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The New Dune Is the Adaptation Frank Herbert’s Novel Deserves

Denis Villeneuve’s film makes the complex world of “Dune” comprehensible through stunning visuals.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of people who are going to see Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Dune, which will finally be in theaters next week following a grueling pandemic-driven delay: general audiences looking for an epic sci-fi blockbuster, and fans of the classic 1965 Frank Herbert novel, on which the film is based. This dichotomy also extends to reviews of the film; how a critic feels about Dune will depend significantly on how familiar they are with the source material. As someone who has read Dune at least a dozen times and seen David Lynch’s deeply flawed but compellingly bizarre 1984 adaptation roughly as many, it’s obvious which camp I fall into. I can only speculate on whether Villeneuve’s Dune will make sense to newcomers, but for the many fans, Villeneuve has delivered the version of Dune long prophesied.

Prophecy, of course, is a central theme of Dune, and a good litmus test for whether any adaptation of the novel succeeds is whether it reflects what Herbert was trying to convey about the risks of prescience, messianic supermen, and religiously ordained leadership. In a 1980 essay on the origins of his masterpiece, Herbert repeatedly emphasized these dangers. “Don’t give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to be,” he wrote. “Beneath the hero’s facade you will find a human being who makes human mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand scale available to a superhero.”

The ostensible superhero of Dune is first introduced to us as a 15-year-old boy named Paul, heir to the noble Atreides family and destined from birth to wield terrifying power. Over the course of the book, Paul’s father is murdered, and he flees to the remote reaches of the desert planet Arrakis, where he falls in with the planet’s native tribes, the Fremen, and eventually leads them on the backs of the planet’s enormous sandworms to defeat his mortal enemies, the Harkonnens, and to claim imperial rule over the known universe. A close reader of Dune (or a casual reader of Herbert’s five sequels) will absorb that Paul’s hero’s journey ends not with paradise but with a murderous interstellar jihad.

Lynch, who has disavowed his own adaptation and still hates to discuss it, missed this completely. The 1984 film ends with Kyle MacLachlan’s conventionally heroic Paul summoning rain from the heavens above Arrakis to shower upon his awestruck legions. Never mind that this isn’t a power Paul has in the book—and never mind that if it were, it would instantly kill the sandworms on which his political dominance rests—the real issue is that Lynch cast Paul as a literal messiah, which is a fundamental misreading of Herbert’s authorial intent.

Villeneuve, a true devotee of the book, does not repeat the same mistakes. No one is going to make it rain this time around, and the script repeatedly makes clear—as Herbert’s book did—that the religious beliefs that lead the Fremen to recognize Paul as a messianic figure are lies seeded by outsiders for the purpose of political manipulation. Paul—here played by Timothée Chalamet, who actually looks like a teenager—is callow, stubborn, argumentative, and possessed of a superficial idealism that can easily slide into cynicism. In short, he is a budding false messiah, and while Villeneuve has chosen to adapt only the first half of the novel (it remains uncertain whether the second half will be greenlit, though it would be criminal if it isn’t) in order to give all of its complexity room to breathe, it should already be clear to a careful viewer that things are not going to end happily ever after for Chalamet’s Paul, or for the universe he’s destined to conquer.

Let’s back up a bit. What exactly is Dune about? This is a dangerous question to ask a fan, but I’ll try to sum it up in two meaty paragraphs. Dune is set 10,191 years after the Butlerian Jihad, an event that itself takes place at some indeterminate point far into our future, in which humankind overthrows the “thinking machines” that will eventually enslave us (in a sense, Herbert predicted social media and the inevitable backlash against it) and develop a galactic imperium without computers or robots. Instead, human minds will be unlocked and made to serve the functions of computers through a combination of mysticism, intensive training, eugenics, and above all, psychoactive drugs.

