(Double) Weekly Roundup: Dune For Dummies Edition

Long-time readers of this site know that the mythology and cultural detritus of the Dune novels have littered my writing for the best part of two decades now. Unfortunately some of my favorite Dune-related content had to be deleted from Riverside Green during the Time Of The Great Whining To My Employer About Mean Website Articles last year. That’s okay because you can find much of it told somewhat more coherently on Scott Locklin’s site.

There is something about Dune and its sequels that has proven magnetic to the disaffected-individualist-intellectual typa dude again and again since 1965. We called President Trump the “God Emperor” in ironic homage to Leto II, the tragic hero of the fourth book in the series. (In hindsight, we can see that Trump was more like Paul Atreides, who unleashed a jihad then ran into the desert rather than live with the consequences of his actions, but no matter.) During my two decades in tech contracting, I often referred to some enthusiastic but misguided colleague as having “put himself in the way of the Harkonnen fist” and this phrasing never failed to elicit a knowing smile in the nerds around me.

Recently I compelled my twelve-year-old son to put his metaphorical hand in the metaphorical gom-jabbar painbox by making the completion of Dune a condition for the arrival of a new airsoft gun. He’s cheating my directive a bit by listening to the audiobook more than reading the actual pages, but it’s still been tough going for him. So I took him to the theater to see the new Dune movie, figuring it would whet his appetite to pick up the book and see how it all ends. In this attempt, I was successful, much like Miles Teg negotiating the Bene Gesserit forces out of yet another deadly confrontation, or perhaps the Grand Honored Matre forcing a Futar to do her bidding. (You haven’t read Chapterhouse:DUNE? Shame on you!)

My hopes were fairly low, as Dune is one of those books that seems designed to elude a competent film adaptation. This 2021 release, which covers the first half of the first book, is the third complete attempt to tell at least some of Frank Herbert’s story, following the infamous 1984 David Lynch film and the Sci-Fi mini-series. (A moment of silence for Alejandro Jodorowsky and his attempt to make a 14-hour Dune movie.) It’s received generally positive reviews, but that means very little in a world where most film critics are motivated almost entirely by considerations of culture and politics. What follows is a brief review from the perspective of a lifelong Dune fan and compulsive re-reader of the series.

Obviously, there are spoilers ahead, for a 1965 book and its kinda-sorta-faithful adaptation.

As you’d expect, this is the best attempt yet to put the visual language of Dune on a screen. Almost nothing looks obviously fake or green-screened. Not only are the scenes from the book rendered in convincing style, there are plenty of well-thought-out shots that aren’t described (or are not described completely) in Herbert’s original. We see the “lasguns” and a lot of orbital bombardment. (The atomic reaction of lasgun and shield is never mentioned or shown, which is no great loss as it’s one of the less compelling parts of the Dune universe.) About the only serious objection I had to the look and feel of the film was the odd depiction of Arrakeen, which is rendered as a completely monochrome, low-pixel town about the size of Powell, Ohio with a Blade Runner pyramid overlooking the whole thing. This is stupid. Arrakeen is meant to be the size of Washington DC or thereabouts, and from the air it wouldn’t look like a brown version of the original Death Star surface models.

Much electronic ink has already been spilled about the Diversity-Inclusion-Equity casting strategy. Obviously the original Dune is a straight fight between two literally Caucasian races: the Russians (who appear as Harkonnens, Corrinos, et al) and the Afghans (who are the Fremen), with the Greek Atreides caught in the middle. It would be nice to respect the author’s original vision, but this is 2021 and such considerations must yield to the Harkonnen fist of identity politics. I don’t think it does any harm to have Black Fremen or Black Imperial Heralds, and it’s nice for young Black kids to see themselves represented on screen.

That being said, the casting of Imperial Planetologist Kynes as a Black woman seems a bit… off, particularly since Kynes is rewritten to be a fairly recent arrival to Arrakis. The Kynes of the book inherited the job from his father, who had been resident on Dune at the time of Kynes’ birth. We are also told that Kynes is a trained killer who has slain a hundred Harkonnens in battle. Movie Kynes, by contrast, appears terrified of everything, when she isn’t being Deliberately Sassy. And she gets killed by a couple of Sardaukar when she is in what Jeff Cooper would have called “Condition White”. (More information on that here.) Her motives are inscrutable, perhaps because Sharon Duncan-Brewster, the actress who plays Kynes, apparently has a grand total of three facial expressions available to her and two of those are Put-Upon Woman Of Color.

