[This review appeared on my blog earlier this week.]
For as long as we’ve been waiting for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, a period made even longer by the vicissitudes of the pandemic, one question, it seems, has occupied fandom: will they get it right? After two failed adaptations (two and a half if you include Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never-realized, and thus never disappointing, vision for the film), would Dune, a novel decreed “unadaptable” by some, finally get the cinematic treatment it deserved? David Lynch’s 1984 debacle was star-studded (Kyle MacLachlan! Patrick Stewart! Dean Stockwell! Brad Dourif! Virginia Madsen! Sting!) and visually lush, but also a cursed production that yielded an incomprehensible mess, so much so that the film has two versions, one bearing the infamous Alan Smithee credit because it was recut by the studio without Lynch’s input. (For the record, the Lynch version is better, though neither is what you might call “good”.) And then there’s the 2000 SyFy/Hallmark miniseries, more faithful to the book but hobbled by an indifferent cast, a shoestring budget, and most of all an unwillingness to dig very deep into the story that leaves it feeling entirely generic. (Nevertheless, this adaptation was the only one successful enough to have warranted further cinematic forays into the Dune canon, with 2003’s Children of Dune, which shares its parent show’s problems, but did at least introduce the world to James McAvoy.)
Most genre works don’t get one bite at the adaptation apple, much less two. To have had one failed adaptation might be thought of as a misfortune. Two—much less two adaptations as different from one another as Dune has had—starts to seem like something else. You start to wonder whether “unadaptable” is really a compliment, or whether it speaks to some fundamental flaw in the work, one that emerges when creators try to render it into a different medium.
Dune is a problem novel. I’ve read it several times since my teens, and each time I return to it, the experience is the same. I’m so wowed by the things about it that work—the richness of the world, the complexity of the plot, the strangeness of the underlying ideas—that I convince myself I must have misremembered, or misunderstood, the ones that don’t. Chiefly, the way that the novel fails to cohere, to come together into either triumph or tragedy, instead landing in an uncomfortable middle ground between the two. It wants to be both a deconstruction of the chosen one trope and a straight retelling of it, and ends up not quite succeeding at either. It wants us to notice that Paul Atreides is destiny’s pawn, wedded to a path that terrifies him, but which he is unable to change (unless he chooses to let his enemies kill him). But it also wants us to admire Paul, to see him as the uplifted man, humanity’s next step in evolution. That dissonance leaves the novel’s ending feeling jarring and unsatisfying. You’re not sure whether to be happy at Paul’s triumph, or horrified by what it has cost, and will go on to entail. It’s the Game of Thrones problem—it’s fun watching these interesting, larger than life characters play a lethal round of musical chairs, but when the music stops, you realize that they’re all as bad as each other, and that the people who truly deserved a happy ending weren’t even given a voice in the story.
(When you say this to fans of the series, they will often explain that the later books expand on all of these ideas. They will also immediately start arguing over which of the sequels are merely not as good as the original, which are total trash, and where the transition point is.)
It’s hard to tell whether Villeneuve’s attempt at Dune will be able to square this inconsistency in a satisfying way—one advantage of having delivered only the first half of the story, the one that is still relatively normal, and in which Paul’s future doesn’t loom quite as large. But one thing that seems clear, even halfway in, is that he is trying. For the first time, a script for Dune (credited to Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth) is changing the story. I don’t agree with all of those changes, but taken together, they give off the impression of a distinctive approach. A point of view.
You notice this almost immediately, when the opening voiceover is delivered not by Irulan (who doesn’t appear in this movie) but by Chani. It’s an elegant infodump, quickly getting through some of the central ideas of this universe (and also a way of giving superstar Zendaya, who otherwise spends the movie functioning mainly as the object of Paul’s gauzy fantasies, a bit of personality), and it gives us a perspective on the story that previous takes on it haven’t delivered. Through Chani’s eyes, the Atreides and the Harkonnens are both colonizers and oppressors. Her reaction to the turnaround in Arrakis’s stewardship is mainly curiosity, with a few faint stirrings of hope. Even once the point of view switches to the novel’s main characters, Dune is careful to interject with small moments and line readings that make it clear how obtuse and thoughtlessly condescending the attitude of the offworlders—even those who believe themselves sympathetic, like the Atreides—is towards the natives and their culture.