The most powerful such drug, the spice melange, is mined only on the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, a harsh desert world with no surface water, roamed by giant killer sandworms and populated by the spartan Fremen tribes. The spice is highly addictive, and ingesting it can extend life, stimulate prescient visions, and enable interstellar navigation. It empowers a secretive male order called the Spacing Guild to monopolize space travel and also empowers a secretive female order called the Bene Gesserit to manipulate elite bloodlines in a millennia-long quest to engineer a male superbeing, the Kwisatz Haderach, who can see through time and space. While these two orders wield influence behind the scenes, ostensibly the universe is run on a feudal model by a league of Great Houses dominated by one Emperor with the power to assign planetary fiefdoms. The novel begins when the extremely lucrative fiefdom of Arrakis, which allows for control of spice production, is transferred from the vile House Harkonnen to the noble House Atreides, which we quickly come to realize is walking into a death trap set by the Emperor. When that trap is sprung, what will become of young Paul Atreides, who may also be the final product of the ancient Bene Gesserit breeding scheme?

That’s an awful lot more complicated than “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” and for years Dune was widely understood to be unfilmable, given the abortive effort by Alejandro Jodorowsky (which was never made but which became the subject of an entertaining documentary), the messy and commercially unsuccessful attempt by Lynch, and the competent but forgettable SyFy Channel miniseries released in 2000. “Unfilmable” is really the wrong word, though, since Herbert’s vision was always richly cinematic, and whatever else one wants to say about Lynch, he certainly orchestrated some memorable imagery. The open question is whether general audiences can ever make sense of such a richly imagined and politically, economically, ecologically, religiously, and morally layered fictional universe. I used to wonder that myself, but after the massive mainstream success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which is every bit as complex, it started to feel like Dune was due for another try.

Villeneuve, to his great credit, doesn’t hit audiences with dense paragraphs of exposition like those above. He understands that a successful film is one that transports us, and that with stunning visuals, a first-rate cast, and an economical script, we’ll come along for the ride without asking too many questions. The words “Butlerian Jihad” are never uttered in the film, because general audiences don’t need to know why the future is ruled by feudal houses or why there are no computers. They also don’t need to know, for instance, why the armies of the far future fight each other with knives instead of laser beams. Herbert has an answer (if a laser were to hit the personal energy shields that his belligerents typically wear, it would set off a nuclear blast, whereas slow-moving melee weapons can penetrate shields at close range), and Villeneuve knows what that answer is, but he’s less interested in telling us than in showing us what combat with knives and energy shields would actually look like (it would look sick). He also knows what an ornithopter should look like (it should look like a mechanical dragonfly the size of a military helicopter) and how many teeth a sandworm should have (a whole lot). He read the same book so many of us read, and he imagined everything exactly the way Herbert described it.

Herbert’s protagonists, many of whom possess heightened mental abilities, frequently think to themselves using italicized sentences like this, a device Lynch replicates with constant, dreary voiceovers. Villeneuve, rather than boring us with internal monologues, has his actors convey their inner thoughts through body language. At the same time, unlike Lynch, he depicts the various otherworldly forms of communication often referenced in the book, in particular forms of sign language (always subtitled) used to convey secret messages, or a wonderful scene in which a “cone of silence” is projected above several characters to drown out their voices to anyone standing outside, including the audience.

Villeneuve’s fealty to the core ideas of the book and to the unique textures of Herbert’s universe exceeds Lynch’s, but at the same time he takes many more liberties with Herbert’s infamously ponderous dialogue: Here, actors like Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, and Josh Brolin (who respectively play Duke Leto Atreides, Paul’s father, and the warriors Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, who serve as surrogate uncles to Paul) are given quippy, Hollywood-friendly lines. The trailers make this last feature seem like it might get annoying, but in the actual film, it serves to keep the audience grounded in an otherworldly universe.

