The most famous science fiction novel of all time is now the buzziest movie of 2021.
Delayed by nearly a year, Denis Villeneuve's Dune: Part One is finally in theaters and on HBO Max. Fair warning: the movie is a lot to take in, as are the novels that inspired it. The world-building of Frank Herbert’s distant future is layered, its stakes every-shifting. And throughout his six Dune books, the scope broadens to a degree nearly unparalleled in other sci-fi series.
Does Dune: Part One capture that sense of the novel? The answer is a soft yes. Villeneuve's Dune is more successful than David Lynch’s critically lambasted 1984 adaptation, certainly more faithful than Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed Dune project was to set to be, and more thrilling than John Harrison’s Sci-Fi Channel miniseries.
Still, if you crack open that massive 1965 novel, you’ll notice some differences. Here are the five biggest changes between the novel Dune and Dune: Part One. Spoilers ahead.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Dune: Part One ends on a cliffhanger. If you wanted to get cheeky, you could say the biggest things left out of Dune: Part One were all those that happen after page 500 in the novel. But Part Two will (hopefully) happen, allowing Villeneuve the opportunity to execute the rest of his grand vision.
Excluding the last third of Dune the book, here are the biggest alterations between Herbert’s text and Villeneuve’s adaptation.
5. Duncan’s Part-Time Job With the Fremen
In the movie, when Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) returns with tales of the Fremen, he gets clean-shaven and starts palling around with his old buddies from House Atreides. But this scene is at odds with the dual allegiance that Duncan is said to have with the Fremen, at least as per Herbert’s novel.
In Dune: Part One, when Stilgar (Javier Bardem) shows up and spits on the ground, the scene is relatively short, though memorable. In the book, Stilgar asks Duncan to continue working for the Fremen. Duke Leto is actually on board with Duncan working for the Fremen and House Atreides at the same time and asks whether Stilgar would accept a dual allegiance. Stilgar knows that Liet-Kynes “serves two masters,” and so he’s similarly amenable to Duncan being “Fremen and soldier of the Atreides.”
This may seem like a small thing, but Duncan’s deep understanding of the Fremen and allegiance to them in a technical way has a bigger emotional impact in the book than it does in the film. On-screen, it feels like he simply hung out with them for a while then came home.
4. House Atreides Accepts Stewardship Over Arrakis
Oddly, nearly the first 30 minutes of Dune: Part One consists of scenes that are not in the novel. In the film, we see Duke Leto presented with an order from Emperor Shaddam IV. He accepts this formally, in a big ceremony. In the novel, all of this has already happened, and everyone is packing up to leave Caladan. The first scenes in the book are those moments before Paul receives the Gom Jabbar test from the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit. In the movie, this scene is oddly pushed back. The fact that Dune: Part One opens with so many scenes and conversations that aren’t in the book at all is almost shocking!
3. Liet-Kynes is Chani’s parent
In the novel Dune, the character of Liet-Kynes is male. In Dune: Part One, Liet-Kynes is a woman, played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster. This gender swap is not really significant but, in the books, it’s made clear that Liet-Kynes is the father of Chani. In Dune: Part One, there’s no indication of a connection between Chani (Zendedya) and Liet-Kynes (Duncan-Brewster) at all.
2. All About Mentats
Dune: Part One doesn’t really exclude the concept of the Mentats. But, if you’ve never read the book, you probably would have no idea that one of the guys advising Duke Leto was a “human computer.”
There are actually two Mentats in Dune: Part One: the character of Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and the twisted Mentat Piter de Vries (David Dastmalchian). Thufir works for Leto, and he’s the guy who says he’s going to hand in his resignation after Paul is almost assassinated. Piter is the guy who works for the Baron. Both of them have marks on their lips that indicate they’re Mentats.
The idea is this: In the future of Dune, there is no A.I., but there are highly-trained, long-lived “human computers,” who can perform the same functions A.I. once existed to fulfill. Other than Thufir rolling his eyes in the back of his head briefly early in the film, this is barely apparent.
1. Princess Irulan’s Narration is Gone
Before Dune: Part One came out, most hardcore fans knew that Princess Irulan — played by Virginia Madsen in the David Lynch Dune, and whose quasi-narration in both that film and the novel creates a framework for the story — would not be a character in Dune: Part One.
Villeneuve's Dune slightly reframes the narrative toward the Fremen and away from the aristocracy. Tonally, this is a good choice, but the absence of the Irulan narration means that certain expository details are missing. In Lynch’s Dune and in the novel, the reader’s hand is held a bit more to learn what the Spice is and why it’s important.
The Irulan framing in the book gives the future-tense aspects of Paul’s visions another layer: the story of Paul’s rise to power has already happened. In the book, this creates an interesting layer of perception for the reader. It’s not as though the fairly omniscient narration of Dune is unreliable per se, but there is an indication that the prose might be biased, which is itself a comment on the story.
The new film can’t really achieve this self-reflexive layer without the Irulan narration, which means at least one political and historical side of Dune is missing. Princess Irulan will certainly be in Dune: Part Two (who will play her!) but that doesn’t mean her skills as a writer or historian will become all-important. Then again, Dune: Part Two could surprise us, and begin with narration from Princess Iruluan.
For now, if you’re interested in learning about Princess Irulan, who frames the narrative of the first Dune, you don’t need to watch the Lynch film. Just grab a copy of that book. The words must flow!
Dune: Part One is streaming on HBO Max now.