By Steve Donoghue
Those of you who pay attention to movie-news will know that the biggest cinematic event of the last month involves a book: it’s celebrated director Denis Villeneuve’s $170 million production of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune. The Villeneuve movie was showing overseas for a while before it made its US debut, and it’s been racking up box office totals and superlative reviews ever since.
This wasn’t the first time Dune has been adapted from page to screen, of course. David Lynch made a 1984 movie that’s infamous not only for how bad it is but for how badly it mangles Herbert’s book, which is widely and rightly considered one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. The book was also adapted by the Sci Fi Channel in 2000 into a mini-series that was surprisingly good in many ways and certainly more faithful than Lynch’s movie had been.
Villeneuve’s movie, starring young Hollywood phenomenon Timothée Chalamet as the main character Paul Atreides, is a huge, sprawling thing, loud and expensive-looking. Its pacing more closely resembles the Sci Fi mini-series, mainly because the movie only adapts roughly the first third of Herbert’s novel, which tells the story of a far-future Imperial family fighting for survival on the harsh desert planet Arrakis.
The movie has been garnering positive reviews, although not from me! I thought it was poorly paced, poorly lighted, poorly acted (mostly), and oddly bland for way, way too much of the time. And even though I’m clearly in the minority on this (most people going to see it are coming out of the movie theaters – or coming away from HBO Max – much more satisfied than I was), that’s nothing compared to the minority I’m in when it comes to page-to-screen adaptations just in general.
When it comes to such book-to-movie productions, I’m a full-blown heretic. The standard wisdom of such things is that “the book is always better,” and as fervent bookworm I of course want this to be true. But I’ve seen lots of page-to-screen adaptations, and I can only think of a small handful of times when the book was better. In my experience, usually the movie is far superior.
I think this only makes sense, when you stop to consider it. Movies, after all, have a much leaner and tenser “run time” than books do – they don’t have the room or luxury for meandering subplots and extravagant scene-setting. They have to get right down to business, and if their directors and writers care about the book they’re adapting (and I think most of them do), they’re going to try to be sensitive to retaining the flavor while trimming the fat.
Take The Hunt for Red October, for example. Tom Clancy’s original novel was groundbreaking when it appeared in 1984. It took the old template of the military thriller and loaded it with super-informed insider exposition about every single last piece of ordnance and hardware mentioned in its pages. It made for an oddly absorbing reading experience, but it would have been boring as dirt on the screen. In 1990, director John McTiernan (two years after his gripping Die Hard) made the wise decision to scuttle most of that military jargon in favor of tense human drama. There’s nothing in Clancy’s novel that’s even a tenth as exciting as the climactic submarine duel in the movie (“You arrogant ass, you’ve killed us!”).
Or we could go back to Hollywood’s Golden Age for another example: In 1959, director WIlliam Wyler became just the latest director to adapt Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur to the screen. Wallace’s novel is fussy and wordy and, for modern sensibilities, almost unreadable. But Wyler not only loaded it with spare-no-expense cinematography but also got a very charismatic performance out of Charlton Heston. The result is a movie that’s ten times more entertaining than its original book.
I’d argue that this pattern even holds true for more modern books that were built specifically to entertain. Take Stephen King’s Misery: sure, the 1987 novel has millions of fans, but those fans tend to be notoriously willing to overlook the book’s many flaws – mainly how wordy and overwritten it is. All that flab is completely gone from Rob Reiner’s great 1990 movie starring James Caan and Kathy Bates at the height of her powers playing the psychotic Annie Wilkes.
So maybe I’m not the normal test case for Villeneuve’s Dune – and maybe there’s no maybe about that! But one thing is certain: if the movie leads more people to the great book, I’ll be well satisfied.
Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Washington Post, The American Conservative, The Spectator, The Wall Street Journal, The National, and the Daily Star. He writes regularly for The Boston Globe, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. He’s the Books editor of Big Canoe News in Georgia, and his website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.