One principal who is too dignified for one-liners is Paul’s mother, the Lady Jessica, played by a standout Rebecca Ferguson in what was always Dune’s most emotionally affecting character arc. From one of the very first scenes, Jessica instructs Paul throughout the film in the Bene Gesserit “weirding way,” which Lynch comprehensively misrepresents as something involving little Walkman-like devices that can blow things up, as opposed to what Herbert actually describes: pinpoint control over bodily reflexes, facial expressions, vocal pitches, and so on, enabling adherents to withstand intense pain, to master hand-to-hand combat, and to control other people with firmly voiced commands. Lynch doesn’t bother trying to capture any of this, but with the aid of his skilled cast, Villeneuve if anything does a better job with it than Herbert does with his sometimes labored exposition.

The feature of the novel that has held up worst, by far, is Herbert’s decision to emphasize the villainy of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (played here by Stellan Skarsgård in a fat suit) by making him a pederast who lusts after enslaved teenage boys, as well as his young nephew Feyd-Rautha (played in Lynch’s film by a codpiece-clad Sting and in Villeneuve’s by no one—he’s the only major character from the first half of the novel not to appear at all). Lynch faithfully recreated Herbert’s grotesque homophobia on screen, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. In our mercifully more sensitive times, Villeneuve has left out this aspect of the book and, in general, has given the Harkonnens less screen time than Lynch did—perhaps in recognition that their scenes were always a bit of misdirection. By portraying the Baron as obese, greedy, genocidal, and gay, Herbert was trying to contrast him with the kinder, gentler, and decidedly heterosexual Duke Leto, thereby misleading readers into expecting a crude good versus evil story.

But while the Harkonnens may lack redeeming qualities, the Atreides were never meant to be as straightforwardly benevolent as they initially come across, and Villeneuve grasps this. Early in the film, Chalamet’s Paul is critical of his own family’s quasi-liberal conceit that they can run Arrakis as an extractive colony without oppressing their Fremen subjects, and of the Bene Gesserit’s religious manipulations of those same subjects. But by the film’s end, Paul has decided to exploit the Fremen himself in order to enact his revenge on the Harkonnens and the Emperor, has personally killed one Fremen in combat, and has experienced prescient visions of the galactic-scale killing that will follow from his actions.

Dune will inevitably provoke online discourse about white savior narratives—think Lawrence of Arabia, Dances With Wolves, Avatar, and countless other films with at least superficial parallels to Herbert’s story. I’d argue that both Herbert’s novel and Villeneuve’s film subvert those racist clichés and that simplistic binaries between the implicitly Western (urbanized, sophisticated, exploitative) Great Houses and the implicitly Middle Eastern Fremen (noble desert savages) are undermined by the developed interiority of characters on both sides of the divide, the blurred ethnic and religious heritages of everyone in the Dune universe (which are reflected in the film’s diverse cast), and the underlying moral ambiguity of the entire story. Still, it’s impossible to adapt Dune without reopening these discussions, and whether Villeneuve treats them with appropriate sensitivity is something I’ll leave to others to debate for years to come. (Here’s a fascinating video lecture by the historian Daniel Immerwahr that delves into this aspect of Dune, among others.)

Even with two hours and 35 minutes to cover half of a 500-page novel, there’s only so much justice Villeneuve can do to Herbert’s vision. I had hoped that a classic dinner table scene full of palace intrigue that Lynch left out might make it to the screen, but no such luck. The book’s detailed planetary ecology, reflecting Herbert’s obsessive fascination with desert flora and fauna, receives less attention than it might have in our climate-conscious times. The metatextual aspect of Herbert’s novel, in which events are repeatedly described in hindsight by an in-universe narrator with her own political agenda, is entirely left out in favor of a more conventional narrative structure. But ultimately these are quibbles; Villeneuve has made a heartfelt cinematic epic that is true to its source material both in its rich details and in its emphasis on the dangers of absolute power; that will hopefully inspire new readers to delve into that source material; and that is worth donning a mask for a few hours to watch on a huge screen. Just pretend you’re wearing a stillsuit.