REINTERPRETING TWO CLASSICS OF SCIENCE FICTION
Foundation and Dune

Always read the classics.

 

I read both Dune and the Foundation trilogy in college, and they were old works even then.

Both Foundation and Dune translated for cinemas and prestige television are visually impressive, and the stories, for the most part, work quite well. If an early 21st-century time-traveler came back to the late 20th century to tell me both Foundation and Dune would be pop-culture phenomenons of the 2020s, I probably would not have believed them.

If you go back even further when both Dune and the Foundation trilogy came out as novels, I doubt anyone could even fathom an adaptation to any other medium. The rich imaginations of Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert could not be made for the screen, silver or small.

As both adaptations have been out in the wild for a few weeks now, I’d venture to say more people were taken with Dune than Foundation. A star-studded blockbuster with actors who have been in Marvel/DC/Star Wars/Disney/etc. movies will get more eyeballs than a cerebral television adaption made for, arguably, the third-best streaming service with the only name actors not technically the lead characters.

Still, what an age to be living in when the entertainment choices of today are so rich in story, character development, and special effects.

Foundation

The Foundation series spans seven books, and the Apple TV+ adaptation plans to cover that ground over several seasons. After watching most of the first season, I’m glad it received the green light for a second season. I want to see the Mule, who I assume will be the main antagonist during the following season.

So far in this first season, the outline of the books is somewhat intact, but showrunner David S. Goyer created a lot of concepts and characters that were never in Asimov’s short stories or novels.

Part of what makes this adaptation interesting, at least to me, is its obvious inspiration. You can see the writers and designers pulled from dozens of properties to make their unique vision. It’s not plagiarizing anything but picking ideas and concepts from dozens of movies and television shows. It’s the kind of stealing Austin Kleon supports. From Star Wars to Star Trek to Westworld and so many others, I appreciate the look and feel of the show. The world-building has been slow, methodical, and attention-grabbing at times.

Foundation, the book series, won a one-time-only Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series, beating out The Lord of the Rings. It has had a tremendous impact on science fiction from the start. It is the ahem, foundation from which a lot of modern science fiction takes its inspiration (including Dune), so it is amusing to me to see the Apple TV+ series pull from so many of the franchises the books inspired as it builds its own world.

The primary reason Foundation was deemed so difficult to film is the 1,000 years the story covers. The characters in the book series exist across decades of time. Asimov didn’t write Foundation as a set of novels. They were short stories set within the universe. He didn’t write with any plan or narrative throughline, so it’s interesting to see what the producers of the TV series elect to do in the future. For example, I like what the Apple TV+ series has done in figuring out how to keep certain actors through the decades. The Cleon clones (Brother Dawn, Day, and Dusk), set up as a genetic dynasty, in which clones of the first Emperor Cleon I cycle through their roles as ascendant ruler, reigning ruler, and Emperor emeritus is a clever addition to the universe Asimov imagined.

Another point I admire about Foundation is the casting. Even though we get Jared Harris’s Hari Seldon and Lee Pace’s Brother Day as the first two on the credit line, it’s Lou Llobell as Gaal Dornick and Leah Harvey as Salvor Hardin who are much more in line as the protagonists. Llobell and Harvey are complete unknowns to me and are a revelation throughout. The gender-swapping does not bother me either because 1.) it’s the 21st century, and we could use more representation in science fiction and 2.) only purists get their panties in a bunch over casting anyone other than who they saw in their mind when they first read the books. Asimov has a reputation for not creating many notable female characters, and the series fixes that.

Additionally, the standout to me has been Laura Birn, who is playing Demerzel, a loyal advisor to the genetic dynasty. Birn, a Finnish film actress, has obviously studied up on her character. Her accent is not one I’ve heard often, and it adds to the portrayal of her character.

I admit I was taken aback at the reveal of her true nature during the series, as that is a major plot point and surprise in the books. If you read the books, you’d also note the gender switch and know what the future holds, at least the way Asimov told it. Demerzel is one of the more unique characters he ever created, and I can’t wait to see where the Apple TV+ series takes the character.

