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Dune: Will the Audience Get Lost in the Sands of Time?

Denis Villeneuve has boldly approached the immense task of bringing Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel to the screen by dividing it into two parts, the first of which is already long at roughly 2.5 hours.

Splitting a book into two movies worked well for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows because it was the final installment, portraying the seventh book. Fans already knew the characters, terminology, setting, and so forth. In contrast, splitting the first novel in the Dune series into two films with a gap of more than a year between their release dates will strain audience recall, risking a loss of continuity.

I should preface my analysis by mentioning that I came relatively late to the Dune novels. I had heard of them, but didn’t start reading until the late 1970s.

I saw the 1984 film when it came out in theaters and I finally watched the 2021 film via streaming this month. I watched the new one again this week in order to take notes for this blog. The combination of intrigue, battle, and mystery was presented skillfully; consequently, the movie has enjoyed excellent ratings.

I’ll start my analysis by considering what was handled well. At the outset of the movie, a dream informs us of the nascent precognition of young Paul Atreides. (See the link below for my comment about this psychic ability in Foundation.) The role of House Atreides in the Landsraad and the empire’s politics; the function of the Bene Gesserit and their litany against fear; the Fremen on Arrakis (aka Dune) and their stillsuits; and the Kwisatz Haderach messiah — all are explained clearly without the need for “information dumping”.

However, the CHOAM trading company that manages the spice monopoly is completely omitted. And the Spacing Guild is mentioned only vaguely: who operates those giant vessels that each contain numerous spaceships? We only know that the spice is essential to their navigation.

And there is nothing about Mentats, even though Thufir Hawat trained Paul in their skills to complement the Bene Gesserit training his mother gave him. Thufir himself is presented merely as a major domo in charge of organizing the palace and keeping track of expenses, while his evil counterpart Piter De Vries seems to do little more than negotiate with a Sardaukar commander.

Considering how complex the story is, I can understand that Villeneuve had to make some tough choices, even after the film’s unusual length (though not as long as Titanic or even Meet Joe Black) was supported by Warner and Legendary. For example, he could have just tagged the Sardaukar as “bloodthirsty warriors” in dialog, but instead he spent minutes showing them being “blessed” with blood drained from ritually killed human beings.

If I recall correctly, Herbert himself simply tagged Dr. Yueh as a Suk doctor, dumping the info that “imperial conditioning” programmed him to “do no harm” (as the Hippocratic Oath states) but Baron Harkonnen found a way to undermine that. So all we see in the Villeneuve movie is a doctor trusted by the Atreides family who betrays the Duke but provides a means for his wife and son to survive. His mixed loyalties are confusing, but they fit the flow of the story.

Duncan Idaho is portrayed heroically, with Paul only gushing twice “Hey, there’s Duncan!” before the swordsman’s third arrival occurs as an actual rescue. However, Herbert’s clever twist on combat — only the slow movement can penetrate a shield — devolves quickly after the initial sparring between Paul and Gurney Halleck. In the battle scenes, we see flashes of red to indicate kills amidst the repeated flashes of blue that indicate repulsion by a shield. But all of Duncan’s movements are rapid, so the color coding seems meaningless after a while.

Leto Atreides is as noble a duke as any who have been fictional characters. We hear him regret that he never married Jessica, but we don’t hear his reason for perpetuating her concubine status, even though it is a key part of imperial politics (he wanted to keep open his option to marry into the emperor’s family). This complexity is hinted when Paul tells his mother and Liet-Kynes that he could save Arrakis by marrying the emperor’s daughter, but only people who have read the novel will fully appreciate Paul’s context.

Now we come to Lady Jessica, whose portrayal in the film focuses most of the distortions that Villeneuve imposed on the novel. A specific distortion occurs when her mentor Reverend Mother Helen accuses her of egotistically thinking that she could bear the Kwisatz Haderach. The audience is led to believe that this is the reason she had a son instead of the daughter that the Bene Gesserit breeding program had commanded her to conceive. Helen also reminds Jessica that “there are other candidates” if Paul should fail.

