"The storyline is pretty simple — it's more the density of the world and how rich and complex it is," Villeneuve says. "The big challenge was to try not to crush the audience at the start with an insane amount of exposition. It took a long time to find the right equilibrium so that people who don't know 'Dune' will not feel left aside and will feel part of the story."
Ultimately, Villeneuve's goal was to boil the story down to universal things that didn't require a Ph.D. in "Dune"-ology to understand — the sort of coming-of-age emotional turbulence and family dynamics that he sparked to upon first encountering the book as a teenager. "I really connected with Paul's melancholia, his feeling of isolation, his fear about what was about to happen," he says. "He was a big dreamer, and there were a lot of elements like that I could relate to."
Skipping the internal monologues and narration
Herbert's novel is dense with italicized inner monologues, as characters continually muse about their hopes and fears and consider their secret plans. "I must do away with that one soon. He has almost outlived his usefulness," the villainous Baron thinks about his mentat adviser Piter De Vries early on, in just one of countless examples.
But while that approach may work on the page, the visual medium of film is an entirely different animal. David Lynch's ill-fated 1984 adaptation of "Dune" attempted to replicate Herbert's inner monologues through the extensive use of voice-overs to a degree that at times lapsed into self-parody.
Villeneuve wanted to take a more purely cinematic approach, trusting that audiences could glean the characters' motivations through nuances of performance, music and moody imagery without having them spelled out in awkwardly whispered voice-overs. In an innovation not found in Herbert's book, Villeneuve gave Jessica and Paul a system of secret hand signals so they could share their thoughts without words.
"The book is very internal," Villeneuve says. "We are hearing the thought processes of different characters. The way we adapted this is first of all we embraced Paul and Jessica's point of view and tried to stay as close as possible to those two characters. Then we tried to develop ideas that would allow us to feel what their mindset is without having a voice-over."
Villeneuve also dispensed with the epigraphs, extracted from the writings of the fictional Princess Irulan, daughter of the Padishah Emperor, that Herbert placed at the beginning of each chapter of the novel to provide further context and commentary for the story. In Lynch's film, the princess (played by Virginia Madsen) served as a narrator, but the character does not figure in Villeneuve's film at all, though she could pop up in the sequel.
The movie does, however, preserve the novel's most famous inner monologue: the so-called litany against fear that Paul uses to focus his mind when he is tested with a pain-inducing box by the Bene Geserit Reverend Mother. Some hardcore "Dune" fans have the words of the litany — which begins, "I shall not fear/ Fear is the mind-killer" — tattooed on their very flesh. So leaving them out of any adaptation of "Dune" would be unthinkable.