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Dune 2020 Movie Release Date, Cast, Plot, Spoilers, Book Changes
At long last, we’re beginning to get some answers regarding the latest film adaptation of Dune, Frank Herbert’s beloved fantasy epic. With sci-fi maestro Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2019) behind the project, his Dune adaptation is one of the most anticipated movies of the decade, given the property’s long, complicated history.
This Dune will span only the first half of the novel, with the back half slated for a second installment. Villeneuve said of his choice to tell the story in this way, “I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book with one single movie. The world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in its details.”
Villeneuve had his work cut out for him with Dune, saying, “It’s by far the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life.” Here’s everything we know so far, all of which suggests that Villeneuve’s blood, sweat, and tears will pay off.
So, what is Dune actually about?
Published in 1965, Herbert’s Dune is the world’s best-selling science fiction novel of all time. It’s also considered one of the best books of all time, along with a seminal work in the sci-fi genre. The book is set far into the future in an intergalactic feudal society where powerful noble houses fight for control over resources, armies, and planetary power. Paul Atreides is the heir to his powerful house, whose Duke Leto rules the planet of Caladan. House Atreides is ordered to take control of Arrakis, a barren desert planet with a brutal climate, but is the only place to mine Melange—a natural resource that produces a drug called Spice, which allows humanity to unlock their minds to be able to perform highly complex tasks.
On Arrakis, however, Duke Leto is betrayed by the Emperor and their rival House Harkonnen, which sets off a battle over the valuable planet of Arrakis. The planet itself is inhabited with giant sandworms and a native population known as Fremen, who, over generations, have learned to survive with water as their most precious resource and currency. When Paul is targeted as a potential messiah to lead the planet—and galaxy toward a new era—an epic story of war, betrayal, and mysticism unfolds.
Why was it so popular?
Well, upon its release, Dune received a heap of critical praise, winning both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Best Novel. It kicked off an entire series that included five sequels. But the book itself was considered groundbreaking for its unique depiction of the future that tackled complex issues of environmentalism and gender dynamics. It also was hailed as the seminal work of a generation fascinated with psychedelics, as the Spice substance resembles a drug that helps the user reach untapped areas of the mind.
Villeneuve shares this vision of the novel as a deeply prophetic portrait of the world we live in. He said of Dune’s thematic resonance, “No matter what you believe, Earth is changing, and we will have to adapt. That’s why I think that Dune, this book, was written in the 20th century. It was a distant portrait of the reality of the oil and the capitalism and the exploitation–the overexploitation–of Earth. Today, things are just worse. It’s a coming-of-age story, but also a call for action for the youth.”
If it was such a big deal, has it become a movie?
Well yes, and that’s exactly what’s so controversial. There have been many attempts to adapt Dune into a movie over the decades, most famously by film genius David Lynch in 1984. That version was a massive failure, both critically and commercially, and is considered one of the biggest flops in movie history. Other attempts have been made by Ridley Scott, Peter Berg, and even Frank Herbert’s son, but none ever made it into production.
An underwhelming miniseries version was released on Sci-Fi Channel in 2004, but there remains no movie adaptation that has done the book justice. Because of its scope—and the complex internal dialogues and depictions of psychedelic visions—many critics have considered the book impossible to adapt into a movie.
So, now we might actually get a good Dune movie?
Well, that this is being directed by Denis Villeneuve—whose fantastic Arrival was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and Blade Runner 2049 was a visual wonder—is very promising. Villeneuve has proved himself more than capable at adapting time-bending narrative structures into films (like Arrival) and create visual masterpieces (like 2049, which included stunning scenes that would make for a very gripping Dune).
Who is going to be in the new Dune film?
This is also very promising. Timothée Chalamet will play Paul Atreides. Rebecca Ferguson is his mother, Lady Jessica. Oscar Isaac is his father, Duke Leto Atreides. Stellan Skarsgård will be the villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Villeneuve has promised a new approach to the baron, created with full-body prosthetics in this adaptation, saying, “As much as I deeply love the book, I felt that the baron was flirting very often with caricature. I tried to bring him a bit more dimension. That’s why I brought in Stellan. Stellan has something in the eyes. You feel that there’s someone thinking, thinking, thinking–that has tension and is calculating inside, deep in the eyes. I can testify, it can be quite frightening.”
Dave Bautista is the Baron’s nephew, Glossu Rabban. Zendaya is Chani, an important woman in her Freman tribe. Javier Bardem is in talks to play Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen tribe. And Josh Brolin has joined the cast as Gurney Halleck, a minstrel warrior. Jason Momoa will join the film as Duncan Idaho, a skilled swordmaster for House Atreides.
How is this Dune updating the source material?
As with any midcentury work of science fiction, Herbert’s vision of gender dynamics can seem dated to the twenty-first century eye. Villeneuve has worked to modernize the women of Dune, expanding Lady Jessica’s role and even genderbending another character.
Ferguson said of the new and improved Lady Jessica, “She’s a mother, she’s a concubine, she’s a soldier. Denis was very respectful of Frank’s work in the book, [but] the quality of the arcs for much of the women have been brought up to a new level. There were some shifts he did, and they are beautifully portrayed now.”
As for Dr. Liet Kynes, the leading ecologist on Arrakis, Villeneuve has depicted the character not as a white man, as Kynes is traditionally interpreted, but as a black woman. Sharon Duncan-Brewster, the actress playing the part, spoke powerfully about the change: “What Denis has stated to me was that there was a lack of female characters in his cast, and he had always been very feminist, pro-women, and wanted to write the role for a woman. This human being manages to basically keep the peace amongst many people. Women are very good at that, so why can’t Kynes be a woman? Why shouldn’t Kynes be a woman?”
When is it supposed to be out?
Dune will hit theaters on December 18, 2020.
Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.