Paul’s visions work better visually
Something a bit confused at first Dune novel, which is somewhat clarified in the second book – Dune Messiah — is exactly how, exactly, Paul’s visions of the future actually work. In Messiah† Herbert sets the rules for how and why Paul’s visions are vague, and when his foresight fails and when it succeeds. Since Paul will eventually use his oracle powers instead of his actual eyes, it’s a little unclear how these powers work early in the game.
This is one place where Villeneuve’s version is truly brilliant. Instead of making Paul’s visions literal, Villeneuve makes everything impressionistic. A good example of this is the way Paul perceives Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun) in his visions versus what happens in reality. In the vision, a voice tells Paul that a “friend” will guide him. This is only partially true. jamis is doing guide Paul in understanding the ways of the Fremen, but not on purpose. None of the conversations Paul and Jamis have in the visions exist in their “real life” scenes. But the purpose of these visions does not become clear to Paul until afterwards.
Not only is this a clever deception, it creates something visually interesting and helps the audience experience the mind-boggling quality of Paul’s visions first hand. In the book you believe Herbert’s word. In this version of the movie, you’re in those visions, and that difference is important.
Lady Jessica gets a bigger role in Villeneuve’s Dune
There are some memes who mock the strange discrepancy between a general perception of the Herbert text and Denis Villeneuve’s statements about Dune‘s need for female characters to move the story forward. To be clear: the Dune novels are (usually) not sexist in scope, but the female characters do experience sexism and are often victims of a patriarchal society. After all, Lady Jessica is called a “concubine”. Herbert didn’t say this was good, but it’s pictured.
Structurally, Villeneuve does a much better job than Herbert in placing the central female characters more central to the story. We start with Chani’s (Zendaya) perception of how the Empire treats her planet. Lady Jessica has more time on screen than Duke Leto, and Rebecca Ferguson’s portrayal of Jessica as a powerful warrior makes her seem like the star of the movie on many occasions.
In addition, the famous scene that opens the novel, in which Paul is tested by the Reverend Mother, is moved 30 minutes into the film. Interestingly, this fact gives the whole series a lot more weight, and we feel Jessica’s conflict over what’s happening more sharply. This is partly because at this point in the movie we come to better understand Jessica as a mother and member of the Bene Gesserit, which is not possible if she is introduced to the public at the same time as she is subjecting her son to a test with the Gum Jabbar. Paul has more than one birthright, and arguably the birthright associated with his mother is more important to the overall story. This fact exists in Herbert’s books, of course, but Villeneuve’s version never lets you forget it.