreides, the sworn enemy of House Harkonnen, takes over Arrakis at the command of the empire.  The space epic of Dune focuses on Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides, and his experience of the religious, political, and environmental conflicts on Arrakis.

In his adaptation of Dune, Mr. Villeneuve succeeds at encapsulating the futuristic environment and advanced technology of the novel.  The sheer grandeur and beauty of the cinematography are palpable while watching the film.

Mr. Timothée Chalamet and Mrs. Rebecca Ferguson gaze at the horizon in a scene from the 2021 adaptation of Dune.  Courtesy of Mr. Kyle Buchanan

The acting performance in the 2021 Dune adaptation is close to flawless, with the film’s star-studded cast demonstrating their artistic prowess.  Many critics praised the powerful performances of the Dune cast, according to  Some side characters, such as Josh Brolin playing the role of Gurney Halleck, make excellent use of their limited screen time.  Mr. Timothée Chalamet and Mrs. Rebecca Ferguson are particularly excellent in their portrayals of Paul Atreides and Lady Jessica, respectively.

Similar to other Dune adaptations and despite its technical brilliance, the 2021 film does not properly explore the thematic depth of its book counterpart, which causes the film to fall to the novel’s curse of inadaptability.

Dune is a complex novel that provides finespun depictions of religion, politics, ecology, and culture.  Before Mr. Villeneuve’s modern adaptation, there were many other attempts to adapt Dune for the big screen.  Mr. David Lynch directed a 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, which Mr. Lynch himself hated, according to  This film failed because it attempted to compress too much context and plot into a two-hour movie, which oversimplified the storyline and sacrificed much of the nuance in Mr. Herbert’s original novel.  Additionally, Mr. Alejandro Jodorowsky directed his own film adaptation which faltered because it would have been 15 hours long and extremely costly to fund, according to  These are only a few examples of Dune adaptations that have struggled to fulfill the complexity of their source material.  The consistent struggle of directors to successfully adapt Dune promotes the idea that there is an unfilmable curse on the novel, according to

Mr. Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation of Dune was an attempt to create a faithful counterpart to the beloved book.  Mr. Villeneuve has been a fan of Dune since he was a teenager.  Ever since he read the book, he wanted to adapt it into a film, according to

Mr. Oscar Isaac acts in a scene as Duke Leto Atreides. Courtesy of

“I was impressed by how intelligent it was.  It was very relevant regarding what was happening on Earth,” Mr. Villeneuve said, according to “Dune is one of my biggest dreams.  It is the movie I have wanted to make for such a long time.”

Despite his passion for the book and his decision to split the film into two parts, Mr. Villeneuve’s film fails to construct a worthy adaptation of the novel.  To condense the plot into a feature-length film of around two-and-a-half hours, Mr. Villeneuve sacrificed much of the novel’s character depth and nuanced context.  This led to a sometimes incoherent and shallow interpretation of the book.

In Dune, Mr. Herbert effectively established context for a story that takes place several millennia in the future.  The novel notably includes excerpts from future history books that help readers follow its plot as well as multiple appendices that give readers a guide to the vocabulary, leadership, and ecology of the world in Dune.  Yet, this nuanced context and world-building pose a challenge for films attempting to faithfully adapt Mr. Herbert’s novel.

Unfortunately, the 2021 adaptation never mentions or properly explains some of the crucial context from Dune.  For example, Mr. Herbert heavily features the idea of a Mentat, a human-computer whose abilities come from spice, with the Mentat character of Thufir Hawat critically influencing the story of House Atreides.  The narrative follows protagonist Paul Atreides who trained to be a Mentat his whole life, granting him heightened intelligence and senses. 

However, in Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation of Dune, no character ever mentions the word Mentat in the film.  The lack of an explanation for the term Mentat leads to the oversimplification and sidelining of Thufir Hawat, as the film portrays him as simply an advisor to Duke Leto whose actions and advice are inconsequential.  Furthermore, it leads to a level of incoherence in Paul’s character arc because the film never explains his Mentat abilities and fails to explain their heightening after Paul’s first exposure to spice. 

