Miscellanea: Reflections on the Sands of Dune (2021)

Since I finally got out to see Dune (2021), I wanted to take a chance to share some of my reflections on it and this week was a good time because I had nowhere near enough time otherwise to get the next Fortifications post ready. So first I want to give my own reaction to the film and then I want to talk in a bit more depth about some of the creative decisions it made.

So first: what did I think about the film. Well:

I liked it quite a lot. The adaptation is good (discussion on that below). The casting and direction come together really well; this is a film that relies on conveying a lot of meaning and emotion through glances and facial expressions, because these characters are all extremely guarded and careful about what they say, and so Villeneuve has to get these subtle but legible emotional beats out of his actor’s faces and he succeeds to a remarkable degree in my opinion. The soundtrack, well…Never before have I seen a Hans Zimmer so wielded; probably his best.

And the realization of the visuals, one of the greatest challenges in a science fiction work, is really very impressive. If Villeneuve can maintain this level of quality over however many movies they let him make, the resulting Dune series will rival Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings for the best speculative fiction film adaptation yet produced and you know from me that is very high praise.

So, Dune (2021) is very good, you should go see it. In particular, you should go see it on the biggest possible screen you can: this is a film made for the theater and the big screen (at least the first time) – the impact of the visuals is best when they are HUGE because their size is actually important for the tone and story.

Alright, now I want to dive in a bit more on two things I liked about the film, but I want here to draw the SPOILERS line because of course I am a book person, I know how this story ends and I want to be able to talk about it without having to worry about spoiling either the current movie or future movies for folks who are experiencing the story for the first time.

So, SPOILERS for a 56 year old novel lie ahead (probably). You have been warned!

BEGIN SPOILERS

Fidelity

One of the conversations about the film I found most interesting what the immediate praise for the film as a ‘faithful’ – or ‘the most faithful’ adaptation of Dune yet produced. And I thought this was interesting, because I agree but I think it requires an interesting understanding of what fidelity in adaptation means. In most cases when an adaptation is termed ‘faithful’ it is because it is, by and large, a scene-for-scene, line-by-line recreation of the original: the sort of film adaptation that 300 or Watchmen got, which practically recreates the panels stroke for stroke.

Dune (2021) is not that kind of faithful. There are a lot of changes, both subtle and major, to the narrative. The period on Caladan, extremely short in the books, is extended in the film to allow us more time to meet the Atreides and understand their world, which of course involves inventing new scenes out of whole cloth. At the same time, the period in Arrakeen is shortened, with entire plotlines being minimized or dropped (particularly most of the ‘who is the traitor!’ drama); the entire Arrakeen banquet – one of my favorite sequences from the books – is gone from this version. Some scenes are changed in subtle ways; the Arrakeen garden scene is substantially shifted around (though its meaning is preserved) and in other cases entire motifs (such as the repeated motif of the Atreides throwing out demeaning Harkonnen customs) are excised. Moreover, only a small portion of the book’s dialogue makes it into the film; I suspect the vast majority of lines are film-original (though part of this has to do with the book’s dialogue often being not well suited for film).

So why does everyone say that the film is faithful? Well on one level, it is visually faithful. The other two film adaptations of Dune, both the David Lynch movie (1984) and the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries saw at least some of the strange technologies of Dune and blanched. The miniseries turned ‘thopters into tilt-wing prop-aircraft, both films gave everyone guns to fight with rather than keeping with Dune‘s swords-and-energy-shields model of combat. Villeneuve is not so squeamish and uses the capabilities of modern CGI to render just about everything; I think the only odd technology that doesn’t get included is Yueh’s copy of the Orange Catholic Bible printed on filament paper (itself a bit of fantastic technology which is nevertheless treated as clearly very old by everyone, which is a wonderful bit of worldbuilding).

But I think there’s more than that: Villeneuve has aimed not to make a scene-for-scene recreation of Dune (though to be fair, some scenes are recreated almost exactly) but instead to capture the spirit of Dune. This is a hard thing to do; Villeneuve’s style of film-making prefers slow scenes with relatively little dialogue to give time for the visuals and the mood to set in. That style is executed very well here but it effectively requires changes because all of the meaning that in the book is carried by long explanatory dialogue about how the technologies and politics work has to be removed, otherwise the film would be ten years long. This is a film where having a character stop in place to spend 45 seconds explaining CHOAM would be very disruptive to the flow of the film (CHOAM itself is one of the cut elements, I believe we do not get any reference to them). That means nearly all of the dialogue in the books needs to either be completely ripped out or radically changed to fit the difference pace that characters deliver their dialogue. In a sense, then, the 2000 Miniseries is by far the more faithful adaptation because most scenes in that are drawn directly from the books (and for a viewer who just wants ‘the books, but as a stage play’, the miniseries is still closer to that).

But the 2021 film is, I think, the superior adaptation because it has translated the book into the conventions of the screen, taking things explained in dialogue and showing them to us or building them into the structure of scenes. And of course that kind of adaptation, changing the substance but keeping the spirit is extremely hard; the graveyard of bad adaptations is littered with writers and directors who thought they ‘knew better’ than the original and started changing things only to lose what made the original great. Villeneuve keeps his eyes squarely on the core spirit and themes of Dune and as a result, I’d argue, succeeds where many others failed: taking a nearly unfilmable, book-native story to the big screen, making all of the changes that requires, without losing what makes the original great.

This is an adaptation that is faithful, without being dogmatic.

But there is one point where i think Villeneuve has very strongly left his mark, although I think that for more careful readers of the book, this isn’t a betrayal of its spirit so much as a fulfillment of it.

Chani Speaks

This is, I’d argue, a ‘post colonial’ reading of Dune, though it achieves that without coming off as ‘preachy.’ That isn’t new to the text, mind you, the Fremen struggle against the Harkonnen already gives the original book an anti-colonial aspect to its narrative, but Villeneuve takes that aspect, sharpens it, cleans off some of the rust that the book’s framing creates and gets it to gleam. And he does it in the very first scene.

For those unfamiliar, in the novel, between each chapter there is a small inserted bit of ‘in-universe’ text. It is an inspired writing choice for a few reasons: it gives the author an opportunity to deliver straight exposition but because these little expository passages are supposedly from books written in this universe they also serve to display the sorts of concerns and thinking that the people, particularly the ruling class (that will matter in a moment) in this universe have. Moreover, nearly all of these passages are written by the Princess Irulan and this is also important; Irulan is a character who is going to be tremendously important to the resolution of the book but who does not appear ‘on stage’ until the last handful of pages. By having her be the author of these insert-passages, we ‘meet’ her throughout the book and so she is not at all unfamiliar when she arrives at the end; it doesn’t feel unearned at all. Instead we react with the delighted surprise of someone who didn’t think, at this point, that the narrator would ever be a character too, but there she is, playing her important yet very limited part.

Every film adaptation has struggled with Irulan as a result. You obviously cannot break up film scenes with short lectures in between each one the same way you can put short expository passages in between each chapter of a book; it would bore the audience and ruin the pacing. But there’s also a desire to introduce Irulan before the literal last scene. Every other adaptation has fallen on the same solution: make Irulan narrate the introduction (the miniseries also gives Irulan an entire subplot of her own, aimed at giving the audience a better sense of the galactic politics behind everything). That makes sense; it is the dogmatically faithful choice.

Villeneuve abandons that choice. Those opening moments are extremely powerful, they prime the audience in how they will understand everything that follows. Having Irulan as the narrator primes the audience to understand the conflict over Arrakis in the terms she does: this is a place that produces the all important spice and “who controls the Spice, controls the Universe.” It situates us in questions of galactic politics and capital-E Empire, directing us to think about the conflict in Arrakis as one primarily about whose vision of empire will triumph: the Atreides somewhat kinder vision, or the Harkonnen’s brutal one.

