Book to Screen: ‘Foundation’ vs ‘Dune, Part 1’

Call it the year of great adaptations. Or maybe not. For every Arcane (based on Riot Games’ League of Legends lore), there was a Cowboy Bebop. But the two biggest adaptations of the year had to be Denis Villeneuve’s take on Frank Herbert’s Dune, and showrunner David Goyer’s tackling of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

Both books were notoriously considered unadaptable. Foundation has been attempted dozens of times over the years, with nothing culminating, and Dune is more famous for its film flops–Jodorowsky’s version becoming the stuff of legend, and the biggest misstep of David Lynch’s storied career. Both have heavily influenced other filmed properties, counting Luc Besson, Ridley Scott & George Miller, among others. Even Star Wars appears to borrow from Dune, and the look of Coruscant in the prequels was based on Asimov’s vision of the imperial seat of Trantor, thanks to Timothy Zahn’s Expanded Universe novels.

Villeneuve and Fremen
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Both books are considered classics of hard science fiction–although Dune and its sequels delve a little too deeply into spiritualism and religious themes than a lot of scholars would consider hard sci-fi. Asimov’s Psychohistory is based on real math, as is his robotic world. Both spend a lot of time dealing with sociopolitical issues and ideas. And there’s a lot of internal dialogue that doesn’t always translate well to a visual medium.

I should also mention that both books are book series. Herbert penned six Dune novels, and his outlines have been used by his son Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson to write an additional 13 novels that take place before or in between the original six novels.

Asimov also wrote six novels–with Foundation in the title–but also began uniting his most famous series in the ’80s and early ’90s, connecting Foundation with his Robots and Empire series–13 books directly connected,  along with dozens of short stories in the same universe. Asimov’s estate also authorized an additional trilogy, written by Greg Bear, David Brin, and Gregory Benford, that are not well regarded.

While both screen adaptations used a single title, both delved into the additional works to flesh out the story elements – for better or for worse.

There are two approaches to adapting an acclaimed work. One is to stick slavishly to the text. The other is to take the elements of the novel and do a remix of sorts, hopefully capturing the spirit of the original work. In truth, most successful screen adaptations take a dual approach, but they all lean to one side or the other.

Desert Dreams

Courtesy of Universal

One of the chief complaints with the David Lynch version of Dune was that it took too many liberties with the text. Denis Villeneuve was determined not to make that mistake. It may surprise folks who saw the movie and never read the book to learn that a lot of the politics and internal machinations were stripped away from the novel.

But where Villeneuve stumbles, in my opinion, is in adapting too much, too closely to the novel. Frank Herbert may have been a master of epic world-building, but his literary talents are not as strong as they could be. As a result, a lot of the book and the film feel longer than they need to. Herbert takes time to make his point, and Villeneuve follows suit. Modern audiences are able to take in a lot of information at one time, but the movie spoon-feeds us one bit of exposition per scene, inching along, never really launching into the meat of the story until almost the very end. What’s worse, some of the elements that were removed from the novel could have helped strengthen the storytelling and our emotional connection to the characters.

Dune, Part One is just that–a lot of setup for a story we’ll get to see later. If it wasn’t so beautifully shot, and Warner Bros hadn’t pissed off and lost their other auteur filmmaker (Chris Nolan), it’s hard to tell if we would have gotten a Dune, Part Two under normal circumstances. And unlike Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings, Warner Bros. had only greenlit the sequel, not Villeneuve’s hoped-for trilogy of films.

Image Credit: Warner Bros/Legendary Entertainment

No History of Violence

hari gaal
Courtesy of Skydance Television

For Foundation, David Goyer and his writer’s room took elements and inspiration from Asimov’s novels and theory of Psychohistory and redeveloped it into something entirely different. Not as horrible as the Will Smith film I, Robot–where the automatons act entirely opposite of Asimov’s grand vision–but not as consistent as many fans would have liked. The trappings of Asimov’s stories are there, but heavily remixed and recontextualized to suit the filmmakers. For example, Eto Demerzel is placed in service to Emperor Cleon, her nature known to him them, when in the novels, the character manipulates the Emperor behind the scenes and serves Hari Seldon, who alone is aware that Demerzel is a robot.

In the show, Seldon isn’t entirely confident in his theories and uses other characters to solve problems and bolster his faith, while in the novels – at least the primary trilogy–he is steadfast. And one of the tenets of Psychohistory is that the studied population should not be aware it's being studied–Asimov’s nod to the Hawthorne effect. Yet in the television show, everyone knows about Psychohistory and that it’s predicted the fall of the Empire–in fact, it’s a major plot driver.

Towards the end of the first season, there’s a whole plotline that would feel right at home in an episode of Star Trek. Characters have violent, emotional interactions, sexual intercourse alongside the philosophical discussions. Asimov’s novels have next to none of this – whether through choice or his own lack of ability to put it on paper. (In actuality, Asimov did compose one short story with sexual elements, following a trend in 1955, and upon reading it in Thrilling Wonder magazine, immediately forbade it from ever being republished.)

Adapt or Perish

Courtesy of Skydance Television

While Foundation, the Apple TV show, is excellent science fiction, it is a horrible adaptation. It does an excellent job of removing some of the more questionable elements of Asimov’s story, often with well-cast gender swaps, and fleshes out a lot of the characters’ and worlds’ backstories much better. Emperor Cleon is a minor character in the novels, but is a major player here–and the addition of cloning–something Asimov famously wrote very little about – allows the TV writers to stretch the story out over decades and centuries, bouncing back and forth, while using the same actors.

I appreciate Goyer’s efforts to make Foundation the show more accessible to folks unfamiliar with the novels, but there are moments and characters that I’ve always wanted to see on the screen that are missing. Meanwhile, seeing Paul Atreides undergoing the gom jabbar almost exactly as I pictured it in my head, while reading Dune, was a highlight of the film. But one of the few, sadly.

While Dune, Part One could be considered an excellent adaptation–it’s horribly stodgy storytelling. By sticking too closely to every single thing that happens in the novel, we don’t get a complete story, and many times slide into boredom. We don’t care about any of the characters, and if you’ve never read the books, may wonder what actors like Dave Bautista are even doing in the film. Or why nearly every movie star dies–who will be around for Part Two. Wait for Part Two, or read the 412-page novel to find out–and one of the characters doesn’t return until the third novel, set 20 years later!

Regardless of my or other fans’ personal feelings about the on-screen actualization of the novels we loved, both Dune and Foundation will have another chapter. As previously noted, Denis Villeneuve is ready to start shooting Dune, Part Two and the script is already well underway.

Apple TV renewed Foundation for a second season just three episodes into the first one. With any luck, Dune will tell a better, more complete story, and Foundation will use its time-hopping strategy to bring more of the beloved characters to life without making them entirely unrecognizable. Either way, I’ll be watching. I hope you will be too.