Dune is perhaps my favorite book. I have read Frank Herbert’s Dune at least 5 times. I have read all of Herbert’s Dune books and most of the new books from his son Brian and collaborator Kevin J. Andersen.
I have also watched David Lynch’s Dune many times. There is much I like about the quirkiness of the film that delivers a very visual translation of Herbert’s world—without pulling punches. The Baron, for instance, is as disgusting as described, perhaps more so to really bring home the ooze into repulsive.
Lynch also made the point of making the plot, and the plots with it, transparent from the start. After the opening scene, we distrust the Emperor and know exactly what is to come, at least from him and the Harkonnens.
The special effects were what they were for the time. Seeing the Spacing Guide Navigator so early was a special treat, given the secrecy surrounding their evolution in the book.
I also enjoyed the Sc-Fi Channel take (now SyFy) on Dune and its successors. Its script was much more inclusive than Villeneuve’s treatment.
Beyond the Dune’s that were produced, I also watched the documentary of Jodorowsky’s trippy vision that would certainly have linked Dune forever to a time despite Jodorowsky’s transcendent ambitions (more about Jodorowsky’s Dune here).
Villeneuve’s Dune had the advantage of these existing properties, as well as the technical innovations of the ensuing decades. He made a different Dune, but I’m not sure he made a better Dune.
The new Dune runs to the cryptic, with things seen that only those who have read the books will understand. My daughter wasn’t sure why there was a bull’s head on a wall. Her first internal question was, “Is it going to talk?”
Dune is at minimum a beautiful film. But Dune’s beauty acts as a sheath for terror, and for transformation. Dune Part One focuses more on transition, not transformation.
I have recommended Dune to many people over the years. Some of the most ardent readers give up after one hundred pages. Others, usually Sci-Fi fans, push on to the finish, often enjoying the journey with the quip, “it was a slow start.”
And we have that with the new Dune as well. A slow start, and unfortunately, one sparse in detail about motivation, and quick to cut connective tissue. Atreides have enemies, but we don’t know why. Lynch made the Emperor’s plot clear very early as the Navigator forces disclosure. The audience is not left to guess.
In some ways, the timing of the Harkonnen invasion, which Herbert never solidifies to satisfaction in the books, seems too short in the film (but it always seems the new Atreides occupation is too short, at least in the SyFy version Rabban’s stupidity in showing the Baron’s cards precipitates an earlier invasion). The amount of effort to establish a new regime and then to return so quickly appears untenable. With the spice’s importance, however, perhaps neither time nor wealth matter, as long as the spice flows. The unfathomable cost of regime change is but a blip in the deep history of the universe. We learn little of the trust or regard of the betrayer of House Atreides, so experience little shock at that betrayal.
And even that blip is but a moment to the Freman who see in Paul and his mother the chance for another change, a prophecy seemingly planted by the Bene Gesserit—one they have manipulated genes to eventually fulfill.
But that is another story, a story for Dune Part Two. Part One leaves us as isolated in the desert as Paul and Jessica. The talk of prophecy swirls likes spice upon the winds, but it does not land.
Dune is a book about politics. It is a book about religion. It is a book about ecology and agriculture. It is a book about economics. A Dune film must be a visual feast, for sure, but it must also play the other notes, or the visuals fail to land. This Dune does not play enough through its possible other-selves.
Dune Part One may have ended where it did in service to budget, in service to future payoff—but it ended just at the point where the swirls of spice in the air begin to matter…and because we do see how they matter, the story leading to this point fails to deliver on its portent.
Night one of Dune Part One, no one knew if there would be a Dune Part Two. So being left adrift in the desert conveyed an abandonment. Dune is ultimately a book that places the events in its first half as a spinup to the payoff, events that scarcely matter in the long term as long as Paul and Jessica arrive on Arrakis and live. The first half of the book indoctrinates the reader in Arrakis.
Villeneuve did not invest enough to build a world beyond its visual dimensions. Whispers. Hints. Passing phrases, yes. These may feel like proper exposition, but they too drift in and drift out without touching the audience where they need to be touched. Seeing Dune Part One does not prepare the audience for Part Two. Paul steps into another world with his next step, the one right as titles role.
Readers of Dune know what is coming—and they will tell you it is the good part. But for the second half of Dune to be the good part, you have to crawl through the sand, climb rocks, and eventually find your attachments, hang your hat, adjust your stillsuit, shake the dust from your boots.
A book lets you do that. I’m not sure people unfamiliar with Dune will find time enough to breathe, or reason enough to reflect. By removing the density, Villeneuve makes Dune less a world to care for, and the characters less important, which makes any jeopardy or loss also less vital.
Those of us who know the books fill in what Villeneuve left out. We know the characters we love, and we know the characters we hate. We know the story trajectory even if the film builds a pathway full of potholes.
We can now create an Arrakis that feels like Dune, but I am afraid we have yet to find a way to tell Herbert’s story on film in a way that connects viewers to the desert planet, the universe in which it lives, or the characters that populate it. I find SyFy’s version the best narrative, and the most understandable of the attempts—and as the Reverend Mother might say, the most human.
- Included with HBOMax