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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: ‘Dune’ creates thriller on new planet

October 29, 2021
6 min read time

Dune is not a re-make of a 1980s film; it’s the first part of what is expected to be a series of films based on the 1965 novel of the same name by Frank Herbert. While there are some similarities to the Star Wars saga in terms of a young, reluctant warrior who must rise up to prove his worth and protect an oppressed people, Dune stands alone as its own science fiction powerhouse.

Directed by filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, Dune follows the son of the noble family of Atreides who must ensure the protection of an oppressed people on a planet where a valuable spice gleaned from the desert offers enormous benefits to humanity while also making the existence of interstellar travel possible. 

Dune pulls all the relevant stops as it focuses on family, loyalty, war, politics and the rise of good over evil.

Written by Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth and Villeneuve, the film stars Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin.

Here are five screenwriting takeaways from Dune:

1. Catch the audience up

As the viewer enters an unfamiliar world, they need to know the reality of the situation. In Dune, Chani (Zendaya) starts the story by explaining the oppression of the people on her planet. There’s a tale of warriors trying to save Arrakis from oppression and slaughter by the Harkonnen. She then asks, "Who will our next oppressors be?"

Now the viewer has the expectation that someone will come to oppress the people on this planet unless they can be stopped. That’s where our hero comes in.

But that’s not all the audience learns in the opening minutes of the movie. We learn why spice is so valuable and worth fighting for and its importance to the Fremen, who live in the remote parts of Arrakis.

Writers can see how this sets up conflict and the reluctant hero Paul (Chalamet), who is poised to take over the family dynasty and become the hero (while facing his own internal struggles, of course).

2. A people as a character
Dune is about groups of people in conflict with one another. Whether it’s the Atreides, Harkonnen, Fremen, or Arrakis, each group of people has a specific culture and character that is separate from the others.

Writers not only see how the filmmakers made these groups distinctive, but how each group is a character unto itself. For those writing about different cultures or people within their country, within the world, or creating a galaxy, Dune shows how the writer must create the personalities of a group of people just like they do individual characters.

For almost any setting, this is a consideration. Take movies about high schoolers, for example. Let's say within East High School there are varying groups of personalities; jocks and geeks, band members and student council, all of which are characters. But the school itself has its own character, which differs from that of the crosstown rivals over at West High School.

Dune questions the goals of a group of people, gives it character and then pits it against the goals of another group of people.

3. The primitive science fiction story

There is no lack of sophisticated, futuristic machines and weapons in Dune. Yet, there is a primitive nature to the film as well that is similar to Star Wars in that Herbert purposely put the technology in the background to focus specifically on the humanity of the story.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is a humble farm boy traveling in a Landspeeder. Dune isn’t that different in that the house of Atreides and the harsh desert planet of Arrakis are primitive in their looks. For the most part, unless venturing outdoors, the characters aren’t dressed in space-age outfits.

Writers can see how to build a science fiction world without having to create a significant futuristic feel. Whether on his farm or training with Yoda, Luke Skywalker’s world didn’t seem very futuristic at all. The building is in the characters and the conflict. There’s no reason why this story couldn’t be told in a modern world where countries go to war over a rare resource and focus on the oppression of the people — in fact, that sounds quite familiar.

4. Upsetting the viewer (hey, it's not bad)

Rarely, if ever, can the adaptation of a novel live up to the expectations of those who read it and now watch the movie. The writers of Dune have a little more to live up to than that. Dune was made once before (1984, written and directed by David Lynch) but wasn’t a success. The novel is considered a classic though. There is also a large fanbase eager for its 2021 release by a visionary director.

The writers had to create a film (its runtime is two hours and 35 minutes) from source material that stretched beyond 700 pages. Even as Dune in its filmmaking form anticipates a sequel, the writers would still need to cut and condense, add new scenes, and maybe even characters.

Writers can read the novel and see what was changed to make the film, well, filmable. A story on a page is much different than one on the screen. Audiences will be upset, even the author might be unhappy (Herbert died in 1986, but just ask Stephen King his thoughts on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining), but that’s part of the transformation of source material to screen.

Ultimately, it’s the writer’s job to make creative decisions that may make some unhappy. But that’s filmmaking.

5. A futuristic political thriller

Historical films must have modern-day relevance. With sci-fi, the same holds true. A futuristic movie should also bear relevance to today’s society in some way. It could be specific (for instance, The Last Duel was relevant to the #MeToo movement), or broad, as in the case of Dune, which feels like a political thriller.

In Dune, one of the universal truths is of perceived politics; where deception, sabotage, attempts of peace, and those willing to go to war are at the front and center of the story. What writers can take away is how the filmmakers use the truths in today’s world to help tell a story in a different time period or within a science fiction world.

The 1960s were filled with tumultuous politics including assassinations, wars (both hot and cold), threats from nearby countries, and corruption. It was a time of rebellion and the start of distrust in government. It’s no wonder Dune became one of the major political thriller novels to come out of the time period. 

Dune is very much a hero’s journey tale and provides writers with a great study in creating character arcs and stories in a science fiction environment. 

Dune is available for streaming on HBO Max.

Read More: What ‘Dune: Part Two’ Teaches You About Writing a Sequel

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