Should Denis Villeneuve Make More Dune Sequels? Dune Scholars Aren’t So Sure

“I think the film series should stop with Messiah.”

Warner Bros.
Dune: Part Two

Dune: Part Two has stormed the box office like the rideable Shai-Hulud, reigniting the global cinematic appetite for spice melange on a scale larger than Part One could have dreamed of. The only problem with making a massively successful Dune adaptation is that audiences will be itching to see more of Frank Herbert’s universe on screen… but the sequel novels come with a completely different reputation.

Herbert wrote five sequels to his 1965 classic — Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune — and despite their commercial success, none of them captured the zeitgeist quite like the original. Their reputation among those who have read them to completion is mixed (although nowhere near as negative as the ones co-written by Herbert’s son, Brian), in no small part due to how unhinged and unwieldy the Arrakis saga becomes.

“Villeneuve has laid very little foundation for anything beyond Messiah.”

For the uninitiated, here are some contextless spoilers that hint at their galaxy-brained majesty: Duncan Idaho is non-stop resurrected as clones (called gholas), Baron Harkonnen influences Alia to become a tyrant from beyond the grave, and the universe is ruled for over three millennia by a half-Atreides, half-sandworm despot — Paul’s son, Leto II.

Denis Villeneuve’s version of a tactile and minimalist cosmos seems like an ill fit for Herbert’s later efforts, especially when some superfans have already voiced criticism with how his changes affect the narrative. But what about future entries? Villeneuve’s take on Messiah is seconds away from being greenlit (Villeneuve is writing the script, and it’s the last one he’ll hypothetically direct) — will the adaptational choices made in parts One and Two have a ripple effect further down the line? Inverse put this question to a handful of Dune experts on how the boundaries of Villeneuve’s Dune will affect the intimidating scope of Herbert’s.

What the Experts Say About Villeneuve’s Dune

Dune scholars’ are mixed on Villeneuve’s adaptations, which shed a lot of the more complex aspects of the book.

Warner Bros.

First of all, how has Villeneuve altered Dune already? Those Inverse spoke to agreed on the major changes to Herbert’s text: the human supercomputer discipline of “Mentat” has been jettisoned (aside from Stephen McKinley Henderson doing that thing with his eyes once in Part One), as have the commerce monopoly CHOAM and the Guild Navigators. The Atreides, Harkonnens, and Bene Gesserit are intact, but redefined to fit into clearer roles of protagonist and antagonist. Alia, who ends the book as a super-toddler assassin, remains a fetus; the clear Islamic roots of the Fremen have been sanded down.

Paul’s moral arc, bending toward barbarity, has been emboldened, and characters like Chani and Jessica have been altered to emphasize his journey. A literary, political text filled with interior monologues, ideological discussions, and a healthy interest in ecology now plays to the senses, honing in on the story’s emotions and spectacle to make us feel intimate with its epicness.

“I don't mourn the more crunchy and esoteric omissions from the novel — the ecology, gnosticism, the historian frame story — as they belong in the novel and not on the screen.”

How effective are these changes? “I tend to treat each adaptation on its own merits,” Darren Mooney, a writer at Second Wind Group, tells Inverse. “[Dune] is very hard to adapt in a way that is visually interesting, as David Lynch's version demonstrates. [Villeneuve is] very good at showing rather than telling, illustrating and demonstrating rather than expositing. I know what a ‘Mentat’ is or what ‘the Butlerian Jihad’ [the crusade against thinking machines that occurred 10,000 years before Paul’s birth], and it makes sense in the context of the films, but nobody I've seen them with has needed that explained to them to appreciate them.”

Jessica Finn, a media critic who has written academically on Dune, is similarly level-headed. “I don't mourn the more crunchy and esoteric omissions from the novel — the ecology, gnosticism, the historian frame story — as they belong in the novel and not on the screen. They're perfect for fans who want to read the novel and learn more about this setting's underpinnings.”

The depiction of the Bene Gesserit is still frustratingly simple to Dune scholars.

Warner Bros.

Dr. Kara Kennedy, writer at DuneScholar.com, had issues with Part Two’s depiction of Herbert’s women. She’s already written extensively on her problems with the reduced role of the Bene Gesserit and Jessica, flattening the complicated role of women in the text. “There's so much richness to Jessica as a character in the book. The isolation that she undergoes on screen in Part Two will be difficult to bring her back from, she's been essentially set at odds with almost everyone around her,” Kennedy tells Inverse. “It would be nice to see the Bene Gesserit characters not reduced to the kind of villainous women that we have seen so far.”