Instead, Villeneuve has Chani deliver the introduction, which serves to radically redefine the narrative. Chani provides much of the same backstory – the importance of spice, the brutal Harkonnnen rule, etc. – but her question is absolutely not ‘what will this mean for the Universe’ but rather, “who will our next oppressor be?” We then cut straight to Caladan to be shown the answer to her question and so in a sense, even though Chani isn’t much in the movie, the movie is fundamentally oriented, from the beginning, with her worldview and concerns (and I should note Chani also closes out the movie giving what is essentially her version (“This is only the beginning…”) of Irulan’s refrain from the Miniseries, “The Saga of Dune is far from over…”). I should also note, by the by, this line brilliantly responds to claims that Dune is a ‘white savior’ narrative; which I would argue it is not, if for no other reason than that Paul doesn’t really save anyone; Chani’s question is brutally apt: what is at issue here is who the Fremen’s next oppressor will be (book readers know that ultimately, it will be Leto, but not this Leto).

The film then backs up that choice by subtly shifting the framing of a few other scenes. The Herald of the Change serves as our introduction to imperial politics; the scene is a bit of extremely expensive but utterly pointless ceremony (entirely in keeping with the book’s portrayal of Shaddam Corrino’s priorities) which explains the structures of imperial politics without in any way getting us invested in them. We’re shown that Duke Leto is a fundamentally good man, though trapped in a role he never wanted (a point the book makes well but that the other two adaptations, I think, failed to adequately express: even Duke Leto is very jaded about the systems of power that he is a part of). And then we see House Atreides and here Villeneuve uses his budget well: we see just how almost absurdly militarized and necessarily paranoid they are.

The scene where the Atreides arrive on Arrakis is striking in this regard. First, the only thing they unload from their frigates are soldiers and weapons, because in the end that is all that the House Atreides is: an occupying force of soldiers and weapons. Moreover, while by thie point we’ve already grasped that Leto wants to be just and benevolent, we also see the mechanics of his power, that he rules over the kind of organization which activates body shields before stepping out onto the tarmac, because these guys can’t imagine being among their own civilians without the tools of violent superiority. The camera and the design (especially of the costumes) encourages us to view the Atreides from the outside: sure we know these are good people who will try to do right by the locals, but we see that they’re arriving in foreboding armor and black uniforms in giant flying death machines.

Bonus points for the CGI design team that got even the Atreides frigates to look fearsome and dangerous; I found myself wondering if this is how American aircraft carriers must feel to every other country. But that perspective shift is the point: to me, an American, seeing an aircraft carrier at dock is an exciting, happy opportunity; I am not afraid of it at all, but I have to imagine that experience must be very different in countries where that same mass of metal and technology might not be so friendly (I’m reminded here of the shifting attitudes about the ‘Houdini’ mines in Star Trek Deep Space Nine’s The Siege of AR-558 episode).

The same point is made by how the film treats the sense of distance around the Duke. Whereas other adaptations, the 2000 Miniseries in particular, uses the formality around the Duke mostly as an opportunity to show how Leto is a ‘good guy’ by letting him waive that formality, Villeneuve puts the emphasis on the barriers, not the momentary exceptions to them. Characters repeatedly approach Leto only to have half a dozen knives drawn on them instantly, a level of paranoia that is absolutely in keeping with the books but here serves to emphasize just how rough and unfriendly the Atreides must seem. The same goes for Gurney’s rough declaration to Stilgar about how he will address the Duke (which Stilgar responds to with a great, unstated, “yeah, sure buddy” face; really, honestly, the acting in this movie is stellar); this is not a man you can approach or have a friendly conversation with, this is a ruler who lives at a distance from even his soldiers, much less his people. And all of Leto’s good intentions can’t bridge that gap. Moreover Leto, being fully within his own culture, mostly doesn’t try: the rules of his society seem natural to him and while he will waive them when sensible, it doesn’t occur to him to try to do away with these structures of power which after all have existed effectively forever (the scene of the tombs of Caladan does a good job of driving home just how long these systems have existed; they are ultra-ultra-normalized).

This effort really pays off in the meeting between Stilgar and Leto. The other adaptations used this as an opportunity to show that Leto is ‘one of the good ones,’ but Villeneuve uses this scene more to characterize the divide between Stilgar and Leto (while not abandoning the characterization that Leto is trying to do his best inside this system but cannot see beyond it). Leto’s claim that he has been given Arrakis “as my fief, to rule” by the emperor falls utterly hollow given the framing the film has presented us with and Stilgar’s facial expression absolutely sells his ‘yeah, sure buddy, but we live here‘ silent response (but of course we can also understand why, for Leto, that statement feels so important: he is treating it as a sacred trust that he intends to execute to the best of his ability; what he intends as a statement of sincere goodwill sounds anything but to Stilgar – and us). The short negotiation to follows about Atreides passing through Fremen lands is great: both men present their positions, bound by the (sometimes unstated; Stilgar doesn’t say why he wants the Atreides to stay out of the deep desert, but book readers know it is the need to conceal the Fremen terraforming operation, the same reason why, as the Baron notes, Arrakis has no satellites) demands of their own people, honor and cultural expectations. The scene biases towards Stilgar visually too; we’re placed at his eye-level with the Duke towering above us; we empathize with Stilgar who has to deal with this foreign aristocrat who doesn’t understand anything and may well brutalize his people, but who he has to negotiate with because of the difference in their power, whereas other adaptations have asked us to empathize with the Duke trying his best to manage these ‘strange’ ‘natives.’

Again, I think these are threads that are present in the book (which has little love for the social system of the empire, the Faufreluches), but Villeneuve has pulled them together in an effort to create this post-colonial reading of Dune, not by preaching to us about the evils of imperialism but simply by turning the camera, as it were, and getting us to view the question from the Fremen point of view.

It is a powerfully effective shift in perspective.

Next week, time permitting, we’ll back to fortifications, looking at the evolution from Roman marching camps to the legionary fortresses of the late empire.

165 thoughts on “Miscellanea: Reflections on the Sands of Dune (2021)

  1. An interesting article. As a counter-argument, I’d like to offer for your consideration this piece: https://www.vulture.com/2021/10/dune-has-a-desert-problem.html
    Where the author argues the opposite – that Dune (2021) has carefully filed off the islamic themes and influence that was core to the original book resulting in a “decolonialized” reading that avoids all the people who have actually been involved and inspired the source.

    1. I wouldn’t call “Islamic themes” the focus of Herbert’s book. The Fremen are depicted as exotic: having them being “Zensunni” with a weird Eastern religion was a great way to do it in 1960’s, and Herbert’s idea of jihad was similarly weird: a racial drive for violent genetic mixture, something straight from Spengler’s and Toynbee’s theories of civilisations as organic entities, but little to do with actual Islamic theology. Fremen are about as Islamic as Shriners.

      Now, the same choice of terminology would paint Fremen directly as enemies, not just as exotic, so a sensible adaptation will not utilise the Islamic terminology.

        1. If anything, the book frequently quotes the Orange Catholic Bible. I read Dune a couple of times, sometimes focusing on a specific theme such as loyalty, and there are only vague shades of Islam and Arabs. The Fremen might as well be zoroastrian, followers of Ishtar or Bacchus. Probably the most distinctive thing is the Jihad.

      1. Having made my above post, I do agree that having a bunch of desert-dwelling Muslims launch a jihad that all of civilization is going to be seen in 2021 a little differently than in 1969. So it is to be expected that an adaption will tend to shy away from open Islamic depictions to some extent.

        People who worked with Americans in Afghanistan are being hunted down and shot in the name of Islam as we type. Bound to influence any audience members who remember that. Or at least some of them.

