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Why 'Dune' made these 5 key changes from Frank Herbert's book

Josh Rottenberg, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Herbert's sprawling novel brims with subplots and side characters, presenting a major challenge to anyone trying to distill the narrative down to even two films, let alone one. To trim the story to a more manageable size, Villeneuve and his co-writers took a scalpel — or, in some cases, a more blunt instrument — to Herbert's book, excising certain characters, such as the Baron's scheming nephew Feyd-Rautha (memorably played by Sting in Lynch's version), and moving others to the margins.

The book's two key "mentat" characters, for example — Thufir Hawat and Piter De Vries, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson and David Dastmalchian, respectively — are significantly less prominent in the film than in the novel. Indeed, the word "mentat" — referring to a specially trained being who is a kind of cognitively supercharged human calculator — is never actually spoken. And a plot line in the novel in which Hawat wrongly suspects Jessica of betraying the Duke does not factor in the movie, though it could potentially surface in the planned sequel.

"There are some characters that are less developed that I'm keeping for the second film — that's the way I found the equilibrium," Villeneuve says. "We tried in this movie to stay as close as possible to Paul's experience. Then, in the second one, I will have time to develop some characters that were left aside a little bit. That's the theory. I hope it will work."

Scaling back the Baron and his court

When Stellan Skarsgard first read the script for Villeneuve's "Dune," he was surprised how little dialogue his character, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, had in the film. As the main villain in a sci-fi epic, he assumed the Baron would do a certain amount of bad-guy speechifying. "My first reaction was, 'This is not much,' " the actor says.

In Herbert's novel, the Baron is rarely at a loss for words, as he schemes to destroy his mortal enemies in House Atreides. But in Villeneuve's mind, the character was far more frightening if he kept his cards close to his vest, conveying his menace primarily in nonverbal ways. "I cut out most of the speech of the Baron," Villeneuve says. "I wanted him to be a man of few words."

 

Villeneueve's film also skips over much of the palace intrigue and infighting that Herbert details in the Harkonnen court and steers clear of Herbert's suggestion in the novel that the Baron is a pederast who sexually preys on young slave boys. "I just felt that this was an idea that was a bit cliched and didn't age very well," the director says.

For fans who might feel that the Harkonnens got short shrift, the director promises we'll see significantly more of them in the yet-to-be-officially-greenlighted sequel. "This movie is really focused on Paul and I brought, in a little bit of the Harkonnens just for context, to understand the geopolitics of the story," he says. "This movie just gives a little glimpse into the Harkonnens. The second movie is much more about them."

Amplifying the feminine

While Villeneuve pulled back on the Harkonnens, he was intent on pushing forward the book's main female characters: Paul's mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), the young Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya) and the members of the Bene Gesserit religious sisterhood (including the reverend mother played by Charlotte Rampling).

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