Why Star Wars was the 'elephant in the room' when it came to designing Denis Villeneuve's Dune

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Why Star Wars was the 'elephant in the room' when it came to designing Denis Villeneuve's Dune

While Dune has remained on the more idiosyncratic side of the cultural spectrum for the last 56 years, the influence of Frank Herbert's prescient novel on our favorite storytellers is beyond dispute. Without the themes and concepts found within the massive — and sometimes inscrutable — sci-fi tome, we wouldn't have such beloved touchstones as Star Wars or Game of Thrones. Both properties have exploded into massive franchises worth billions of dollars, while Dune has struggled to find its footing on screens both big and small.

Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) is looking to change all that with his big budget and star-studded adaptation that releases later this month. The project has been percolating inside his mind for over three decades ever since he read the original book as a kid. His dream finally came to fruition when Warner Bros. agreed to fund the big screen effort, but there was only one problem.

So much of Herbert's vision had already seeped into the pop culture sub-basement by way of films and shows that had nothing to do with Dune (the obvious example being the galaxy far, far away). Of course, Dune came first, but that wouldn't matter to the average audience member who would undoubtably draw unwanted comparisons. The challenge facing Villeneuve was two-fold: 1) adapting a gargantuan source material that many consider to be un-filmable and 2) present a unique interpretation that could separate itself from anything we've seen before.

Writing in a guest column for Empire Magazine's November 2021 issue, the acclaimed director addresses how the design process for Dune was affected by the legacy of Star Wars. "It was a very long process to find this identity in a world with the giant elephant of Star Wars in the room," he states. "George Lucas was inspired by Dune when he created Star Wars. Then as we were making a movie about Dune, we had to negotiate the influence of Star Wars. It's full circle."

To get around the issue, Villeneuve urged his design team to stick as closely to Herbert's text as they could. "I kept telling them, 'You have to stay very close to the description in the book.' I would love for the book's fans to feel that I somehow put a camera in their mind. It's a compliment when people say that they recognize the flavor and the poetry of the book in the film. The objective was not to have a strong imprint of my personality on Dune; it was more important to make sure that we had the humility to be as close to Frank Herbert's mind as possible."

Arrakis will start accepting visitors when Dune opens in theaters and on HBO Max Friday, Oct. 22.

"If all things go well, there will be a Part Two," the director concludes. "I was directing this not knowing if there would be a Part Two, so I gave it everything. But it would be really strange to stop the journey there; the movie screams for a Part Two."

Catching up with SYFY WIRE from the Venice Film Festival where the movie premiered last month, Villeneuve revealed that when he first pitched the project to WB, he envisioned as a trilogy of films based on the first novel and its 1969 sequel, Dune Messiah.

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