        1. Cogent points. Herbert is writing a philosophical novel, but its religious and philosophical commentary is not based primarily on Islamic thought but on a set of very typically Western ideas: the Bene Gesserit are an organisation that has few counterparts in Islamic world while it is quite familiar a play on Christian monasticism. (The sufi brotherhoods are a bit similar, but nowhere near as exclusive as the Bene Gesserit.) The Missionaria Protectiva and their interplay with Fremen native thought are a dramatization of Feuerbach’s and Durkheim’s ideas. The concept of kwisatch haderach has tones of Frazer’s Golden Bough. The planetological ideas are, to large extent, Herbert’s own, though. Nobody had made ecological sci-fi with same kind of monumentality before.

          Naturally, the themes discussed are such that anyone who has grown up in a monotheistic culture can relate to them, just like Thomas of Aquinas could use Avicenna as a source of inspiration. When you are discussing philosophically the nature of religion and collective religious experience, the particulars of the faith or confession are not particularly important.

          Making Fremen supporters of a foreign religion allowed Herbert to have a freer a hand than having Fremen to be e.g. an offshoot of, say, Baptism or Mormonism, but had little other impact on the story.

          1. Though I do note that there is a kind o fbackgorund theme of religious syncretism, not just Zensunni but also the Orange-Catholic Bible, which is taken from closer to home.

          2. Having just (re) read the book after seeing the movie, the Orange Catholics are explicitly not just a re-catholicism of christianity, but a merging of all extant religions of the time of the conference.

      2. That’s one jihad; the Butlerian Jihad (whatever exactly Herbert intended it to be, let alone what his son eventually concocted) may have been something else.

        I do think that the appetite to identify the analogies in speculative fiction can spur readers/critics to ignore obvious facts, so as you say, the Fremen aren’t really Arab (or Berber), their religion isn’t really Islam: all of this is quite explicit in the text and the appendices, which make clear that the cultural identifiers we know have been mixed and remixed through twenty thousand years of history to produce, by the events of Dune, something which seems to rhyme with what we know but is also definitely not actually what we know.

        The further point I want to make which is often not explicitly elucidated even when, as in the case of the Tor piece linked here, the writer is clearly aware of it, is that while the Fremen are culturally distinct in the world of Dune, their Muslimness is not what marks them as culturally distinct. The Fremen are bestowed with a diverse set of cultural references, most overtly (but not exclusively) alluding to desert (not always Muslim) and Muslim (not always desert) societies. But what’s important is that this statement is also true of the broader galactic society! The non-Fremen, dominant culture of the elites has a bunch of really obvious cultural allusions to European societies, but it also comes with its share of Muslim/desert connotations. Jihad, Kwisatz Haderach, kanly, kindjal … these are terms of the (ahem) Padishah Emperor on his Golden Lion Throne, the Bene Gesserit, the Landsraad and the faufreluches. The saturation of Muslim/desert allusions encompasses the entirety of the world building in Dune, not just the specific portrayal of the Fremen. (If you wanted to line things up in a real world sense, Fremen/Empire isn’t a conflict of Muslim vs. non-Muslim, it’s a conflict of desert nomad vs. Ottoman/Persian-inflected urbane luxury.)

        1. Yeah, “Padishah” is obviously ‘Persian’, you’ve got the Orange Catholic Bible (explicitly described in the text as some big ecumenical project), Zensunni faiths, other mixing. The kwisatz comes from Hebrew: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kefitzat_Haderech

          Despite having read Dune last week, I’m not sure if race is called out much. Leto is olive-skinned (I started making analogies between Leto and Jessica, and Bujold’s Aral and Cordelia; both Leto and Aral are very jaded about the systems they’re high up in, and related to the Emperor, both women are psychologists…) but the main Fremen marker I recall is the blue eyes of spice consumption.

          1. I flipped through it last week specifically looking for some of these details (so it wasn’t a careful/close reading). It’s a bit complex.

            On the one hand: while there are very few physical descriptions of a Fremen’s appearance, the ones that exist highlight language that Herbert *might* use to describe someone he imagines as looking Arab-ish (olive skin, sharp noses). On the other, as you point out, similar descriptions are applied to Leto. On a third hand, Leto is in some notional sense “Greek”, and on a fourth that’s ludicrous; I assume Herbert didn’t expect us to literally believe that the Atreides have accurately claimed their descent from the ancient House of Atreus.

            If we’re supposed to imagine that we can divine something about a person’s perceived ethnicity from their names and vocabulary, I note that Jamis’ widow, Harah, was first married to a man named Geoff, and it’s a minor plot point that if Piter de Vries acquired a crysknife, he could pass himself off as Fremen because he has the right eye color. There’s explicitly no physical distinction tied to the perception of identity between the Fremen and the non-Fremen Arrakeen locals (and we know that these populations in fact blend into one another), and there’s no mention I can find of physical distinction between Arrakeen society and off-world visitors (as at the dinner scene apparently excised from the new film).

            My suspicion is that when he wasn’t thinking directly about it, Herbert probably imagined Leto as looking southern European, Jessica as northern Euro, and the Fremen as Middle Eastern, but that when he was thinking directly about it he deliberately avoided trying to draw such distinct lines because, after all, why assume the same boundaries are relevant so far in the future?

          2. @medraut As I recall, when Alia is struggling with her ancestral memory later, one of them is Agamemnon.

          3. Jessica is red haired with green eyes. I don’t believe the Fremen are described at all. Given that they’ve been chased and shiped from planet to planet I would expect them to be extremely mixed.
            Duncan Idaho may look native American but most characters could be any race at all.

          4. “one of them is Agamemnon.”

            Realistically, by that point either everyone is descended from Agamemnon or no one is. Herbert probably didn’t know that, though.

      3. I took Dune’s treatment of religion as keeping that religion is important to the believers but regardless of doctrine. The two main religious references we get sound reasonable, but don’t make sense. Orange Catholics? The Orangemen of Ulster and Catholicism fusing together somehow isn’t just strange, it’s contradictory. The same thing is true of a fusion of Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam.

        1. That’s not what the Orange Catholic Bible is. It was the product of a big meeting of representatives from a huge variety of religions. It’s “catholic” in the original sense of the word: it’s universal. No idea why it’s called orange, but probably nothing to do with Ulster.

          As for Zensunni, in real life Catholicism and traditional West African religion merged multiple separate times in the Caribbean.

    2. I’m not taking any position in this debate, but maybe the reason for that is the current geopolitical situation, and the fact that the filmmakers were afraid that a Western audience would probably find difficult to support characters going on a Jihad, or using terms linked to Islam?

      1. Relevance?
        Yes, I’m sure the director stripped the novel of its arabic-ness for a reason, not just because they felt like it that day. That doesn’t change the fact that the story got safe-padded, every corner where the audience can potentially engage with ‘foreign’ thought and ideas filed and made palatable by being made neutral. And that the culture which served as the foundation of the novel got stripped out of it in the name of ‘respect’.

        1. The Fremen are equally characterized in other terms. Chakobsa, Sietch, Tabr all arise from Caucasian and Circassian cultures, rather than Arabic. They are, furthermore, not Muslim but Zensunni, the result of millennia of cultural and ethnic admixture. If I were shown to my own ancestors even near as distant, I’m sure they would find me poor representation of them as well. They, like the author of that article, would wonder what the hell my (US) accent was, not recognizably Brythonic, Germanic, Danish or even Norman. While they wouldn’t classify my appearance in terms of race, I would still look quite foreign to them, and my mannerisms would be beyond bizarre.

          No society that admixed, that far distant across time and space, can be mapped racially or culturally unless something has gone quite awry. One of the greatest flaws of sci-fi is that it often projects modern whiteness vastly too far into the future. I do not think, however, that the correction lies in giving other groups such unrealistic treatment. Villanueve’s Dune does one of the best jobs I’ve seen of showing what cultures might look like having past through the blender of millennia, rather than allegories for what they are now.