Even more interesting is the way the script foregrounds the complicated, disquieting nature of Paul’s destiny as the chosen one. Almost as soon as Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and Paul (Timothée Chalamet) arrive on Arrakis, she introduces him to the concept of the missionaria protectiva, the messianic mythology that previous Bene Gesserit have planted within the local culture, which he and she can plug into if the need arises. The events leading up to and immediately following the Atreides’ fall are reshuffled in order to introduce the concept of the galactic jihad, which other adaptations have shied away from. Paul’s first experience with spice, and his realization of what he is capable of under its influence, happens much earlier in the film than it does in the novel. This frees up space later on for a second vision, focused on Paul’s horror at the holy war that will be fought in his name. The film ends with Paul’s duel with the Fremen Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), with which he gains admittance to Fremen society and sets in motion his and Jessica’s acceptance as figures of prophecy. But whereas in the book, Paul approaches this fight in fear for his life, in the movie his fear is of something different. He realizes that killing Jamis will be the first step on the path that leads inexorably to the galactic jihad, and to so much more bloodshed. Fighting the duel means accepting that fate, because the only other alternative is death for him and Jessica.
(Sometimes, also, the changes that Villeneuve’s Dune makes are simply in service of delivering a more satisfying story. The novel sets up Duncan Idaho as an incredibly cool, charismatic fighter, then gives him an extremely forgettable death scene. The film beefs up his role considerably and has him die like a badass, a choice so obvious that it is mind-boggling that no previous adaptation has made it.)
The overall effect of these changes is to make Dune a Paul movie, above and beyond his central importance to the original novel. It’s his perspective that dominates, even in scenes that in the novel were intended to highlight other characters—moving his first spice vision to the spice harvester rescue scene, for example, frees up real estate later in the movie; but it also downplays the scene’s significance in the novel, where it showcases Duke Leto’s fundamental decency and sense of responsibility towards others, and how that shocks the people on Arrakis who were accustomed to Harkonnen cruelty. Other characters are viewed primarily through Paul’s emotional connection to them—his admiration for his father, mingled with a childish fear of not being able to live up to his expectations; his dependence on his mother, which shades into resentment as he grows to realize how much she has molded and manipulated him; his kid brother affection for Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), and half-peevish, half-respectful tolerance of Gurney Halleck’s (Josh Brolin) training, even as the older men start to make room for him as their future Duke. All of these dynamics were present in the novel, but in Villeneuve’s Dune they dominate, giving the story a familiar (and effective) coming of age structure.
There are, of course, trade-offs to this subtle reshaping, especially in the first half of Dune, which in the novel is largely a palace intrigue of which Paul is only dimly aware. Duncan and Gurney loom large in this version of the story because they are important to Paul, but their roles as advisors to Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), and their relationships with him and each other, are downplayed. For the same reason, one assumes, Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen) are barely present in film’s earlier scenes, which means that the spy subplot, so central to the buildup to the Atreides’ fall, is all but absent from this version of the story (one wonders how audiences who haven’t read the book will react to Yueh’s betrayal, which to me seemed to come out of nowhere).
Most crucially, this version of the story massively shortchanges Jessica, reducing her to tearful reaction shots, and eventually, to following her son’s lead. Gone are her soft power machinations upon arrival on Arrakis, trying to win hearts and minds. (In this version, it’s Paul who learns that the palace in Arrakeen contains a garden whose upkeep requires enough water to support hundreds of people.) Gone is the complexity of her relationship with Leto (it’s not until late in the movie that he even mentions that she is his concubine, not his wife, and the significance of that is left unexplored) including Gurney’s suspicion that she is the traitor. This Jessica is powerful—she still compels the Harkonnen soldiers to release her and Paul, and she still overpowers Stilgar (Javier Bardem) with ease—but she exists as an extension of her son, long before the point in the original story when she becomes this.
I say all this more in the spirit of observation than critique. One advantage of facing up to the fact that Dune is such a flawed source material is that you can be a lot less precious about the changes that people make to it. It’s a shame that Villeneuve’s Dune underserves one of its most important female characters, but on the other hand this was never a feminist book—its core conceit, after all, is that an all-powerful order of witches is waiting for a man whose power will dwarf theirs; there’s not much you can do with that if you’re not willing to just tear it all down. Narrowing Dune‘s scope so that it becomes purely Paul’s story is perhaps not the most interesting choice its adaptors could make, but it is at least a choice, the one thing that previous attempts seemed terrified of. It gives the movie a shape and structure that help to overcome some of its inherent problems. Whether that approach will continue to work in the second half (and whether Villeneuve and his writers will be able to thread the needle that Frank Herbert and previous adaptations haven’t managed when it comes to the story’s ending) remains to be seen. But for the time being, the first part of Dune feels like a satisfying, coherent story.
