When well-written and popular books are adapted for the big screen, one is always apprehensive, ‘what if the film doesn’t have the same impact as the source, what if it’s poorly made?’ And more often than not, that’s the case with novel adaptations.
However, a few features come along the way that leave you astonished with their level of detailing and finesse while handling something of epic proportions, for instance, acclaimed filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s version of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Made on a huge scale (a budget of $165 million), the movie starred a lot of familiar stars like Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya, Josh Brolin and Oscar Isaac, among others, in pivotal roles.
But even with all the money and all the stars in the world, things can go horribly wrong if you are not, what they call a ‘visionary director’ in filmy terms. A redundant term, I feel, because in the end that is the basic requirement you need to have to be an able filmmaker — a solid vision, where you can see how lovely, meaningful words on the page will translate on to the celluloid. Denis has that vision, and looking at his filmography, it would be correct to presume that he’s always had this quality.
Dune’s landscape is filled with all sorts of fantastical equipment, and engaging and hard-hitting lines. But there is one pivotal sequence right in the first half of the first book — the powerful Gom Jabbar scene, that stands out. The bit where our hero Paul Atreides (Chalamet) first comes to realise he might be a more potent figure than he thinks he is. This revelation and how he gets there is what makes Gom Jabbar part so solid, but also so fraught with tension.
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Paul has been asked by his beloved mother to go to a room where the current head of the influential and dynamic all-women group Bene Gesserit is waiting for Timothee‘s character to go through a trial by fire (pun intended). Paul has to overcome his natural animal instincts and maintain his calm to save his humanity. If he fails, he could end up dead. Once Paul realises what a sticky situation he has been put in, he is shocked. ‘His own mother?’ both Paul and the audience think, and are forced to confront this ugly truth. So now the protagonist is weighed down by this terrible knowledge too, apart from the fear of an unknown danger.
What we finally end up seeing on screen is a marvellous display of acting, sound design and cinematic visuals, making the entire sequence instantly iconic. Explaining to Vanity Fair how the whole thing came to pass, Denis said, “The voice (which Charlotte Rampling uses) came with a lot of experiments, I was obsessed with the idea that when you use the voice, you should be channelling ancient voice inside yourself, like of an ancient, powerful grandmother.” And no one could have summed up that quietly stern, sharp as a needle voice better. It was frightening and compelling, all at once.
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And it was after the Gom Jabbar bit that the filmmaker finally breathed a sigh of relief. His work was done, he had cast the perfect actors. “I loved working with these actors, and after that scene, frankly I started to breathe, because then I knew I had cast the right people,” Denis laughed at the time.
There’s one primary reason why the sequence holds up so well, and will always do. It’s a summation of everything that the team gets right about the book. The dark atmosphere, the scary sound, the on-point performance. And if you are wondering why Timothee Chalamet looked positively petrified during it, Denis has an answer for that too. As he concluded his chat with Vanity Fair, the director said, “And just for the record, Timothee was actually afraid of Charlotte Rampling for real.”
Dune is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.