          1. >” One of the greatest flaws of sci-fi is that it often projects modern whiteness vastly too far into the future.”

            I find this to be a strange assertion. Have you tried reading sci-fi that isn’t made in America? Strugatski’s Noonverse, Oldie’s Oikumena, Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief, Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem, the works of Stanisław Lem? Chinese, Japanese, Russian, African – a wonderfully diverse world of science fiction is within your reach. Always has been.

          2. > The Fremen are equally characterized in other terms. Chakobsa, Sietch, Tabr all arise from Caucasian and Circassian cultures, rather than Arabic.

            But strangely enough (or not), it’s only the terms that are arabic in origin that got elided in the adaptation…

        2. “every corner where the audience can potentially engage with ‘foreign’ thought and ideas filed and made palatable by being made neutral. And that the culture which served as the foundation of the novel got stripped out of it in the name of ‘respect’”

          I believe that’s factually incorrect, on both counts. I think the misperceptions come from a reading of Herbert which projects way more Arabic/Islamic identity onto the Fremen than is really there.

    3. I find this curious, because from what I understand of the Fremen, their level of violence and misogyny is something that I would think many Muslims would prefer to not associate themselves with.

    4. I’ve seen another essay by Haris Durrani with a similar criticism that the Islamic influences were removed, but I completely missed that because I watched it in Malaysia – a 2/3 Muslim country – where the local subtitler leaned HEAVILY into the Islamic references and put them [almost*] all back into the Malay subs. I am not Muslim but having grown up in this country, the religious terminology hits me in a way it probably wouldn’t for a westerner. The subtitles for Liet-Kynes’ monologue when the sandworm ate the harvester made my hair stand up in a way that the English subs did not.

      Lest anybody think this was a politically correct choice, it was actually the opposite as the Islamic affairs department and most conservatives are extremely restrictive about the use of Islamic vocabulary by non-Muslims, to the point where there have been lawsuits over whether Christians are permitted to use the word “Allah” in Malay-language Bibles. I hope no such people went to watch this as they would probably have a fit over the use of religious language that’s used to refer to Allah in real life being used on a big worm.

      [*Notable exception being the bits where Paul is called the Mahdi, which was conspicuously never transcribed in the subs. I think it’s because the Shia and Ahmadiya sects are banned here.]

      I think it was a courageous and creative dramatic choice by a subtitler who is probably an original book fan and really gets it and showed a mastery of the cultural and linguistic references that pushed the movie over the line from “great” to “stunning” for me as a bilingual watcher. Big contrast from the awful subs on some movies which are usually a source of distraction and unintentional comedy (a la the notorious “Backstroke of the West”).

  2. Very interesting. I have to admit, I kind of recognized some of the themes you declared, but without consciously being aware of it, like the activation of the shields before stepping out of the carriers, or Leto’s weariness of the system of power he’s part of and can’t really conceive of another way of living life. (I do miss the scene in the book where Leto very grumpily is going over some paperwork and ranting that one of the first things the Atriedes set up on Arrakis is a factory to mass-produce their propaganda. “We mustn’t run short of filmbase,” the Duke said. “Else, how could we flood village and city with our information? The people must learn how well I govern them. How would they know if we didn’t tell them?”) It really helped to push those sorts of things to the forefront of my brain, and of course some of it I completely missed.

    I do think though, for all I agree with the conclusion that this is a very faithful adaptation, there is one major departure from the book, and that’s in presentation. Herbert wrote Dune in a very abnormal, and very interesting “demonstration through emotion” sort of style. In a way, it actually reminds me of how Livy wrote Ab Urbe Condita, (or at least the parts that still exist). Instead of always focusing on the action, the people who are doing things that are driving the narrative being portrayed, both often focus on a select handful of people and their reactions to what’s going on.

    So for instance, in Herbert’s book, when the Harkonnen launch their attack, you never actually see the fighting. Instead, Herbert shows the treachery of our traitor and how Leto and family get delivered to the Harkonens, and then some after the fact reactions from Hawat and Gurney Halleck as they react to the sudden obliteration of the house from an attack whose scale they couldn’t conceive of. I draw the Livy parallel because a lot of the time with his battles, Livy spends a lot more time and page space on his favorite generals and what they’re saying and doing than he does on the cut and thrust of the maneuvers in the battle, nevermind the operations that go into preparing the battle. My sense was that he was really trying to convey the viscera of struggle and history through people that he thought his audience would identify with.

    The film does not operate on this methodology. The characters are somewhat understated, and the action is visually conveyed instead of being mostly implied. I don’t blame anyone for doing it this way. Film is at the end of the day a visual medium and trying to convey important things by showing them is the natural and obvious way to proceed. But I do think that attempting to do so misses some of what makes Herbert’s creation so brilliant.

    1. “The people must learn how well I govern them. How would they know if we didn’t tell them?”

      I have not read the book in this century, but I still remember that line. It’s hard not to sympathise with the Duke.

      1. Yeah. The whole exchange over the propaganda would have slotted right into a Discworld novel.

        Anyone else what to see Mel Brooks do a dark comedy spoof on Dune?

        1. There is a very good parody by “National Lampoon’s Doon” by Ellis Weiner, about Arruckus, the Dessert Planet entirely devoid of entrees.

          While a lot of it is cheap laughs and pop-culture references, it has some great moments, especially the two send ups of the whole speaking in cryptic phrases because of course everyone will understand the underlying subtext.

          Especially when the Duke orders that for the current emergency everyone is to speak in complete sentences.

    2. Personally, I felt like replacing the Duke’s rant about propaganda with simply showing us that propaganda, worked. In particular the Imperial emissary scene and the debarkation scenes. They were both times the characters made sarcastic comments about the waste of time…and yet they nonetheless put on their costumes and made their patriotic speeches surrounded by well-drilled soldiers and banners, in spaces clearly designed for the purpose. I guess it’s not one-for-one, they never showed us posters or whatever the Imperial equivalent is, but emotionally it hit the same notes.

      Also, the book kind of never really gave me that ‘if only we had more time’ feeling, even though so many characters commented on it, because there were more than a hundred pages between the Atreides landing and the Harkonnen attack. By cutting so much out of the Arrakeen scenes, the speed of the attack did feel viscerally true to me.

    3. Yeah, I’m going to loudly agree with this on one point. The books depicted very little of the attack that (largely) wiped out the Atreides, and the movie’s decision to devoted as much screentime to that as it did is baffling.

      I would have preferred to get a little more of Jessica and actually establishing her character instead.

  3. “who will our next oppressor be?”

    When they do the inevitable stuff at the beginning of Dune Part 2 to catch people up, I really hope they work in somehow Herbert’s great line from the appendix on the terraforming project: about how the Fremen were going along with their terraforming project until one day they were “afflicted with a Hero”.

    Props to the movie for leaning into that hard, emphasizing both the way that the Atreides are outsiders like any other, and the way that Paul and Jessica slip into the religious narrative about them taking root in the Fremen (being aware that it’s happening, but also powerless to do anything about it because the only alternative is death). I’d forgotten just how prominently the novel featured that when I re-read it after watching this movie, but it is just everywhere in the novel, and it really feels unfortunate when the Fremen effectively get hijacked into a religious war.

    It’s a pity Herbert kind of fumbles those themes in the succeeding novel. You get to Children of Dune, and suddenly we needed the Hero all along!

      1. I made a comment and it’s not showing up either. Hopefully it gets manually approved eventually because I want to see what the other readers think

        1. I think it’s just slow for some reason. My long post seemed to take an awfully long time to become visible. And I can see a longer post from you too now.

    1. yeah I’m not sure I’d say he fumbles it in later books, given how things turn out. Dune Messiah is basically all about Paul trying to deal with the fallout, Children is about everyone else scrabbling for control, and Leto II doesn’t really come across as a Hero to me. At best he’s an absolute (and literal by the end of it) monster with a solid point who ends up achieving his objectives.

