The Problem With Adapting ‘Dune’ (Isn’t What You Think)

Our culture treats movies and television as the height of storytelling. When a book or story reaches peak cultural saturation, it is inevitable that it will be scooped up by a studio to be rendered into a big-budget, Oscar-bait feature. This is particularly prevalent with genre fiction, where classics and classics-to-be become grist for the profit and prestige mill. For every Lord of the Rings, however, there is also a Hobbit — for every resounding success there is its dark mirror and unbearable failure. The Everest of such adaptations is Dune — a work that has defied more than one creative team’s efforts to render it for the screen. Now, Denis Villeneuve rises to adapt Dune for the big screen, and as deeply thrilled as I was by the trailer, I think it’s doomed to fail.

Adaptations of Dune face a specific problem. It’s not that the story is too big or the characters too strange or the content too risky (although all of these things are also true). Dune cannot be divorced from the technology it was created in: the codex. In order to adequately adapt Dune for the screen, we must radically rethink the possibility of video narrative.

The Medium…

Books as a technology largely fall into one of two genera: codexes (or codices) and scrolls. Scrolls are continuous strips of material with the information written on them. As a result, scrolls are by their nature linear. In order to hold information in two different places on the scroll, you have to contend with all of the information in the middle. This requires either prohibitively small scrolls or an abundance of space with which to handle them. The codex, by contrast, is wonderfully flexible, portable, and repairable with all of its individual pages bound along a fixed edge. Their ubiquity within our culture, as well as their age, obscures the fact that the codex was a revolution in both the distribution and processing of information. 

Pick up a book. Flip to any place. Hold your place there, and now flip to the front, flip to the back. Dogear one page and go somewhere else entirely. Now go back to your dogear and pick right back up where you left off. This is a way of handling information that’s specific to a codex — to a book. The ability to work with multiple pieces of information at the same time in the same document is the revolution of the form. Scrolls demand that the reader consume their information in a straight line; codexes encourage manipulating information across its linear presentation. 

Science fiction largely concerns itself with technology and its intervention into our lives. What tools do we use to invent and navigate our world? What tools do we use to invent and navigate ourselves? In this way, technology in science fiction is less a reflection of the future and more a reflection of the present. Dune was first published in 1965, before scrolls made a comeback by way of the internet (this comeback is reflected in the verb we use to describe browsing online — scrolling). The technology of information was still largely bound to the codex, and this is reflected in the way Dune tells itself. 


….is the Message

Dune, as a book, is constructed in parts; although the narrative is the bulk of it, there’s also a sizeable glossary of terms and a deck of appendices. The act of reading the book involves performing research, in interacting with books as a technology to tease their worlds apart. Dune is its most distinctive when it operates in the mode of a history text bled over from a far-flung elsewhere. This sensation is emphasized by the quotes that open most of the chapters, derived from books like The Dictionary of Muad’Dib or A Child’s History of Muad’Dib.  These books don’t exist, not here, but that doesn’t matter — what matters is distinctly romantic implication of the libraries existing there. Dune is careful to emphasize what kinds of books would be held in these libraries — Dune’s far-future idea of what an electronic book might be is itself a codex. From Dune:

The book is held closed by the charge, which forces against spring-locked covers. You press the edge — thus, and the pages you’ve selected repel each other and the book opens… it has eighteen hundred pages. You press the edge… and the charge moves ahead one page at a time as you read. Never touch the actual pages with your fingers. The filament tissue is too delicate. 

Of course, Dune isn’t the only piece of science fiction to concern itself with books as a technology. There’s a clutch of genre books-about-books. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is named for its in-book book, and the text plays with the structure of books and information by liberally sprinkling the narrative with digressive footnotes and asides. This structure sees some play in both the 1981 television series and the 2005 film adaptation. In both, the narrative occasionally pauses while the audience is given a primer on the contents of an in-universe cocktail or a piece of critical information regarding a minor character’s lineage. 

Critically, though, Hitchhiker’s Guide is comedy. The experience of stopping, mid-narrative, to wrap in a gag serves to heighten the absurdity of text itself. In less comedic texts, adaptations for screen tend to weed out these digressions entirely, a move that has been made in television adaptations of both Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Good Omens. Although all three of these books use long, sometimes nested footnotes and chatty, intimate writing styles, the only adaptation that retains the majority of the textual interruptions is Hitchhiker’s Guide.  It does not matter that a television series provides more room for an adaptation to stretch its legs — the problem is not one of time but instead of technical incompatibility. 

Throw Something Lovely Away Today! 

Since the initial publication of Dune in 1965, there has been a revolution in informational technologies. Dune could imagine the endless scroll of an e-reader or a Twitter feed no more than it could imagine the emergent storytelling opportunities afforded to us by the internet. Conversations about the impact of the internet on video have mostly centered around distribution, not the impact the internet can have on the medium itself. Increasingly, however, we’re seeing that the distribution itself can become the medium. Netflix releases have toyed with the technology of media, specifically in the fourth season of Arrested Development. 

Arrested Development’s fourth season continually emphasizes the medium of a Netflix show. Skips in the narrative, fetching information back and forth, are shown throughout each episode, and these skips are framed by showing the video interface as it appeared on Netflix streaming in 2013, the time of the show’s release. In much the same way that the performance of Dune’s narrative is contingent upon the experience of a codex, the experience of season four of Arrested Development is contingent upon the experience of Netflix — that is, until a re-edit of the season was released in 2018, removing this structure almost entirely.

Once liberated from the confines of a network sitcom, Arrested Development could get weird with the technology of television to tell itself. Once liberated from the cineplex, how weird could we finally let movies get? 

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The Content Must Stream

There have heretofore been two — nearly three — adaptations of Dune. None of these adaptations work because all of them, fundamentally, find themselves unable to imagine video as anything other than what it is now. Movies are made about big ideas all the time, and the cultural success of space opera is hard to overstate. The issue is not the story; the issue is the experience.

David Lynch’s Dune opens with extended narration by the Princess Irulan, played by Virginia Madsen. She looks out from the screen to us, to begin to lay out the world as we find it at the beginning of the movie. The opening is a nod to the hagiographic introductions to chapters from the book; most of these non-existent books were written by Irulan herself. Unfortunately, narration suggests not edgelessness but instead boundary — without the freedom afforded by the codex, Dune is rendered quite small. 

The magic of Dune doesn’t lie in the lushness of its worlds or the size of its ideas. The magic is in your hands, flipping back and forth to glossaries and lineages of nobility, discovering within the boundaries of a book all the strange possibility of elsewhere. What could Dune look like if it were afforded the opportunity to radically embrace the medium of film the way it embraces the medium of the codex? What will our movies look like, when we no longer consume them all at once as prix fixe but instead as opportunities to discover, pushing against blurry boundaries like a mirage? Can we even make Dune a movie without asking ourselves what movies should be? What they can be?

Due to the pandemic, Dune is now delayed until 2021. I know, cynically, this is because movies in theatres must somehow make more money than movies streaming. Still, though, there is something foolish in my heart that hopes the time is spent cutting it for streaming services and making it very, very strange.