If I have a complaint against Dune, it is not, or at least not to begin with, against the film’s adaptation choices, but against its visual choices. To be sure, in many ways this is a stunning film, full of grand vistas, striking tableaus, and pulse-pounding actions sequences. Some scenes, such the spice harvester rescue, the attack on the palace in Arrakeen, or even brief moments such as the Sardukar soldiers silently descending into the desert hideaway where Paul and Jessica are sheltering, are incredibly satisfying to watch. And, of course, the sandworms themselves are done justice, even if the full magnitude of them has yet to be revealed. But at some point you have to ask yourself whether what you’re looking at is good, or merely expensive (for that matter, whether the grandeur that the film conveys comes from Villeneuve’s visual choices, or from Hans Zimmer’s typically excellent score).
Dune is beautiful, but it’s not particularly interesting to look at. Its color palette is monochromatic, tending towards brown and grey. Its production design favors open vistas and cavernous halls over detailed ornamentation. Especially towards the end of the film—which drags out in search of an appropriate stopping point, seeming to end several times before it actually does—there doesn’t seem to be anything worth looking at. Eventually it becomes clear that all of the film’s stunning visual choices are riffs on images from previous adaptations and other stalwarts of genre filmmaking. Nothing here takes the top of your head off in the way that, say, the Pringles-shaped spaceships and circular writing in Arrival did. It is, instead, more reminiscent of Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which offered merely variations on the imagery established in the original Blade Runner—but with far less justification. It is ultimately hard not to conclude that Dune looks the way it does not out of artistic preference, but because that’s how prestigious, serious SF is “supposed” to look.
The more I think about this choice, the more it seems like one rooted in storytelling rather than aesthetics. Whatever other flaws his version of Dune possessed, David Lynch at least understood that it was a story that demanded ostentation and excess, not only in the courts of its aristocrats, but on Arrakis and among the Fremen as well. He understood that Dune is a fundamentally weird story. Villeneuve’s Dune seems to be working hard to expel all that weirdness, perhaps in the belief that it doesn’t suit its pretensions to serious science fiction. It’s notable, for example, that this version of the story all but omits the space guild, and certainly does not include the detail that its navigators are strange, barely-human creatures whom no one is permitted to see (it is for this reason, one assumes, that this is the first Dune adaptation that does not include the line “the spice must flow”). The Bene Gesserit’s quest for the Kwisatz Haderach, and their fear of creating an abomination along the way, are similarly downplayed, with the Gom Jabbar scene feeling almost like an afterthought, its importance to Paul, Jessica and Reverend Mother drowned out by the rush of political events.
What Villeneuve has produced is Dune, by way of Game of Thrones. And the price of that transformation is the paring away all those aspects of the story that don’t revolve around diplomacy, realpolitik, and war. Paul’s vision of the galactic jihad can stay, because the idea that deposed princes are in a zero-sum game where their choices are either to commit to endless bloodshed or roll over and die fits perfectly with these concerns. So can a grim acknowledgement of the missionaria protectiva. Or the harrowing depiction of rows upon rows of Imperial Sardukar, swearing mindless loyalty to the emperor (a scene that felt so reminiscent of Game of Thrones‘s Unsullied that I can’t believe it isn’t a deliberate reference). But Dune isn’t merely a novel of politics—if it were, it would be less weird, and less challenging to adapt. I’m a little skeptical that Villeneuve’s approach will be able to accommodate things like the sandworm’s life cycle, Jessica’s vision quest, Alia’s strangeness, or indeed large portions of Paul’s spiritual journey over the course of the second half of the novel.
Again, the end result of all this is an enjoyable version of the story, even if achieves that by narrowing its scope, recasting it in the form of another recent success story (one that, quite famously, failed to stick the landing). It’s entirely possible that this is the best we can hope for, that Dune is too messy and flawed to sustain any sort of adaptation except one that remakes it in another story’s form. I’m not such of a fan of the original novel that I can’t live with that version of the story. But I also can’t help but notice that it’s a version that follows closely the accepted, fashionable definition of what prestigious science fiction looks like, sounds like, and is about. So when critics dub this version of Dune, which excises most of the psychedelic and philosophical ideas at the heart of the novel, a grand work of mature SF, aren’t they just telling us that it hasn’t scared, challenged, or embarrassed them? That there was nothing in it that they found undignified or silly? (This question feels particularly apt when you consider that Dune‘s critique of imperialism is only micron-deep; as many critics have noted, depicting a Middle Eastern-inflected alien culture without casting a single Arab or North African actor is certainly a choice.) For many people, Villeneuve’s Dune will be the film that has gotten the novel right, but I think what it has actually done is find a right way to tell its story, without alienating audiences or embarrassing critics. That’s not nothing, but it’s not exactly Dune either.