      1. At best he’s an absolute (and literal by the end of it) monster with a solid point who ends up achieving his objectives.

        That’s my point. In Dune, Paul kind of sets things off – but that was going to happen anyways. He’s not even the first outside to accidentally end up in the “prophet” slot among the Fremen.

        But Children of Dune has that if Leto doesn’t do the Golden Path, humanity goes extinct. In other words, the capital H “Hero” (not necessary a nice or good person – hence Herbert’s “afflicted by a Hero”) is necessary, and Leto has to step up and do it because Paul ultimately balks.

        There’s not really any indication in later books that Leto might have been wrong about that, either.

  4. I completely agree with your reading of the film, discussing it with a (much more knowledgeable than me about Dune) friend we came to similar conclusions about the quality of the adaptation. I was surprised how the movie doesn’t shy away from some of the books most controversial topics. Although (understandably) the word “Jihad” isn’t said anywhere on the film, there are very direct visual references to religion that caught me off guard. What surprised me the most though was how the movie also didn’t shy away from calling the spice a “psychoactive substance” and really letting that 60s “psychedelics will expand your mind” theme show through.

    I think, however, that the score was the weakest part of the film. To me most of it sounded like it was straight out lifted out of Dunkirk’s score, and while there were some interesting parts (some of the ambient noise mixed with music, and the Sardaukar chant), the rest was just pretty bland. In a film where everybody seemed to be bringing out their A game, Zimmer’s struck out to me as forgettable and more of the same stuff he always does.

    I say this because I’ve seen many people online praise the score, and I just don’t get it. I know this may be a bit offtopic for a history blog, but the discussion here is always very civil and I want to see what other readers thought about it.

    1. I was mostly okay with the score, but the sound mixing generally was the weakest part of the movie. I’m honestly tempted to rewatch on HBOMax with subtitles on just to pick up the dialogue that got stepped on.

      1. I thought the exact same thing. I already had HBOMax and have been trying to find time to watch it with subtitles on because of a couple loud scenes (saw it on an IMAX screen which was awesome but loud).

      2. I didn’t have issues with the sound when I saw it in theaters. When I watched it on HBOMax I got a sense of what others had mentioned. Having access to subtitles and being able to adjust the volume lessens any problems with it, though.

      3. Watching from home with the HBO Max version, the sound mixing was absolutely abysmal, IMO. Dialogue happened at volume X and everything else seemed to happen at volume 2X.

        Subtitles/CC helped a ton, because our alternatives were “too quiet to hear people talking,” or “everything else is too loud,” and, more than once, both at the same time.

      4. I finally got around to seeing it (in a theater), and I too missed dialogue because the score was too loud. So did the old men I overheard in the bathroom afterward.

  5. Comment got eaten. I wonder what tripped the filter.

    In any case, I agree with this. I’m really hoping that when Dune Part 2 does its likely introductory scene to catch people up, it includes that great line from Herbert about how the Fremen were “afflicted by a Hero”. The Fremen get their belief system and terraforming project hijacked into a religious crusade, and the tragedy is that the guy who does it is only doing it because he himself is swept up in forces beyond his control, and the religious narrative that builds up around him (the product of propaganda) constraints his choices.

    If only Herbert hadn’t fumbled that interesting theme in the succeeding books.

  6. You’re making me want to go back to theaters and watch it again! Your post-colonial analysis is interesting. Thinking about how the (“awesome” / “awful”) machines of empire will communicate inherently mixed messages: inspiring admiration in some, and stunning fear in others. It makes me wonder what they’re going to do with Princess Irulan in the end. Also, I’m interested to hear your take on some of the combat scenes–in particular the part where the Atreides spearmen engage the Harkonnen.

  7. I haven’t watched the movie, but I wonder about that comment:

    >Villeneuve has Chani deliver the introduction, which serves to radically redefine the narrative… the movie is fundamentally oriented, from the beginning, with her worldview and concerns

    Does the redefinition/reframing of the narrative hurts the fidelity of the adaptation? Because the whole book is framed by how Irulan views the whole situation, on the ”what will this mean for the Universe’’ angle.

    1. Well it does if you use the right combination of magic words, in this case Post Colonial is powerful enough that changing the faming device does not render the adaptation unfaithful.

    2. In this case, I’d argue ‘no.’ As I note, the post colonial angle is pretty clearly in the text. This is a work, if we think about it in its originally 1965 context, which tells a sort of science fiction Lawrence of Arabia story in which T.E. Lawrence (as Paul) is a deeply ambiguous character. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again, but if you read Dune carefully it is fairly clear that Paul doesn’t really save anyone.

      Villeneuve hasn’t invented that narrative thread or inserted it where it wasn’t, he has merely emphasized what was already there and in fact already fairly prominent in the books (particular if one includes Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, both of which set up fairly explicit critiques of Paul) and directs the audiences attention to it (whereas the same points were de-emphasized massively in the miniseries and completely reversed and catastrophically misunderstood in the David Lynch adaptation).

  8. So why does everyone say that the film is faithful? Well on one level, it is visually faithful.

    Hard, hard disagree here.

    Merely getting the ornithopters and the shields right does not a visually faithful adaptation make. Villeneuve gets the desert right; all of the Arrakis exteriors are great. The vehicles are great, the weapons, the Heighliners. To an extent he gets Caladan exteriors right.

    Everything else is a major failure. One of the defining points of Dune is what a weird, colorful, decadent universe it is outside of the desert of Arrakis; and even the Sietchs are presented as filled with color and activity. Villeneuve has leached all of this, ALL of it, out of the visual presentation of his films. The Ducal palace on Caladan (apparently the Duke of Caladan administers his vast fief from an isolated castle in the middle of nowhere) looks abandoned from a distance, and when you get close its a drab, colorless place full of drab, colorless rooms that don’t at all look like the sort of rooms people live or work in. All of its inhabitants are equally drab and colorless. When the court functionaries of the Padishah Emperor arrive, THEY are drab and colorless. Giedi Prime elevates drab colorlessness to an art form. The Fenring residence in Arrakeen is, likewise, a huge, echoing, empty place that does not seem lived in and is filled with drab colorlessness.

    In fact, this is part and parcel of the Villeneuve Dune’s greatest sin; it looked at the weirdness of Dune and, in its relentless effort to Game of Thrones-ify it, decided “nah.”

    That’s a huge mistake. Dune is a fucking weird book that established a fucking weird setting. Even nearly sixty years it’s still weird. When people have stolen or been “inspired” by Dune, the first thing they usually do is file off the weirdness, because it’s THAT weird.

    The Lynch movie had many sins, but for all of that it understood how damn weird the setting is and leaned into that weirdness. Villeneuve seems to hate and fear this, and resolutely refuses to engage with it.

    Nowhere is this more clear than with the second great sin of this adaptation; its utter failure to leverage House Harkonnen.

    House Harkonnen is one of the great villain families of all time, setting the template for many of the equally-famous villain families that would follow in genre fiction over the years. All four of them (Piter de Vries effectively “counts as” a Harkonnen, I feel) sizzle and pop off the page, even Beast Rabban, who is a more complex character than people give him credit for. The Baron, the fulcrum around which that family turns, expands to fill and take over any scene he’s in with his expansive, ebullient, decadent personality, the light of his cunning veering between madness and genius. Feyd-Rautha is of course Paul’s dark mirror (his thematic relationship to Paul is much more complex than that, but) and Piter as the “loyal” vizier is an absolute treasure. Giedi Prime itself is an industrial hellhole, but the palaces of the Harkonnens are playgrounds of the one percent with every twisted luxury imaginable.

    Now, some of this doesn’t quite play. The equation of the Baron’s sexual orientation with his evilness is… not something you can, or should, do in the 2020s. Nor is the constant portrayal of Piter having a mincing, effeminate manner and equating that with HIS evilness. Those things you can do without. The fat-shaming is also a problem, although “floating around on his suspensors because he’s too gross to move” is a hell of a visual.

