How Denis Villeneuve Sold the ‘Unfilmable’


By Collin Chesak, Current Staff

“Dune” director Denis Villeneuve dazzled the doubters by overshadowing a risky $165 million price tag with a box office run that now nears the $400 million mark.

Despite the attachment of Villeneuve, a highly acclaimed director who rose to prominence during the 2010s with multiple mid-level budget successes, the financial success of “Dune” was surprising because adult-oriented sci-fi is not seen as a viable commodity for the general public. Villeneuve had already financially failed on a similar-sized project with “Blade Runner 2049.” Furthermore, most movies aimed at adult audiences have not done well during the pandemic era. 

The failings of previous attempts at adapting Frank Herbert’s novel, including a messy 1984 film from surrealist director David Lynch, only added to the doubts. The novel’s dense and multilayered plot paired with expensive production requirements caused many to label it unfilmable. 

The 1965 (left) and 1990 (right) paperback editions of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune.’ Image courtesy of Mike Liu via Creative Commons.

Villeneuve’s solution to creating an appetizing package for a “Dune” adaptation was simple: make it two parts and focus on the main plot. Rather than have numerous subplots, Villeneuve establishes the motivations of secondary characters through their relationship to the main character, Paul Atreides. The decision resulted in some claiming that many of the film’s characters have little emotional resonance. 

However, what is lost on film in terms of character backstory is gained with Villeneuve’s ability to immerse an audience in a setting. Unlike the more laborious nature of written text, the film medium allows audiences to see Arakis’s endless sands and giant sandworms in a more natural way. This allows an audience time to make more personal connections because their brains do not have to decipher the meaning of each sentence and the plot is still able to progress while setting description is given. 

Wadi Rum, Jordan where significant portions of Dune were shot. Image courtesy of Bernard Gagnon, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Dune” was actually an easier sell to general audiences than many industry experts anticipated. The story has a grand scale and a plot with massive implications for the universe it takes place in. Both of these qualities are very sellable in the current audience climate.

A sequel has been greenlit to finish the second half of the book and is currently scheduled to release on October 20, 2023.

The “Dune” franchise is also expanding to the small screen. “Dune: The Sisterhood” is also rumored to release in 2023 on HBO Max and will add depth to the female-led religious group called the Bene Gessert. This move reflects the growing trend of mixing streaming service content with theatrical releases to create a more profitable and convenient product. 

“Dune”’s success exemplifies how big-budget art features can still be fiscally successful if the parties involved are willing to get creative on the business side.

(Images licensed by Creative Commons and Wikimedia Commons.)

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