From Page To Screen: Dune by Frank Herbert

I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune once, when I was 8 and it was the only other English-language book in my grandparents’ house, after Robert Louis Stevenson’s far more age-appropriate Kidnapped. Dune left an indelible mark: I thought in terms of worm sign and the Weirding Way for years, even as I knew uneasily that there was stuff in that book that I was uncomfortable with but couldn’t quite elucidate. Since, you know, I was 8. It took my husband listening to the audiobook in the car several decades later for me to realize how weirdly misogynistic the book was; the overt white savior/noble savage tropes were, ofc, a nauseating given.

But it wasn’t until watching Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 movie adaptation that I realized one of my biggest problems with the book even as an 8 year-old. Pretty much the first thing out of my mouth as soon as the credits rolled to a close was, “Wow, they really did a good job of making Paul less of an insufferable brat!” I hadn’t even realized how much I’d subconsciously hated Paul till I said that! And the best thing? This is the first version of the story that has made me actually NOT hate him! Even the David Lynch version (that I watched as a tween) couldn’t salvage his character for me, and I LOVE Kyle MacLachlan. It didn’t help that Mr MacLachlan looked older at 24, when he filmed the Lynch version, than Timothee Chalamet, star of the latest film, does at the same age. Mr MacLachlan looked like the grown ass man he was, which made his angst tedious at best. Mr Chalamet, on the other hand, believably looks like a teenager who, as Mr Villeneuve cleverly positions him, is Going Through Some Things.

I also hated that the Lynch version made Jessica look annoyingly passive compared to how kick-ass she was in the book, a trait that Mr Villeneuve thankfully restores in his movie. The Lynch version only doubled down on the text’s inherent misogyny by erasing the heroics of its main female character. And in fairness, Mr Lynch disavows his film, which was heavily edited by Dino de Laurentiis anyway. I’m not accusing Mr Lynch of misogyny, but the choice to erase so much of Jessica’s story so they could fit everything into one movie was not a great one. Which is partly why I’m so glad they’ve broken this adaptation into two parts. Some of my friends may grumble, but it’s really the best choice for this sprawling epic story.

For those of you unfamiliar with the novel, the plot is basically thus: the Emperor wants House Atreides to take over the administration of the planet Arrakis — a desert world called Dune — from the brutal House Harkonnen. Arrakis is the only planet that produces Spice/Melange, a health-giving drug that allows for space navigation. It becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that this gift is a trap, as the Emperor worries that the growing popularity of Duke Leto Atreides jeopardizes his own position.

So off goes the Duke (played by the effortlessly hunky Oscar Isaac) with his concubine Lady Jessica and their teenage son Paul. Arrakis is a far cry from their home planet of Caladan (think the highlands of Scotland) but Leto is ready to give it the old college try, till treachery sends Jessica and Paul running into the desert, desperately searching for the native Fremen who might give them shelter. For the Fremen have a prophecy of a leader who will come to lead them to the promised land, and due to the genetic and sociological meddling of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood to which Jessica belongs, that savior just might be Paul.

I cannot stress enough how likeable Paul is here compared to the book. When he’s an asshole to his Mom, I actually empathized instead of rolling my eyes, and this is very much due to Mr Villeneuve’s narrative choices, limiting Paul’s brattiness to one understandably emotional outburst. We’ll have to see how that goes in the next movie, as Paul and Jessica, played by the brilliant Rebecca Ferguson, continue to clash in the narrative. I also greatly appreciated the director’s quiet feminism, gender-bending the role of Dr Kynes and unfussily adding plentiful female soldiers and commanders to the Atreides army, indirectly implying too that this is part of the reason for their formidable reputation.

But by far my favorite part of the movie was Jason Momoa making me finally understand why Duncan Idaho was considered such a rolling badass. There was a great tweet about Mr Momoa’s acting specialty essentially being the ability to play the raddest dude ever, and nowhere is this better displayed than in this movie. Tho I do think it’s silly when people lament that he has the only joke in the script. I burst out laughing when Leto asks Jessica whether she’ll protect Paul not as a mother but as a Bene Gesserit, and she went from fierce protector to shifty-eyed deflector in an instant. Tho I guess that wasn’t meant to be a joke?

The only thing I didn’t care for in the movie — and I’m not sure that this is entirely its own fault — was the questionable engineering on some of the vehicles on Arrakis. I was already side-eyeing the viability of the thopters, tho at least Paul’s Jesus-take-the-wheel moment made some sense compared to other pop culture equivalents (looking at you, Carrie “I’m-gonna-get-some-dumbasses-killed” Underwood.) I just could not comprehend the staggering deficiency of engineering safety in the spice harvester carriers. One tether fails, and sorry, you’re all dead? Gtfoh. Also, the sandworms didn’t seem segmented enough but that could definitely just be me.

Overall, this was a really good, dare I say great adaptation of a notoriously difficult book, and one in which I didn’t want to punch any of the main characters for being irritatingly idiotic. I’m definitely looking forward to the next movie with great anticipation as, I believe, is Doug, who got to see the movie much earlier than I did and reviewed it here.

Dune by Frank Herbert was first published August 1965 by Chilton Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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