    But Villeneuve took this bursting-at-the-seams-with-personality family and… excised basically all of it. Piter might as well not be in the movie, and for some reason he… built a man-spider as a pet? Giedi Prime is a dour, black pit of a place that makes Mordor look cheerful, and the Baron appears to spend his free time sitting near steam vents in an ascetics robe waiting to give brief, dour statements of portent to Rabban. All the color has been sucked out of them, as has most of the personality. I don’t know who this weird, evil monk they’ve got Stellan Skarsgard playing is, but he sure as fuck isn’t the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

    The one major thing Villeneuve is getting right is really playing up the visceral horror of the Jihad, and its inevitability bearing down on Paul. That’s something that the Lynch and Sci-Fi adaptation really, REALLY didn’t want to deal with, like at all; they wanted a straightforward hero’s story. I give him a ton of credit here; the Jihad is something even most Dune fans don’t really want to reckon with.

    Instead, Villeneuve has Chani deliver the introduction, which serves to radically redefine the narrative.

    And this is all well and good… but isn’t it going to cause problems when they get to the end?

    Like, are they simply going to excise Irulan’s significance entirely? Irulan is important!

    we also see the mechanics of his power, that he rules over the kind of organization which activates body shields before stepping out onto the tarmac, because these guys can’t imagine being among their own civilians without the tools of violent superiority.

    I feel like this, oddly, is sort of maybe reaching?

    I’m trying to think of a statelike entity in which the leaders thereof go among their own civilians without the tools of violent superiority close at hand and coming up with very, very few examples. Many societies developed elaborate codes around who could be armed near their leaders, and had dedicated, specialized bodyguard cadres.

    I think this says less “we live in fear of our own civilians and must brutalize them” as it does “our political enemies are dangerous and could strike us at any time.”

    Put it another way; I think they’d have descended with those body shields on even if there hadn’t been a civilian presence.

    Villeneuve uses this scene more to characterize the divide between Stilgar and Leto (while not abandoning the characterization that Leto is trying to do his best inside this system but cannot see beyond it). Leto’s claim that he has been given Arrakis “as my fief, to rule”

    Intriguingly, to me, they cut out one of the best exchanges between the two of them; where Leto gives the order that the desert and the Sietchs will remain inviolate, belonging to the Fremen forever… but makes it clear that it’s by HIS order, because he is the Duke and he rules here.

    1. When I was a kid, I remember happening across major political figures twice: in early 1990’s, my family came across Iiro Viinanen, the then finance minister of Finland, widely hated and despised (for we had a severe economic downturn), walking along a crowded street in a minor Finnish town, without a single bodyguard in sight. A few years later, the Finnish president visited my home town. He did have a few bodyguards, but still, he moved through the crowds at a distance where you could shake hands with him naturally, while he was surrounded from all sides by the crowd.

      So, you can have a society where the leaders don’t hide behind physical protection.

      1. This seems to be linked to how polarized a society is. Poland didn’t used to be SO polarized. Yes, we had our first president ever shot to death after a smear campaign. Yes, we recently had a mayor of a big city stabbed to death on stage during a charity event and more than a year later he’s still not been charged because it would be inconvenient for the ruling party. But most of politicians still don’t use bodyguards. The top figures of the regime do. The dictator can have up to 80 (eighty) police cars guarding his villa, plus snipers on rooftops. Much more protection than the president has. The man was always paranoid, but this is more than that – it’s supposed to be a display of power. Meanwhile opposition politicians receive anonymous death threats.

        1. I once read a history of the Special Escort Group that noted they started routinely escorting the PM’s car, and carrying SMGs, when terrorism became a bigger thing in the 1980s. But they are still required to be perfectly friendly to people. They just zoom ahead of the car to take control of the next junction, hold if open for the PM for a few seconds, and then catch up with him. Security consists of the motorcade being unpredictable, and never stopping, not having an infantry battalion all around it.

          They are not required to shout and threaten people, because everyone knows traffic police have a right to control traffic anyway.

    2. I overwhelmingly agree with your post, but a few nitpicks:

      Let’s allow villains to be gay too. Yes, writers used to use homosexuality as an additional sign of depravity, to appear more repulsive. Hopefully we understand that. We don’t need to feel repulsed, but there’s no requirement to be upset and change the character from the book.

      I feel we don’t do ENOUGH of fat shaming, and I object to the whole term ‘fat shaming’. Obesity is a life-threatening disease. “fat shaming” is a poisoning the well tactic, in other words – a pre-emptive personal attack against people who criticize obesity. Such as me. You say something bad about obesity, people get triggered, and suddenly you’re “guilty by association” and because they’ve used the magic incantation – “you’re doing fat shaming!” – people are conditioned to react strongly to that.

      Overweight people are unfortunate, and we need to help them. First, by establishing that they have a health problem. I wouldn’t ridicule them, but for the same reason I wouldn’t ridicule people with diabetes or AIDS. Ridiculing in general is not a good idea if you want to convince someone to something. More often than not, they feel attacked and dig themselves in on their positions.

      1. Also Baron Harkonnen isn’t “gay”- he’s a pedophile, and our society usually isn’t shy about vilifying those.

      2. Agreed on the fat-shaming part, but disagree on the gay one. Too many people still see homosexuality as being reprehensible. Even worse, the Baron is a pedophile, and the association of gay and pedophile is also extremely widespread. Having the only gay person in a movie be the villain sends, in my opinion, a problematic message.

        1. A simple fix would be to make Harkonnen’s preference for girls. Or you could accept that the Baron’s evil is his pedophilia not the sex of his victims. But apparently it’s preferable just to erase the Baron’s character altogether than risk offending.

          1. Makes sense. Villain-gay-pedophile is a common, too common, construct. Sometimes writers just want to pile as many negative traits as they can think of. V8e could also just make the Baron a plain rapist. His vices have something in common – he’s unable to control his urges. I think it’s only implied in the book, but Baron is obese because he’s a glutton (“House Harkonnen”, a book by BRIAN Herbert, purported to be based on Frank’s notes, gives another explanation and makes Baron a victim. Brian’s books are not canon as far as I’m concerned. And they’re poorly written.).

            By contrast, the big bad in Mad Max 2 is also gay but not a pedophile. I think it aged better. It even gives him extra motivation for acting the way he does – the good guys kill his lover.

    3. Put it another way; I think they’d have descended with those body shields on even if there hadn’t been a civilian presence.

      They missed out on a great opportunity to call out that it was an overreaction by excising the scene wherein someone (one of Duncan, Gurney, or Leto, naturally, but I’m not sure which) expressing some dismay that it seemed like even their peaceful transfers of power were conducted like invasions, these days. It would have been an excellent counterpoint to how routine everyone turning their shields on before exiting the dropship seemed.

      I don’t know why that almost offhand comment has stuck with me when I’ve forgotten so many more memorable lines that other people have commented on here, but it has.

    4. Everything else is a major failure. One of the defining points of Dune is what a weird, colorful, decadent universe it is outside of the desert of Arrakis; and even the Sietchs are presented as filled with color and activity. Villeneuve has leached all of this, ALL of it, out of the visual presentation of his films. The Ducal palace on Caladan (apparently the Duke of Caladan administers his vast fief from an isolated castle in the middle of nowhere) looks abandoned from a distance, and when you get close its a drab, colorless place full of drab, colorless rooms that don’t at all look like the sort of rooms people live or work in. All of its inhabitants are equally drab and colorless. When the court functionaries of the Padishah Emperor arrive, THEY are drab and colorless. Giedi Prime elevates drab colorlessness to an art form. The Fenring residence in Arrakeen is, likewise, a huge, echoing, empty place that does not seem lived in and is filled with drab colorlessness.

