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.