Mr. Villeneuve also struggles to convey much of the depth of the novel into the movie’s storyline.  The most notable example of this is the failure to contextualize the motivations and actions of the Harkonnens.  Although the Harkonnens give up rule over the planet of Arrakis at the request of Emperor Shaddam IV, their turnover of power was actually a mutually beneficial ploy conjured by the two parties to sabotage House Atreides and increase their respective wealth.  Both the Emperor and House Harkonnen stockpiled spice for years and planned to sabotage House Atreides to turn other Houses against House Atreides and boost the value of their own supply.  However, the film adaptation loses this complexity as it portrays the reason for the Harkonnens’ destruction of House Atreides as a one-dimensional story of revenge.

Mr. Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune also fails to recreate the complex characters from the book in a considerate way and strips them of the depth they contain in the novel.  Perhaps the best example of this is in the film’s portrayal of Dr. Wellington Yueh.  In Dune, Mr. Herbert expertly uses dramatic irony to craft the rich narrative of the anti-hero.  Before Dr. Yueh even appears in the novel, the Harkonnens reveal that he will betray House Atreides.  Even the excerpts from the future history novels show readers that future generations will view him as a traitor.

Despite exposing Dr. Yueh as a villain almost immediately in Dune, Mr. Herbert explores Dr. Yueh’s backstory and portrays him as a sympathetic anti-hero, rather than a villain.  Mr. Herbert uses Dr. Yueh’s narrative to present paradoxes of allegiance, love, and hatred, which makes him a compelling character who readers preemptively forgive for the crime they know he will commit.  However, Mr. Villeneuve’s adaptation reduces Dr. Yueh’s carefully constructed character arc and motives into a single line of dialogue, stripping the character of his complexity and sympathetic nature.

Dr. Yueh is not the only character whose portrayal suffers in Mr. Villeneuve’s interpretation of Dune.  Paul Atreides’ father Duke Leto Atreides also loses many of his sympathetic qualities in Mr. Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune.  

In Mr. Herbert’s novel, Duke Leto’s narrative details the pressure that he is under to maintain the exportation of spice and protect his family from the Harkonnens.  The novel carefully examines both the caring side of Duke Leto that inspires loyalty in his subjects as well as the pressure of managing Arrakis that triggers his harsher side.  However, Duke Leto loses all of this depth and sympathy in the 2021 adaptation.  Instead of portraying Duke Leto as someone who is trying his best for his family and his people, Mr. Villeneuve’s adaptation portrays him as a greedy tyrant whose only interest is in spice production and who is no better than the Harkonnens.

Denis Villeneuve poses with the cast of Dune in Venice. Courtesy of Mr. Kyle Buchanan

While it is not necessarily bad to change elements of a book when adapting it into a movie, the changes Mr. Villeneuve made when adapting Dune led to incoherence and reduced depth in the film.  Mr. Villeneuve’s adaptation crams in too much plot in too little time, which leads the film to oversimplify its characters and storyline.  

When watching the film, the unclear plot and character motives confuse the audience and lead to a shallow understanding of the movie, rather than a deep understanding of the religious, political, and cultural themes that Mr. Herbert discusses in his book.

Unfortunately, the flaws of the 2021 adaptation lead it to fall to the curse of Dune and the same problems that occurred in other adaptations of Mr. Herbert’s novel.  Mr. Villeneuve’s film sacrifices visual effects and technical prowess for thematic depth and coherence in characters and plot at every turn.

Mr. Villeneuve himself explained that his first priority when he made the movie was its entertainment value, according to

“The political themes, religious themes, and environmental themes—need to be there,” he said, according to  “But the most important thing for me is to keep the sense of adventure and that sense of an epic.  I did not want the complexity of the story to be in the way of the entertainment value.”

Unfortunately, Denis Villeneuve’s focus on spectacle and entertainment value rather than the critical themes integrated into the novel sacrificed the depth of the original story. The simplified storyline and unfaithful treatment of complex themes in the 2021 adaptation lead to the downfall of a shallow film with extraordinary potential and the continuation of the curse of Dune.

Featured Image by Lindsay Taylor ’24