More casting complaints: Oscar Isaac is a delightful actor but he will never be mistaken for the noble and haughty Duke Leto Atreides. Jason Momoa comes across as a buffoon who is possibly high or drunk for the whole movie. Josh Brolin would have made a better Duncan Idaho than he does a Gurney Halleck. Rebecca Ferguson, who plays the Lady Jessica, isn’t tall or beautiful enough to play the role and she spends the whole movie in tears, which is kind of odds with the idea of the Bene Gesserit as trained killer. “Zendaya” as Chani? Not even close. Javier Bardem as Stilgar is either channeling Benicio del Toro or just collecting a check, it’s hard to say which. It’s hard not to imagine this as a much better film with the cast of the 1984 movie.

While the plot is fairly faithful to the book, most of the dialogue is rewritten. I can see the appeal of this when trying to reach a mainstream audience, as much of Herbert’s original dialogue is too obviously Comic Book Sci-Fi Nerd, but it’s not rewritten particularly well and that grates on me. Moreover, there are plenty of times when the original Herbert lines could have worked just fine. In particular, Stellan Skarsgard gets precisely none of the Baron Harkonnen’s great lines from the book. There are a few characters who have gone completely missing: Feyd-Rautha, Count Hasimir Fenring, and the Emperor Shaddam IV himself. If I had to guess, I’d say we will see two of three in the sequel. Count Fenring is too complicated a character to bring into a movie, and his pivotal plot point, when he refuses to kill Paul Atreides for the Emperor, would take far too much explaining. Just thinking about how one might put Fenring’s sympathies towards Paul into a book makes me think Jodorowsky would have needed more than fourteen hours after all.

(That being said, our modern “cuck culture” would probably dig the fact that Fenring is a genetic eunuch who has to allow his wife to be impregnated by Feyd-Rautha as part of the Bene Gesserit Plan, so maybe he should be in the movie after all.)

All things considered, this isn’t a bad attempt to tell the Dune story on screen and most people will find it more palatable than the David Lynch film or the cheap-looking Sci-Fi miniseries. (There’s one area where the Sci-Fi series is far superior, and you can figure it out by Googling “Barbora Kodetová topless dune”, should your workplace and/or spouse permit.) But Dune was never really meant to be filmed. It’s primarily a book of inner monologue, salted liberally with exhaustive descriptions of fictional ecology. Consider the scene of Paul’s first state dinner in Arrakeen; it’s omitted from this film, but it’s a source of great joy to readers of the book, largely because there’s so much information, so much subtlety, so many wheels-within-wheels. You can’t put that on film; it doesn’t work. Video is a great medium for everything from auto racing to pornography but it’s unsubtle and stupid by its very nature. It can only show; it cannot tell, and it can never explain anything more complicated than a cellphone screen replacement.

I hope that the new movie, which is available both in theatres and on HBO, encourages people to read the Dune books for themselves. Should they do so, they will find that Herbert’s original work is difficult, occasionally tedious, often preachy, and sometimes so drastically short on human understanding as to stagger the mind of any man over the age of fourteen — but it tackles massive, fascinating issues in studious and thorough fashion. It will even teach you how to think a little bit; who among Dune readers didn’t devote at least a little contemplation after the fact to the notion of “true humans” or the Litany Against Fear? As a movie, Dune is good enough — but the books are truly great. If you want a defining metaphor for our society’s degradation into a nightmare of empty store shelves, street violence, and drooling devotion to the mobile screen, then the hollowing-out of Dune the book into Dune the movie is a good place to start. Two out of four stars, recommended for twelve-year-old boys and anyone who has ever wanted to see a Guild Heighliner.

* * *

For Hagerty, I discussed truck rentals and a Vegas encounter with Arcimoto. I reviewed a Nissan Titan and I wrote about an alternate-universe Lincoln Blackwood.

60 Replies to “(Double) Weekly Roundup: Dune For Dummies Edition”

  1. Scout_Number_4

    Dune dummy, here. Always meant to read these novels, but never got around to it. Too easily distracted by non-fiction and shorter sci-fi commitments like Arthur C Clarke‘s Rama series. Now that there is another attempt at a film (without Sting), I feel I must finally get down to reading these fine pieces of work.

