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‘Dune 3’ Has a Big Challenge: The Next Book Isn’t That Great

Fans of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga agree: The first book is extraordinary — a planet-hopping hero’s journey with compelling characters, riveting action set-pieces, and clear story and character arcs. For all the talk that Dune was impossible to adapt, the core elements to make great cinema have always been in the 1965 book.

But Herbert’s other Dune books? Well …

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The remaining books have their fans and detractors, but the general consensus is the saga never comes close to achieving the dramatic heights of the first novel. Dune director Denis Villeneuve himself has said the books become increasingly “esoteric” and therefore he only wants to adapt the next one, Dune Messiah. He is said to be nearly finished with a script for a potential Dune: Part Three. But Messiah is has plenty of challenges, too.

It’s not that 1969’s Dune Messiah is bad, per se. Plenty of Herbert devotees love it, especially those who enjoy politics and philosophical discussion (its Amazon review average is only slightly behind the first book). It’s just not as overtly dramatic and doesn’t directly connect to previous story as much as one might like. As one reviewer griped, Messiah is “a lot of sitting around and talking.” This isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just not what the first two movies were.

Without giving away any real spoilers, Messiah picks up after a 12-year time jump and is focused on Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) ruling as Emperor, and his relationship with his wife, Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), and concubine, Chani (Zendaya). The violent jihad Paul envisioned and feared that he would inspire throughout the first two films has come and gone. Now, Paul is struggling to deal with a conspiracy to overthrow him while hoping to produce an heir. The book is largely focused on palace intrigue and feels more like TV-sized Dune than movie-sized Dune. Paul’s mother, the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) isn’t in Messiah (something that’s difficult to imagine Villeneuve not changing), and the story lacks obvious villains like the Harkonnens to drive the narrative. While Dune is an underdog epic, Messiah is Paul striving to keep his house in order and wrestling with his status and legacy as a god-like being.

Thus far, Villeneuve has been exceedingly faithful to his source material (his approach to Dune’s adaption was about finding character and story essentials and cutting out the rest, rather than making significant changes). But Messiah presents an interesting creative dilemma: The more faithful the adaptation, the less likely the result will be compelling onscreen, and the less comparable the film will feel with the first two parts.

This isn’t to predict Dune 3 will definitely be weaker or radically different. There’s so much filmmaking and storytelling skill on display in the first two films, and plenty of chess pieces remain on the table, so Villeneuve will likely make a film that works (and will certainly be worth seeing regardless). But Villeneuve and his co-writers arguably need to show a level of adaptive flexibility and creativity beyond what they have done so far in order to elevate Messiah to a place where it feels like a Return of the King rather than a Godfather Part III (a comparison that’s actually pretty apt given the third Godfather film’s time jump and its heavy-lies-the-crown storyline). The very end of Part Two hints at potentially promising deviation from the books, showing a betrayed-looking Chani abandoning Paul’s army, setting up a potentially more antagonistic relationship between the lovers in Part Three.

In any case, Villeneuve has said Messiah would be his final Dune film. “If I succeed in making a trilogy, that would be the dream,” Villeneuve has said. “Dune Messiah was written in reaction to the fact that people perceived Paul Atreides as a hero. Which is not what he wanted to do. My adaptation is closer to his idea that it’s actually a warning.”

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