Both of the Reverend Mother’s assertions are in complete opposition to the story Herbert created in his novel. First, the Bene Gesserit eugenics program was a focused attempt to combine desirable traits across generations, with the specific goal of creating the optimal set needed for the Kwisatz Haderach. Herbert indicates that Paul came a generation earlier than expected. There is no parallel bloodline of “other candidates” who currently have alternative sets of traits that could succeed.

Second, in the novel, Jessica responds to the accusation of disobeying orders by saying that Leto deeply wanted a son. Her deviation from the Bene Gesserit manipulation was out of love for her husband, not an egotistical wish to be the mother of a messiah.

More generally, the 2021 movie portrays zero sexual attraction between Jessica and Leto. The only time we see them in bed is when he is tired from dealing with political machinations and she massages his forehead! In contrast, the novel contains a touching scene of their last night on Caladan, where she says she will miss their watery home planet and later conceives a daughter while making love with her husband. In the movie, the info that she is pregnant is dumped as one of Paul’s mysterious insights. There is no hint that romantic love produced the pregnancy.

In the novel, Herbert makes it clear that using sex for manipulation is an important skill of the Bene Gesserit. When Jessica uses the Voice to effect an escape after she and Paul are kidnapped, she speaks innuendo instead of raw commands, saying something like “There is no need to fight over me” which is pitched in such a way that their lustful captors do fight over her and kill each other. However, Villeneuve prefers the tiresome “kickass woman” stereotype who cuts their throats herself instead of applying subtler Bene Gesserit skills.

If you’ve seen Rebecca Ferguson as the sexy spy in Mission Impossible or the vampire in Doctor Sleep (sequel to The Shining), you know she can be seductive for good ends or bad. Villeneuve seriously limited her repertoire by concocting a fierce mother whose only passion is for her child. We see that she can feel her son’s pain intensely when he is tested by the Reverend Mother. But we see nothing of her love for Leto. Her grief at his death is overshadowed by her shock at the city’s destruction.

Omitting the reason for her remaining a concubine implies that Leto doesn’t appreciate her. This distortion of the story obliterates the couple’s passionate love for each other that was portrayed clearly by Herbert. In the novel, it is the finality of separation from his wife that makes Leto cry before he dies biting the false tooth that contains poison intended for his enemy Harkonnen.

In conclusion, I want to contrast the new Dune with the contemporaneous Foundation, now that I’ve seen both. One important difference involves their current formats. Dune is a feature-length movie, which generally requires a single main plot that ends with finality or else has a cliffhanger. Foundation is a TV series, which nowadays relies heavily on character development to maintain audience loyalty, but also permits multiple subplots to be explored by scriptwriters.

Perhaps the complementarity can best be expressed as follows. Isaac Asimov based his novels on ideas about the grand sweep of history without developing the characters much, but the Foundation TV series necessarily focuses on characters, some of whom showrunner David Goyer over-developed and hyped. In contrast, Herbert imagined organizations like the Bene Gesserit and then developed individual characters who were not mere stereotypes of their groups, but director Villeneuve limited the characterizations in order to present the drama and action expected of a movie.

Personally, I loved reading Foundation but I found Dune to be a clumsy hodge-podge of superficial spirituality (at least Villeneuve had the good sense to eliminate nonsense like Zen-Sunni warriors). However, my preferences reversed for the screen portrayals: Foundation was passable but confusing, while Dune is truly enjoyable. I hope Villeneuve will portray some passion in the Paul-Chani romance during Part 2.

Link to my preceding blog essay:
I mentioned that the “mentalic” skill in Asimov’s novels was telepathy, but Goyer changed it to precognition to support his Dune-like conceptualization of the main Foundation character as a genetic freak and savior. Herbert clearly said he had been influenced by Asimov, not the other way around. But the screen versions suggest that the original (Foundation) is now imitating the imitation (Dune).

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