'Dune' Should Have Been a TV Series (Review)

Fans of sci-fi and fantasy novels had a lot to look forward to in 2021 — Shadow and Bone, The Wheel of Time, The Lord of the Rings, Foundation, The Witcher, and so on. There's one obvious, major difference between all those properties and Dune, which hit theaters and HBO Max simultaneously this weekend. While I loved Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of the novel, I think it's worth considering whether it would have done better if it had followed the rest of its genre brethren over to TV.

First off, let's note that the title screen tells viewers they are about to watch Dune: Part One. You might as easily think of it as Dune: Episode One. The science-fantasy epic that follows has generally been well-received, but the complaints it has gotten from viewers and critics can easily be summed up: its story structure feels off, and there are important things from the book that were omitted in this movie. In both cases, doing Dune as a TV series would have been a straightforward solution; the structure could have been compartmentalized in 8 or 10 one-hour episodes, while simultaneously giving the creators more time to tell every part of the story that needed telling.

What's frustrating is the feeling that Villeneuve himself wanted to include every single line of the book in his movie. Villeneuve is a self-professed Dune fanatic who insisted on breaking the story into two movies, saying it was "too complex" to do in one installment, with "power in details" that wouldn't fit into two or three hours.

In those years-long discussions developing this adaptation, it seems ludicrous that the idea of a series never came up. Most comparable IPs are going that route nowadays, and some close relatives like Star Wars are even migrating from movies to prestige TV a little at a time. We're now nearly a century away from the days of the "serials" that inspired George Lucas in theaters, and we're arguably three decades into the "golden age of television," with rampant speculation that one or both industries is a bubble whose current rate of spending can't last. It's hard to understand why a theatrical release affords more prestige or artistic purity to Dune: Part One.

The question of how "completely" this movie would tell the story of the book while still maintaining some semblance of narrative structure certainly colored my viewing experience on Friday night. I watched it with my grandmother, who gave me my first copy of Dune the novel years ago. However, I had re-read the book in anticipation of the movie while she had not, so I found myself wondering which hints she would pick up and which connections she would make the entire time. Sure enough, as the credits were rolling, I found myself answering a long list of clarifying questions that would almost certainly have been addressed in a series adaptation.

This brought me all the way back to my days as the resident Harry Potter lore nerd at my middle school. The Monday after each movie came out, I'd be enthusiastically explaining missed plot threads to my friends, while one by one, they all lost interest in the franchise starting around Prisoner of Azkaban. Dune has been frequently compared to IT for splitting one book into two movies, but I think a more apt comparison is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. In this case, Villeneuve simply realized he'd need more time at the beginning, not at the end.

In fairness, I understand that even TV adaptations must cut or simplify huge portions of the stories from their source materials. (Trust me, as an A Song of Ice and Fire fan, I deeply understand that.) I also understand that not all readers or viewers place the same significance on the same beats in every story. For me, it's hard to imagine doing Dune without mentioning the Butlerian Jihad once, or explaining the powers that Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Piter de Vries (David Dastmalchian) wield as Mentats. For others, it's an ancillary detail at best, and I can admit that the movie works fine without it. Still, a part of me can't help but think wistfully that a TV show would have mentioned it, and for me, more Dune is simply preferable to less.

For better or worse, adaptations of all kinds make up a massive share of Hollywood's work these days. It makes sense that comic books thrive as blockbuster movies, and it makes sense that turning a TV show into a movie or vice versa is a fun summer pastime. I think it's now safe to generalize and say that in most cases, novels are best adapted into TV series, not movies.

As a fan of SFF novels, I feel I should acknowledge that I'm being a brat and looking a gift horse in the mouth with this review. Maybe this is the first big sign that my fandoms' stars are on the rise right now, that soon I will be as spoiled as long-time readers of Marvel Comics. Rest assured that I know I'm nitpicking here, and that I'll take on-screen rendering of my favorite books however I can get them. (This is all coming from a guy who willingly watched the Eragon movie more than once!) If nothing else, I'm glad that this movie turned my whole newsfeed into sandworm memes.

So, I loved Dune: Part One, and I can't wait to watch it again. I hope they make a Dune: Part Two, and I even hope Villeneuve will go on to adapt Herbert's other five Dune Saga novels. In fact, I hope for each novel, he tacks on another movie to the deal, so that in the end, this bizarre sci-fi odyssey takes up the same amount of server space as an HBO Max Original series would have. That hypothetical series would likely have come up with a better title for its pilot episode than Dune: Part One.