Dune Wars: Can Denis Villeneuve Take Star Wars’ Holiday Crown? By Tony Black.
For over two decades, the dominance of the Christmas holiday season across the US & Europe has been a golden goose sought by everyone from 20th Century Fox to Disney and beyond but there may be a new player in town in 2020 – Warner Bros and their incoming adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal science-fiction tome, Dune.
Having recently completed shooting over the summer, Dune has seen a shift in its 2020 release date from November to the coveted December 18th spot, allowing it to capitalise on the Christmas market as families break up from work and prepare to enjoy the holiday season. In 2018, the spot was filled by Disney with the relatively successful Mary Poppins Returns, and once again it will be claimed by the House of Mouse thanks to the final saga in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker. In fact, Disney have controlled the coveted spot since 2015 following The Force Awakens, the rebirth of Star Wars, but Warner Bros look set to wrest control back for the first time since 2014, with the conclusion of The Hobbit trilogy in The Battle of Five Armies.
Moving Dune in this manner feels like a significant vote of confidence for a property which, to an extent, will be an unknown quantity.
On paper, Dune appears to be a recipe for success. Director Denis Villeneuve is one of Hollywood’s hottest talents and more vibrant modern auteurs, following critical buzz for a litany of recent films including Sicario and Arrival, before recently dipping his toe into franchise waters with long-awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049. Herbert’s source material is a vast, futuristic universe teeming with fascinating, vivid, alien characters (more figuratively than literally), filled with adventure, war and stunning landscapes and galactic locations. It has been reported that Warner Bros are looking to fashion Dune into a Star Wars-esque franchise with a raft of sequels, tie-in material and the grand scope of George Lucas’ legendary fantasy universe.
Only it may not quite be that simple in practice. While there is no doubt Lucas was in some sense inspired by Herbert’s novel, as have the majority of science-fiction writers of the last half-century, Star Wars and Dune are very different beasts.
If Villeneuve has adapted Dune well, if he has retained many of the elements that made Herbert’s tome one of the defining texts of the 1960’s and beyond, Dune will not be as easily accessible to audiences as Star Wars was in 1977 and eleven successive films. Lucas’ world is a classical text built off well known mythical archetypes and tropes that play out in stories as far back as Ancient Greek legend. Herbert’s book is strange, sometimes languid, frequently esoteric and unlike Luke Skywalker, the dashing young troubadour discovering his destiny as a space Knight who would slay the evil King, Dune’s protagonist Paul Atredies is an introspective noble radicalised by a prophecy cult who becomes the basis for a fanatical and, ultimately, fascistic religious empire. Dune is complex space opera concerning the rise and fall of empire, environmental anxieties, crusading religious tyranny and, come later in the book series, some deeply strange weird fiction that will be far harder to accessibly convey on screen as Star Wars’ line of thrilling but lightweight, iconic and symbolic heroic fantasy.
Reputedly, the first of Herbert’s books is to be divided into two films, the first of which is 2020’s franchise opener, and it will be joined by a developing cross-media universe including the previously announced Dune: The Sisterhood, set to focus on a cadre of ‘witches’ known as the Bene Gesserit, but the question is whether Warner Bros will be able to expand Herbert’s series into the same kind of consistently profitable franchise as Disney have mined with Star Wars since buying LucasFilm, or Warner Bros themselves successfully propagated with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogy.
The success of that series proves it could be possible, given for decades many believed J. R. R. Tolkien’s legendary pieces of literature were unfilmable before Peter Jackson came along. Similar has often been said about Dune, despite previous attempts to do the material justice. David Lynch famously wrestled a faithful but condensed and bizarre take in 1982 and the SyFy Channel developed two big-budget mini-series adapting the first book and Herbert’s third novel, Children of Dune, in the early 2000’s, yet neither of these approaches truly did Herbert’s vast, intertextual universe justice. Villeneuve has both a combination of poised, artful cinematography and stylistic vision, not to mention historic box office clout, to make the most faithful version of Dune yet committed to celluloid. Faithful also doesn’t necessarily mean distancing and merely cult, again as Jackson proved. It could be done.
Warner Bros will have to seriously consider just how they market Dune if they hope to repeat the success of its forebears. It will have a number of built-in mechanisms to aid a healthy box office, beyond just the holiday placement. While not a household name by any means, Villeneuve is one of the most celebrated filmmakers working today and will engage many cinephiles on his name alone while the cast he has assembled is full of A-list names flanked by celebrated character actors – Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin and Stellan Skarsgård to name but a few. A galaxy of stars with their own established fan bases who will gravitate toward Dune, even if science-fiction is not necessarily their go-to genre.
Dune will naturally pull in a significant core fan base of the franchise (one which has already spawned many tie-in novels over the years, plus numerous video games) and general fans of the genre who do not necessarily have knowledge of Herbert’s lore. A tantalising trailer, combined with many of these elements, will drag punters in. Dune has the size, scope and budget to operate as a significant tentpole release for Christmas 2020, despite the fact it could lack the mass appeal of Star Wars. There is also the distinct probability this will not be a child-friendly picture. If we start getting Muad’Dib action figures, something has probably gone wrong!
Collectively since the franchise returned in 2015, Star Wars has banked Disney $4.8 billion across just four films, with at least another billion almost guaranteed this Christmas with The Rise of Skywalker. Over its six films, The Lord of the Rings franchise netted Warner Bros a princely $5.8 billion over six films. Dune, which many will be looking at to potentially swoop in as the next great franchise, will have to come out of the gate swinging if it seeks to capitalise on Star Wars’ downtime – Disney having announced after The Rise of Skywalker we won’t see another Star Wars movie until 2022. Dune will need broad appeal, the world over, to compete with these behemoths and anyone who understands the source material will be aware that Dune does not readily fit a specific Hollywood template. It might surprise people, and indeed surprise at the box office as a significant winner, but much will depend on how Warner Bros sell what will be, if Villeneuve truly has made a definitive version of Frank Herbert’s novel, a philosophical, chilly and unnerving space opera.
For now, let’s have faith in Dune’s power to rule the holiday season box office. Fear is the mind killer, after all.
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