Dune: what Denis Villeneuve changed from the book
It’s an interesting literary device where the book actively hints at plot developments (“spoilers” in modern parlance) a few pages, or maybe a few dozen, before they happen. However, it also gives the impression that this is a story of historical significance within his universe in the most old-fashioned understanding of history: events that happen to “great men” like Paul. Atreides, who from the first page of the novel is presented as Paul Muad’Dib, a messianic figure.
There is a deliberate irony in Herbert’s approach. Over the course of the novel, and even more so in its sequel, the author methodically deconstructs the concepts of messiahs and great men, but it is nonetheless a story told from the point of view of the rich and powerful. This is what makes one of Villeneuve’s first changes his biggest. Rather than having an interstellar princess narrating these events – a princess whom we soon learn from the book is the daughter of the current Emperor Padishah of the Imperium – we are instead introduced to Arrakis through the eyes of Chani (Zendaya in the movie), a character that has frankly always been endorsed by Herbert.
While Chani surely has a more important role than Zendaya’s brief stint in Villeneuve’s first volume Dune, the literary character has remained a passive presence throughout the saga on the page. Unlike the movie, she is our first blue-eyed character on screen. It is through his gaze that we scrutinize Arrakis and the oppression inflicted on the Fremen people by the vile House Harkonnen. We watch as she watches the army of this great house come together. It is not the prospect of a rival family competing to catch up with its monopoly; it is the impression made by a person with a boot strapped to his face. After revealing that the Emperor ordered the Harkonnens to leave Arrakis, she raises the question of “who will be our next oppressors?” Suddenly, the public is invited to be skeptical about the motivations and effectiveness of the noble house of young Paul Arteides.
This change is smart on several levels. On the former, he provides the audience with an immediate understanding of what the spice is upon seeing it, at least as a substance floating on literal sand dunes, if not a hallucinogenic opioid as we will learn later that it can be. He also shows us the stakes of history, with a human face put to those who are exploited by the Harkonnens. It also brings storytelling into the 21st century. When Herbert wrote Dune, his sci-fi allegory of the tensions between the West and the Middle East, and the oil for which so much blood is shed, seemed more abstract to many young American readers.
In 2021, after the events of the past 20 years, there is no reason to mock the allegorical implications of this story, nor to escape the level of complicity the Atreids share in perpetuating this system. That was ultimately Herbert’s point of view, but the movie can go straight to the jugular instead of building into it for hours.
Plus, there’s a bit of a nifty Hollywood overhaul in play with the removal of Irulan as a framing device. Without his interwoven anecdotes about the man Paul Atreides will become (or at least is fictionalized to be in the Irulan texts), we find ourselves living this story as Paul does: chronologically and in real time. For an already dense-edged world-building film, streamlining the narrative whenever possible seems prudent, at least from a business standpoint.