      I’ve only seen the current film, not any of the other adaptations, and I haven’t read the book, but I gather that the story is meant to be about the conflict between the poor and oppressed (and therefore tough) Fremen and the decadent and luxurious (and therefore weak) Empire? In which case, I agree with this point: you can’t tell a story about poverty vs. decadence without some actual decadence.

      I think this says less “we live in fear of our own civilians and must brutalize them” as it does “our political enemies are dangerous and could strike us at any time.”

      And indeed, the Atreides have to deal with several assassination attempts and a (successful) Harkonen invasion of their base on Dune. In other words, their paranoia is fully vindicated by events.

    5. Irulan is important? According to the history she writes, about the history of states, as an imperial princess, sure.
      But that’s the conceit of history: the little people don’t get to write the books

    6. The movie is weird as hell. It hits you in the face with its weirdness. The Bene Gesserit and Harkonnens go out of their way to look weird. The baron’s medical treatment consists of immersing him, without breathing gear, in black oil. The Voice sounds weird. Paul’s visions are (by design, I assume) jarring and confusing. Whenever something weird happens, the score sounds weird too, just to drive it home.

      Maybe it’s weird in a different way than the book. I haven’t read the book in decades. But it’s certainly weird.

      Duke Leto granting the sietches to the Fremen forever is in the movie. And yes, he’s simultaneously trying to be the good guy and asserting his authority.

  9. “the same reason why, as the Baron notes, Arrakis has no satellites”
    In the book there are satellites, but they provide doctored images because the fremen bribe the space guild.

    1. Pretty sure that’s wrong- I’m reading the book now and what I remember is that the Fremen bribe the Guild to charge higher fees for allowing satellites than anyone can afford.

    2. Just finished re-reading – the Fremen bribe the guild (and it’s an increasingly heavy bribe) to set the price of placing satellites unobtainably high. (There’s the faintest implication that the Guild does this for the same reason that they *cannot* oppose Muad’ib – they cannot foresee the consequences of *not* accepting the bribes and therefore will not do it)

  10. I do not believe that is the case.

    https://fb2bookfree.com/uploads/files/2020-09/1601228631_dune.pdf (All pages are from the pdf, not the internal page counts)

    page 88 has Halleck asking why not put up a weather satellite and Hawat saying that the Guild is pricing it out of possibility no matter how much money the Atriedes are willing to spend. Page 146 (At the dinner party our host alludes to) has Kynes saying it’s hard to explore the desert, and perhaps if they had a weather satellite, things would be different, implying there are no such satellites. On page 194, we have Jessica and Paul talking about their escape and the creation of desert power, and again Paul talks about how the guild prices the placement of satellites out of anyone’s reach so that things won’t get looked at on the ground.

    But probably the most direct quote comes from page 292, with Stilgar talking to Jessica.

    “It’s Liet’s command,” Stilgar said. “We know the reason, but the taste of it sours us. We bribe the Guild with a monstrous payment in spice to keep our skies clear of satellites and such that none may spy what we do to the face of Arrakis.”

    She weighed out her words, remembering that Paul had said this must be the reason Arrakeen skies were clear of satellites. “And what is it you do to the face of Arrakis that must not be seen?”

  11. In most cases when an adaptation is termed ‘faithful’ it is because it is, by and large, a scene-for-scene, line-by-line recreation of the original: the sort of film adaptation that 300 or Watchmen got, which practically recreates the panels stroke for stroke.

    Worth noting that while Snyder’s Watchmen is faithful to the original comic book in the literal sense (the one Devereux is describing in this sentence), it is not faithful to the spirit of the comic book. This is most obvious in the character of Rorschach; Moore frames him as unhinged and practically villainous, Snyder as an antihero, at worst a necessary evil. Moore and Snyder technically told the same story, in ways reflecting their own contrasting worldviews.

    Perhaps that’s why Devereux picked Watchmen as an example of scene-for-scene faithfulness—to make it clear that the kind of faithfulness Watchmen lacks is not what he’s saying Dune (2021) lacks. But trying to figure out whether that’s true would require me to know whether 300 was faithful to the spirit of its source material, and I know nothing about that comic book.

    Villeneuve’s style of film-making prefers slow scenes with relatively little dialogue to give time for the visuals and the mood to set in. That style is executed very well here but it effectively requires changes because all of the meaning that in the book is carried by long explanatory dialogue about how the technologies and politics work has to be removed, otherwise the film would be ten years long.

    Quoting this section to say this is exactly what a good film adaptation should do.

    Books are good at making long sections of exposition interesting, or at least bearable; a character describing, say, an ancient battle in dialogue is almost as exciting as narration about a present-tense fight scene, and it’s easy enough to go back a paragraph if you think you missed something (or even put down the book for an hour and come back if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the exposition). But visual media—comics excepted, they’re halfway literature anyways—struggles to do the same. The only good solutions I can think of for making exposition dumps work in visual media are Star Wars’s opening crawl (compressing as much as possible into one chunk before the movie has built up a pace that can be broken, with John Williams’s overture playing in the background, hyping up the opening scene) and the mockable-but-functional way shonen anime often blends fight scenes with exposition.

    On the other hand, books cannot do visual storytelling, aside from children’s picture books and graphic novels (which usually aren’t considered literature anyways). Films can. A good film adaptation of a book should try to use cinematic language to show what books use paragraphs to tell. This is going to require changes, of course, but the end result is a better film on its own merits and works better at whatever the original book was trying to do.

    I should also note, by the by, this line brilliantly responds to claims that Dune is a ‘white savior’ narrative; which I would argue it is not, if for no other reason than that Paul doesn’t really save anyone…

    The most common criticism I’ve heard of Dune and its adaptations is that they are often not clear enough that they’re trying to criticize hero narratives, coming off instead as unusually elaborate but otherwise standard hero narratives. I’d say that the extent to which any given Dune is a “white savior” narrative is inversely proportional to how well it avoids that problem. And it sounds like pre-2021 adaptations handle the problem much worse than the book.

    1. “This is most obvious in the character of Rorschach; Moore frames him as unhinged and practically villainous, Snyder as an antihero, at worst a necessary evil. Moore and Snyder technically told the same story, in ways reflecting their own contrasting worldviews.”

      I might be quibbling here, but this is a blog about unmitigated pedantry, so what the hell. I’m not so sure that “Frames” is the right word here. Moore definitely understood Rorschach as unhinged and villainous, but even before the movie came out, you definitely had fans thinking him as heroic and uncompromising, with lots of Batman parallels. I’m specifically thinking of the LeJorne Pindling interview he gave shortly before the movie came out and where Moore expressed his surprise that Rorschach had such a following. And it’s the same comic that Moore did ultimately write and sign off of.

      Now, if you consider the spirit of the comic book to be a window into the intent of the author, then yes, you have two very different portrayals of that spirit. If you view the spirit of the comic book as something further removed from the authorial intent, you have something a bit more complicated.

      1. Point of order – Moore himself didn’t always view Rorschach as a straight villain. In an interview discussing the influences, Moore talks about Rorschach being a straight homage to Ditko’s Question. And that while he firmly disagrees with Ditko’s (and Question’s) views, he admires the character for his firm uncompromising nature and utter dedication to said ideals. Which is why Rorschach himself gets to be, in some ways, an admirable character.

    2. I’d note that there’s no reason picture books, or illustrated books, have to be reserved for children, nor why they and graphic novels can’t be ‘literature’. It’s just a gap in what we actually do.

      There are a few examples: Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is text, but with illustrations on every page. Sandman: Dream Hunters, too. The webcomic Erfworld ended up alternating normal comic pages with pages of text + 4-5 illustrations. They all work quite well.

      Also Japanese light novels (though with only like 5 pictures per book), and fantasy/SF novels (including Dune!) having maps, for that key visual element.