    • Tyler

      I read the first book recently, also going in cold. It’s surprisingly fast-paced, basically like the last few chapters of Ender’s Game the whole way through. Herbert or his editor had the good sense to keep the chapters short and to put most of the world-building in the appendix. It’s almost an intensely serialized short fiction anthology by today’s Big Fat Fantasy standards. There’s way too much omniscient narrator A-HA I SEE IT ALL SO CLEARLY NOW where some human dialogue would do but it’s in service of the themes and it keeps things in gear.

      Maybe this is the too cool for school viewpoint and maybe, like Catcher in the Rye, it’s one of those books that can’t actually be digested by anybody older than 17, but I really just found Dune to be a good yarn.

    • Ice Age

      The thing that always got me about Clarke was that he said that, “If a scientist says something is impossible, he’s almost certainly wrong.”

      And then he continually pushed the idea that FTL travel is impossible.

  2. hank chinaski

    The Arcimoto is peak boomer and sure to be a hit at The Villages’ key parties. A tailgate grill would be a popular option. The imaginary ‘Blackwood’ would seemingly do a better job as a workhorse than the real Titan.

    Being a different, and probably lower class of nerd, I held my nose at the character, plot and dialogue changes that Peter Jackson made but god damn if he didn’t pull off the settings and visuals like a boss. Fortunately made before DIE fully took hold, Amazon is apparently rectifying that mistake. /s How long until they race and gender swap ‘Downfall’? /s

  3. dejal

    Dave Bautista is enough to keep me away. The man doesn’t disagree, he hates if you don’t agree 100% with him. I don’t want to give him micropayments by seeing the movie.

    Hollywood made everything political and I’m not going to give someone a launching pad to hate me if I can help it.

    • Josh Howard

      That’s only partially true. It seems to me that Bautista and Pratt couldn’t be further from each other on the spectrum and yet they sound like they get along just fine. Bautista is playing Hollywood’s game currently. I have no doubt that he believes a ton of the garbage just the same way James Gunn does.

      It’s much easier to critique the art than it is to critique the actor IMO. Which is why I strongly believe in consuming art. You never actually KNOW the actor, but you can view the art and make future decisions about the quality of the art makers.

      Also: Most of his spats and most of these celebrity spats on twitter/insta are just fake posturing. Twitter and instagram isn’t real life.

      • dejal

        Sorry, they “Mass Media News and Entertainment” have beaten into my skull that everything has a message and everyone in media gets a stage to present it. The only way I can counter that is give them a Big F.U. and not watch.

        Wants and needs are 2 different things. If I need something and the only people I can get it from are people I don’t like, I still buy it, because I have a need for it. If I want something, I can defer a want forever. Entertainment is a want. I would go see this movie and it would be a grating experience.

        3 fine actors that I will never watch again. Alex Baldwin, Sean Penn + DeNiro. I think all are seriously talented. I think all are tools.

    • Jack Baruth Post author

      I don’t watch much in the way of movies and TV for this very reason. It’s all part of a machine that hates America and what it used to stand for. That being said, Bautista probably has a 95 IQ and has never formed an independent opinion in his life.

  4. Disinterested-Observer

    Don’t know or even care about Dune. Trucks (and cars, and everything else in an era of ‘0%’ inflation) are f’ing expensive.

  5. Disinterested-Observer

    Also (to paraphrase Junger); the fact that the proles’ staggering relative tax rates are subsidizing the purchase of cars that cost more than they could hope to earn in a year, by people who make more each year than they could hope to make in their lives, from a company worth more than the sum total of their class could hope to make in a thousand years, is so outrageous that it almost seems like there might be enough rope and lamp-posts to go around.

  6. Ken

    As per usual Jack – what I thought was going to be a quick read – has turned into this article, a simpson’s youtube video, several articles at Hagerty, further research into Dune (I read the 1st book per recommendations here), reading more about trucks, trying to understand the “system of awareness” – we’ll you get the idea.

    Anyway thanks.

    Also sorry to hear about your truck, but glad your wife is OK. Best of luck on the new rig and looking forward to hearing about it.

  7. silentsod

    I only ever read the first book. I’ve got it marked as “re-read” and I’ve carried it through 5-6 moves over the decades.

    Are the sequels worth reading or is it all lost after it gets picked up by other authors?