Kennedy’s critique could become a big problem should more books be adapted. “Almost no one makes it to the fifth and sixth books, but Herbert has an even greater focus on female characters in those books,” she says. “So it's unfortunate that most people aren't able to see how he explores the Bene Gesserit as time goes on, how their democratic form of government works — or doesn’t.”

How Will These Changes Affect Messiah?

Dune scholars can’t see Villeneuve’s version of the story going beyond Messiah.

Warner Bros.

The only Dune sequel we can treat with any degree of certainty is Messiah, which takes a smaller-scale, but still firm, stance on Paul’s moral decline, 12 years into his “holy war” across the stars. As Mooney says, it’s “a comparatively short treatise by Herbert on how everybody misunderstood the point that he was making with Dune, and so I understand why a lot of readers didn't necessarily glom to it.”

In Messiah, conspiracies surround Paul from the Bene Gesserit and his wife Irulan, and the secretive male order Bene Tleilax gifts Paul the ghola of Duncan Idaho to eventually undermine his dedication to his empire. Paul’s fate is sealed with Shakespearean irony: He avoids becoming a god by losing everything he held dear.

Perhaps it was a wise decision for Villeneuve to lean heavily on Paul falling to the dark side in Part Two. “If you unironically loved Dune you probably don't want to read an entire book telling you that you were rooting for a character who explicitly likens himself to Hitler,” Mooney says. Plus, in terms of world-building erasure, a Messiah film would “force Villeneuve to finally put his version of a guild navigator on screen.”

Turning Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) into a fan-favorite sets up Villeneuve for Dune: Messiah well.

Warner Bros.

Filmmaker Matt Campagna has a harsher read on Villeneuve’s adaptation: “I’d characterize it somewhere between juvenile and cowardly,” he tells Inverse — but admits the changes to Chani in Part Two’s finale sets up a satisfying conclusion with Messiah. “Chani running off instead of accepting the role of concubine drives an innovative wedge between her, Jessica, and Paul, and could help turn Herbert’s first two books into three films that might conceivably feel like a trilogy. For that reason, Paul and Chani not yet having their short-lived first child together [as happens in Herbert’s Dune] could pay off in the next film. But that remains to be seen.”

In any case, Campagna sees the director’s limited cinematic prescience clearly: “Villeneuve has laid very little foundation for anything beyond Messiah. Even that one is debatable — will Chalamet age-up to be a believable father of tweens and then teens?”

“But Villeneuve's choices will make most of what Children and God Emperor is doing irrelevant, confusing, and bloodless.”

Messiah will be affected, yes, but not transformed,” Finn says. “A portion of what I miss [in the films] about Mentats, prescience, and choice of paths has been externalized into the characters of Chani and Jessica, I suspect those themes will survive intact enough to be perceptible.” Not entirely convincing.

If Villeneuve does intend to finish with Messiah, Mooney concurs that positive changes to the first book will help him — namely, in casting Jason Momoa. Duncan Idaho takes centerstage in Messiah, as the ghola reenters the Atreides fold and courts Paul’s sister Alia. “It's weird when you read the books, because Duncan is very much a ‘nothing’ character,” Mooney says. “One of the smartest things that Villeneuve does is to make him the heart of the first movie. We care about the guy. We understand why Paul loves him. Messiah really needs that relationship to work, and Villeneuve smartly put a lot of time into it.”

Can Villeneuve Feasibly Adapt the Rest of Dune?

Anya Taylor-Joy plays an adult version of Alia in Dune: Part Two.

Joe Maher/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

But Villeneuve’s Alia proves a problem once you get past Messiah. In Children of Dune, a blind Paul wanders the desert, and his sister rules Arrakis as regent. Changes to her role in Dune complicate that, as Alia becoming a tyrant relies on her having killed her grandfather, Baron Harkonnen. “[Between] the choice to leave Alia unborn and uncharacterized and the mutagenic effects of spice on humans unexplored, there’s so much heavy-lifting for the director of Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune,” says Campagna.

Finn sees that as wishful thinking: “I think the film series should stop with Messiah.” Looking ahead, she’s more concerned with the sidelining of Mentats — not only are they crucial for the plot, but they offer interesting themes. “Novel-Paul's data-driven visions are a key question: are the futures he sees actually inevitable? Are his emotions blinding him to possibilities? How do you stop someone with a computer brain and access to data streams far beyond your own? These questions are key to the series and come to dominate everything that comes after — Leto II, the Golden Path, no-ships…”

Children of Dune would be... filmable?” Finn speculates. “But Villeneuve's choices will make most of what Children and God Emperor is doing irrelevant, confusing, and bloodless.”

Dune: Part Two is playing in theaters now.

Related Tags