Adaptations and remakes, whether of remakes of classic films or movie adaptations of beloved books, is always an ambitious undertaking. Doing it on the grand spectacle tentpole scale of Dune, however, is a whole other challenge entirely.
Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi series of books is an unwieldy beast to adapt. Multiple elements must be woven together in a massive world with a complex mythology in a movie that is working within the limitations of a theatrical runtime and the need to appeal to a broad audience. Key to bringing that world from Herbert’s book to life are the visuals, including the famous giant sandworm creatures.
The sandworms are a core part of the books and a crucial element to nail down, and director Denis Villeneuve is well aware of that. Which is why he spent an entire year working on the design of the sandworms, as he told Empire (via /Film). “We talked about every little detail that would make such a beast possible, from the texture of the skin, to the way the mouth opens, to the system to eat its food in the sand,” he explained. “It was a year of work to design and to find the perfect shape that looked prehistoric enough.”
The story of Dune is set on the planet of Arrakis, a desert wasteland (think Tatooine, sorta) ruled by the members of House Atreides. The one thing that makes Arrakis valuable is that it’s the only place in the universe to harvest the sought-after melange, a human-enhancing substance known more simply as “the spice.” It grants humans a longer lifespan, heightened awareness, and greater energy. In the right person, it can even trigger precognition. Spice is essentially the most valuable resource in the world. The only problem is that to harvest it is to risk one’s life against sandworms.
The giant, nigh-indestructible creatures with their tripartite mouths lined with razor-sharp teeth appear to guard the melange, which is actually a waste product of the worms. In reality, the sandworms are merely prehistoric predators that see the harvesting vehicles as prey. These vehicles of the melange harvesters often have to be airlifted in and out of the desert in order to escape the sandworms that prowl the desert sands, and harvesters learn the skill of “walking without rhythm,” i.e. learning to glide over the sands without a sound because the sandworms hunt prey by these rhythmic vibrations. It’s a dangerous, sometimes fatal, relationship between the humans of Arrakis and the sandworms, but a vital one that provides the hero’s trials of Dune‘s protagonist, Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet in the upcoming movie).
If you’re thinking some of the above sounds familiar, you’d be right: 1990’s pulp classic Tremors featured “graboids,” giant worms under the remote Nevada desert who also hunted by sensing vibrations in the earth. Two years earlier, in 1988, Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice also featured giant worms, but his sandworms were black-and-white striped and hunted in the deserts of the afterlife. And a few discerning fans might recognize sandworms as the Chthonians first introduced into the Cthulhu Mythos by Brian Lumley in 1969. Or even the purple worm of ’70s-era Dungeons & Dragons.
But Herbert’s Dune was written in 1965. So while other properties might have borrowed and modified the concept of the giant, predatory sandworm, Dune did it first and did it best. Can’t say I blame Denis Villeneuve for taking a full year to get the look of them just right.