  8. Guns and Coffee

    I only read it once, so its affect on me was rather minimal. I remember liking it. The book occupies space in my small collection of sci-fi in my small collection of books. Time for a re-read.

  9. TL

    So is the Arcimoto officially a motorcycle or a neighborhood car according to the feds? I could see that being a critical distinction since it could dictate a helmet requirement in many states. Helmets are not something any of my elderly aunts living in retirement neighborhoods would be willing to endure. Far too much work went into making up their hair. Far less of a problem for my elderly uncles.

  10. Daniel J

    I enjoyed the movie for what it is: a movie. I get a little tired of all the comparisons from books to movies, it just gets old. It’s been years since I’ve read the books. I actually enjoyed the sci-fi miniseries far better than I did the original film, but I think it’s because I’m younger and think everything pre – 1990 looks like utter rubbish. The only actor that didn’t look stiff in the movie was Oscar Isaac though. I wonder if this is Denis Villeneuve’s M.O. though. Blade runner 2049, which I highly enjoyed, was much the same. Harrison Ford / Rick Deckard was the only character wasn’t too terribly stiff either.

  11. Will

    I don’t understand everyone’s obsession with this Zendaya chick…..is she the daughter of some famous person? She seems bland and boring.

    Also what happened to your motorcycle article with the Triumph, Z900rs and one other? Was curious to read that.

  12. stingray65

    DIE casting
    Smart, no-nonsense leader: moderately attractive black woman.
    Smart, no-nonsense 2nd in command: gay and/or physically handicapped male.
    Athletic, powerful soldier/enforcer for the good side: 105 lb. 5 foot 7 18-25 year old woman with perfect hair, skin, and nails, and nice boobs, who can chase down Usain Bolt, and beat Mike Tyson to a pulp.
    Comic Relief: white heterosexual male, preferably overweight and with double-digit IQ.

    Evil villain: white heterosexual male preferably with Russian or Redneck accent.

    Under no circumstances can any character who is evil or stupid be Chinese.

  13. ScottS

    I gave my giant screen TV away a couple of years ago and don’t miss it at all. I agree with dejal regarding giving my money to people that literally hate me. The last movie I watched at a theater was about a personal friend who was murdered by a PTSD former marine, and shamefully I haven’t read the Dune novels. Maybe I should change that over the holiday season.

  14. JMcG

    My sister just hit a deer in a Toyota Venza while doing 65 mph. The airbag somehow nearly severed her pinky. Surgery today and the doctor says she should have no long term problems.
    I was wandering around my local Ford dealer’s lot the other day while waiting for my wife to pick me up. They had a bright red ‘21 F150 XLT with the eco boost engine. MSRP was 54k. There were thousands of dollars of dealer installed “options” tagged on. 800.00 for a bed liner. 1400.00 for an exterior and exterior protectant, etc. The final non-negotiable total? 61,700 for a new, leftover crew cab F-150. With cloth.

  15. Mike

    Attempted the movie in High school- the 1984 version, obviously. I recall it being pokey and dull, but that was over 25 years ago. Never read the books, through I’ve almost survived the entire Douglass Adams collection intact. Perhaps if I ever find myself on an airplane again I might buy a copy of Dune to occupy the time.

  16. jers

    Jack, have you read the Expanse series? I’m interested in your thoughts if so. In my opinion it’s well written relatively hard sci-fi that’s intellectually engaging without being as inscrutable as Dune. Also … expert systems only, no AI, which I think you’d find refreshing.

    • dejal

      My personal opinion, the latest season was horrible. They had a decent ending at the gate and should have stopped right there. Or maybe give the Amos character his own spinoff.

    • Jack Baruth Post author

      I watched the show before I realized it was a book! Which makes me sad, because I always like to read the book first.

      • NoID

        Whenever I see a truly creative, intelligent series or movie, I assume it was a book or short story first.

        Whenever I see a terrible, trash young-adult TV or movie, I also assume it was a book first.

    • Ice Age

      I thought The Expanse was really well done, and then I realized something.

      As good as it is, it would’ve been positively amazing as animation, rather than live-action.

      Of course, I tend to think that about most TV shows made in the last 15 years.

  17. NoID

    Is there anything more satisfying than dropping some kind of literary, cinematic, or other reference in a professional setting and having someone catch it?

    • NoID

      Also, regarding AC120, sounds like you need a 2022 Ram 1500 with the seats from a Grand Wagoneer swapped in.