Goyer has said in interviews he’d like to see the series run 80 episodes for a total of eight seasons. Honestly, I think he probably will only get half that and much more likely only 30. Personally, if I get a second season focused on the fall of the Empire and the rise of the Mule and a third season focused on adapting the novels Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth, I would be quite happy.

Dune

Frank Herbert wrote Dune in 1965, and it won the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1965 and tied for the Hugo Award for best novel in 1966. Herbert wrote several sequels, and the series has continued via his son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson. Personally, I’ve never read anything other than Dune, even though there are plenty of books. Of course, there was the 1984 film and the 2000 and 2003 TV miniseries.

The 1984 film suffers from trying to do too much in one single movie. David Lynch disavows it, but I think there are plenty of people who love the film. I think it’s weird and a noble but flawed attempt. With this new film by Denis Villeneuve, I highly doubt anyone will reference the Lynch movie except to say how bad it is compared to what Villeneuve has achieved. I own both miniseries, but I haven’t watched them in decades. I doubt I will ever watch them again. However, they did give the world James McAvoy, so there’s that.

There’s a real sense of “cinema” with Dune, which is a hallmark of Villeneuve. He directed Blade Runner: 2049 and Arrival, and you can see what he learned by making those movies here. I’m a big fan of Blade Runner: 2049 and was overjoyed when he decided to make Dune. The film showcases Villeneuve and his team: cinematographer Greig Fraser, editor Joe Walker, and production designer Patrice Vermette. There is a sense of grand scale at work. It all feels significant. This is a serious science fiction movie, not the science fantasy of Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. I was lucky enough to see Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen, and Dune has some of that in its DNA. Of course, the DNA of Dune is in practically every science fiction television show and movie of the past 50 years, including Star Wars.

Of course, I knew going in that we weren’t getting the entire novel adapted to the silver screen. Although, I was a bit surprised at the Dune: Part One title at the beginning. Now that I know Villeneuve will be making Dune: Part Two, I’m all in, and I’m already casting a few expected roles in my head (Tom Holland for Feyd, please).

Speaking of casting, Villeneuve’s massive cast embodies Herbert’s characters perfectly. Like in the novel, Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides slowly grows from an immature young man into a character who understands what he has lost and how to move forward. In full beard and bearing, Oscar Isaac plays Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, as a troubled noble who understands his family taking over the spice production on Arrakis is a trap. Also assuming a regal bearing, Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother and Leto’s concubine Lady Jessica showcases a protective stance with Paul, striking defiance to her superiors in the mysterious Bene Gesserit order, and true love in her all too few scenes with Isaac. For my money, I was most interested in seeing Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho and Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, who in this Dune feel like an older brother and domineering uncle, respectfully. Lastly, we get Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen doing as much of a Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz riff as Heath Ledger mimicking Tom Waits in The Dark Knight.

On its surface, Dune is nothing more than rival intergalactic Houses with space witches, dream girls, and sandworms. It’s not quite the space opera of Star Wars, which also deals with family drama, scarred villains, and magical powers. However, if you dig a touch deeper, we see spice as a stand-in for oil, and Arrakis is not much different than the Middle East. I appreciate what Herbert was going for in the original novel and what Villeneuve translates in the story.

While Star Wars has its space pirate and princess romantic subplot, there isn’t much in the way of romance in Dune past Paul making eyes at Chani, literally the girl of his dreams, played by Zendaya. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Paul and Chani in Dune: Part Two.

It’s difficult for me to see Dune with fresh eyes. It is a narrative I know well, so the fates of several characters and the basics of the universe make sense to me. I know where the story is going, and seeing how we get there is the joy I receive watching Dune and its upcoming sequel.

Foundation and Dune: Part One are not all that different. The tone is the same, and the writing and acting are excellent. Both look expensive with special effects practically on par with each other, which I think is more a testament to Apple’s commitment to Foundation than Villeneuve’s budget. The bottom line, as visual storytellers, I prefer Villeneuve’s vision to what Goyer has created. However, both are entertaining, and both have captured an audience to merit a movie sequel to finish the story and a second season to tell more of the series.

I’m looking forward to both adaptations.

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