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Transitioning Literature into Cinema: Denis Villeneuve’s Equilibria

Denis Villeneuve

Controversy clouded over the BAFTA awards this time last year, following sexual assault claims against British television star, Noel Clarke. This year seems to shed a different light, as the awards welcome its most diverse genre-base; the eclectic breadth of films shown this year hope to set a precedent. Leading the nominations, is Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve, who continues to shine and excite, with his ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune

Well versed in the realm of science fiction, Villeneuve continues to build upon an impressive catalogue of work. Lauded by critics for his sci-fi debut Arrival, he gained recognition and further explored the scope of humanism in his work. Just a year later he took on the development of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. To the delight of many, the French-Canadian director has decided to continue to probe the genre following the announcement of a Dune sequel being studio-lit. 

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Although Scott’s Blade Runner bears no title-relation, its script was motivated by Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids dream of electric sheep?. Villeneuve has openly acknowledged 2049’s nod to Dick’s vision of the dystopian future – supplemented by mise-en-scene visuals from renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins. 

Signing onto yet another sci-fi adaption, Villeneuve has been handpicked to pioneer Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. The Quebecois director has demonstrated once again his confidence in transitioning literature into cinema’s dominion. 

The novel, set in the 22nd century, follows a large cylindrical vessel which tumbles through space. Quickly sceptical of its origin, a group of explorers are chosen to investigate, study and establish its potential threat to mankind. The ship’s physical makeup proves to be a source of wonder for the explorers, as told from their perspective. They soon establish that the laws of physics upon the cylinder, not only sustain life upon it, but set it apart from that of earth’s. Venturing into the unknown, facing evolution and its advances, the platoon of investigators must learn, if they wish to live.

The move from novel to film is both daring and onerous, even for the most gifted of screenwriters. There exists a nuance between ‘staying true to the book’ and inputting one’s directional trademark; this will often define success or demise. With regards to formatting, succumbing to detail and accuracy can be kairotic, accommodating the average length of a book into the average screenplay and subsequent film is complex. It requires empathy, but ruthlessness above all else. Speaking on Dune, Villeneuve admitted his desire to preserve Herbert’s image of Arrakis in detail, small specifics such as the dry climate where few plants can grow. Structurally speaking, those specifics are crucial but can, at a time, divert attention from both character and story arcs. Finding the relevant details and discarding the inapt characterises a director’s literary adaptation. 

Striking a balance between originality and upholding consistency has allowed directors before Villeneuve to enter stardom. J.R.R Tolkien and Peter Benchley have both seen their work adapted into Oscar winning titles, however this begs the question: is film adaptation stifling cinematic innovation and creativity, and if so, is it just a cash-grab by the studios? Rendezvous with Rama promises to be daring and ambitious – after all, the last Arthur C. Clarke adaption brought us Kubrick’s magnum opus, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. 

Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Wikicommons