      I have noticed the large lots and fields full of chip-shorted build-and-hold Silverado and Sierra 2500 and 3500 trucks in and around my home city are starting to empty, so that’s another option for you.

    • marjanmm

      Jack, is Dune dearer to you than the Culture books?

      Taking this opportunity to thank you for introducing me, via an article on TTAC very long ago, to Consider Phlebas and the rest of Iain M Banks’ incomparable series.

      To answer the thread – yes – the anticipation of a new lover’s arrival.

      • Jack Baruth Post author

        What a painful question!

        If I could only save one series in some Library of Alexandria fire situation, it would have to be the Dune books. I think they are a greater achievement. However the Culture books are far more fun.

  18. DPS

    I watched it this weekend at home as a person who never heard of Dune and was pretty impressed with it cinematically. I’m hard to please when it comes to movies, but the optics provided a very authentic feel to what kind of universe they were trying to represent. Had just enough of a storyline to keep me intrigued but I have too much Nietzche and Hume to digest before I start reading into the book series. At 34 I’m unfortunately finding it harder and harder to read an actual book due to Audible : /

    • Jack Baruth Post author

      Bautista is 100% pro-pedophile. He probably cried when he heard Rosenbaum was killed before he could rape a sixth child under the age of 11.

    • Harry

      I was dumbfounded when I saw a headline “Only survivor of Rittenhouse massacre testifies today” or something very close that, it’s gone now.

      I hadn’t thought about it in weeks and had no idea what they were talking about. Apparently, the only survivor of those who caught bullets, because plenty of others were nearby and involved.

      In any other shooting everyone within an increasing radius dependant on some inscrutable calculus, one for privilege, one for being school age, is a survivor.

      Maybe the news I usually read is biased the other way, but hooray for due process. Obviously, it was incredibly stupid for a 17-year-old kid to take a rifle to a riot. But if he was going to go it would have been worse for him to not have it. Also dumb to bring a skateboard to a gun fight. Just a lot of stupid to go around.

      • hank chinaski

        Your trust in due process is horribly misplaced, as it never should have gotten this far and he is not out of the woods (at the least, jury intimidation is strongly suspected). He had a legal right to own that rifle, as do you, at least on paper. He had a legal right to defend his person from harm with lethal force, as do you, on paper. Any one of those thugs would have gleefully murdered him with his own weapon if given the chance. The message is: let them burn your home and business and let them injure and kill you and yours and do not dare raise a hand. Not only will ‘the Law’ do nothing to protect you, it will aid those who hate you. This was evident all summer.

        Rosenbaum was a broken, violent, psychopathic, child raping ex-con. If he deserves any sympathy whatsoever it’s that he was used cynically as cannon fodder by the other Antifa operatives behind him. Otherwise, he deserves his millstone, as Huber deserves his Darwin award.

        This situation wasn’t created by stupid but by evil. The State and Local governments and their partners in law enforcement in Kenosha, as elsewhere, *chose* to tolerate and foster lawlessness and to put their own citizens in harm’s way in a position to suffer loss of property, injury and death or be forced to rightfully defend themselves as Kyle did. After surviving his attackers, Kyle walked back to a secured line of dozens of riot-equipped police who were ‘just following orders’, doing what was in their interest…absolutely nothing (and who can blame them?). I’ve heard of only one lawmaker speak to this and she isn’t from the ‘GOP’.

        One could tick many boxes from this old rag regarding ‘due process’, but I’ll just pick these two as most relevant:
        ‘He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.’
        ‘He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us…’

        (apologies for the wall of text, coffee induced rant in a movie review)

  19. Ice Age

    Could never get into Dune. Mainly because every single thing I’ve ever seen about it, whether it be this most recent movie, or the 2000 miniseries, or the David Lynch film, was ugly. Ugly costumes, ugly technology, ugly ships, ugly environments, ugly characters.

    I saw the Lynch film on TV when I was a kid, before I ever had a chance to read the books. It killed any desire I had to get into the series. I don’t care how good it is.

  20. VTNoah

    Read the first three books in anticipation of the movie. I had been meaning to read Dune for some time and the movie was just the right motivator for me to pick them up. Going to start God Emperor shortly. The film was pretty good but I prefer Villeneuve’s other take on classic Sci-Fi… Blade Runner 2049.


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