      1. I’ll add to this rather making a separate reply.

        First my nitpick, comic books and graphic novels are the same thing. The only distinction being length. In fact many things people think of as graphic novels are actually just collections of single issues of comics.

        As for excluding things with pictures from being literature, I agree that’s a cultural prejuadice and not an inherent quality of the art form. Hell, I knew an English major in college who didn’t consider most prose to qualify as a literature.

        You get the same kind of attitudes animation, television, and movies. The seriousness with which taken is directly related to who the target audience is viewed to be and what is considered to be the superior art form

      2. I did say graphic novels often aren’t considered literature. I do think they’re an interesting liminal medium, able to take advantage of some of the strengths of both literature and “standard” visual media.

    3. I would actually argue the best example of Star Wars exposition is not the opening crawl, its the conference scene in A New Hope (“I find your lack of faith disturbing!”) that basically manages to (fairly naturally) info-dump the political situation.

      1. Well yes, but that’s not an exposition dump, merely a scene that includes a lot of exposition. To me, the distinction between a scene with exposition and an exposition dump is how much non-exposition stuff there is in the scene, and how direct the exposition is.
        The conference scene is effective exposition in large part because it’s not just exposition, and because the exposition is indirect. The admiral guy doesn’t explain that he sees the Force as a hokey old religion, and Vader doesn’t go into a lengthy explanation about how it works; the admiral makes a few snide comments, and Darth Vader shows the audience the power of the Force.

        1. It ain’t an info dump until you don’t like it.

          Which means the outright dumps, plausibly and well presented, of information the readers want to know, aren’t info dumps.

  12. It’s good to enderline what a truly miserable civilization our characters are a part of. Everybody in the Known Universe in trapped in a truly effed up system which normalizes paranoia. Jessica is an abused child who’s been trained to identify with her abusers to the point that she let’s them terrorize her son and thinks it’s normal and necessary. Leto struggles to protect his family and dependents in a universe where literally every hand is against them. And he sees very well how hollow his promises of reform must seem to the Arrakeen and Fremen. Frankly the Fremen are nothing to write home about as far as human rights go, however much we may sympathize with them. The universe isn’t a wit better under their domination. Not even Arrakis is better.

    A scene I’ve always remembered from the Lynch movie is Atreides soldiers marching in groups around the ducal home, both on Caladan and Arrakis, showing it’s almost as oppressive to be a ruler as the ruled.

    1. It’s odd that an empire that has ruled for so many millennia should inspire so little loyalty. People from Arrakis and Caladan should have been appealing to the Imperial Throne for justice for hundreds and thousands of years. Every faction in Arrakis politics should have been claiming to be truly loyal to the Throne, and that their rivals are subversives.

      So if Leto emphasis his sense of responsibility to the Emperor for Arrakis, that should mean something to Stilgar. It is the one point of loyalty that everyone in the Empire should have by this time. After ten thousand years the chains of allegiance should have knitted together.

      Instead, Arrakis politics looks like the planet was claimed by the imperium the day Duke Leto was given it.

      1. Why? You don’t do what doesn’t work.

        If appeal is more likely to increase oppression, you won’t do it.

        1. Believe it or not a busy court system is a positive sign. It means people trust the law and those who administer it to work in their favor. They are not afraid of getting involved with government institutions.

          Does anybody in the Dine’verse believe th system will work in their favor? It seems not.

        2. “If appeal is more likely to increase oppression, you won’t do it.”

          Indeed, but an appeal against a Great House is bound to succeed sometimes. For example, times when the Emperor thinks the Great House is plotting against him or becoming too powerful, and wants an excuse to cut them down to size. Times when the Emperor wants to be seen to be just. Times when the Emperor dislikes the person being appealed against. That sort of thing.

          So people will appeal when they think themselves likely to get away with it, and stay quiet the rest of the time.

          But it will always be the case that the only person who can overrule the holder of Arrakis, is the Emperor he holds it for. So you always want to be seen to be a loyal subject of the Emperor. After all, the person who holds Arrakis for the Emperor, can hardly want to be seen attacking people for loyalty to the Emperor.

          1. It is true that with sufficient effort a ruler could make attempts to gain his support completely futile. Rulers who stay ruling tend not to have made such efforts.

      2. Although the Holy Roman Empire didn’t last plural millennia, and the Roman Empire just passed the 2000-year milestone, in both cases what we see is an atmosphere of paranoia, plots, rebellions, secessions, depositions, schisms, assassinations, and Emperors who alternate between tyranny, and inability to control overmighty and fractious subjects. So, no, there’s little reason to think that the Padishah Emperor would inspire any more loyalty than Otto IV or Andronicus Palaeologus

        1. In the case of the Roman Empire there was a civil administration that ground on regardless of plots and crazy emperor’s keeping the system on an even keel. The elites in Rome suffered but everybody else got on with their lives.
          The Roman Empire inspired enormous loyalty, becoming a much aspired to ideal even after it’s fall. Rule of Law, rights of citizenship, indoor plumbing, etc.

        2. I think there is a distinct difference between loyalty to current emperor and attachment to the institution itself (though conflict over who should be emperor tends to also fray loyalty to the concept, if people are fighting over it peoplemight start tow onder what the emperor is for…)

        3. House Corrin is claimed to have controlled the Padishah Throne for thousands of years, so there is good reason to think the system more stable than the Holy Roman or Byzantine Empires. If the system has been ruled by House Corrin for so long, making yourself an enemy of House Corrin can rarely have been a good long-term move.

          But however secure the Emperors position, declaring yourself an enemy of him can only attract his displeasure, and that is not a thing you should want. So long as there is no dispute about who the Emperor is, you should be loudly claiming to be on his side, even if you are plotting against him. If people believe otherwise, it can only be due to the Emperors traitorous advisers. Clearly they should be executed and replaced by loyal subjects like yourself.

          (And if there is a dispute, everyone should be claiming to be loyal to the TRUE Emperor, even if they disagree about who he is. Otto IV’s enemies may not have claimed to be loyal to him, but they certainly claimed to be on the same side as the rightful Emperor.)

          1. Or look at medieval Japan, where rebels against the Shogun almost always claimed to be acting out of loyalty towards the Emperor.

          2. Those legal fictions can be useful in maintaining as much law as possible. That the militias at Concord and Lexington and the siege of Boston declared their loyalty to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress helped keep the American Revolution on track.

  13. “But that perspective shift is the point: to me, an American, seeing an aircraft carrier at dock is an exciting, happy opportunity; I am not afraid of it at all, but I have to imagine that experience must be very different in countries where that same mass of metal and technology might not be so friendly”

    Is this not “just” Gunboat Diplomacy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunboat_diplomacy)

  14. I agree that this movie was a great adaptation of the novel in the sense of “faithful to the spirit” of the original rather than “faithful to the letter” – and personally, I think the former is more important to the latter not to mention actually being achievable in a way that people will want to watch.

    As for the rampant paranoia in display in both the book and movie, it’s also shown to be utterly necessary. The book has the description of the many, many ways that someone can be poisoned and the names that are given to each method, not to mention the fact that there is an attempt on Paul’s life almost instantly after the Atredies arrive on Arrakis.

  15. After fifty years of reading the book and watching filmed versions, I was hoping, in the end, for more than the film provided. Lynch’s 1984 version captured the essence of the book’s baroque, decadent, murderous sensibility, even if lots of things were wrong with it. Villeneuve’s universe just isn’t finally psychopathically, paranoiacally threatening enough.

    Two comments. First, the fear and suspicion the Atreides show on arrival has little to do with the Fremen. They have hardly arrived when the Harkonnens try to kill Paul. The book makes it clear that hundreds of disguised Harkonnen agents have been left behind, and any figure they encounter (including Stilgar) could be one of them. The Atreides are not colonial overlords afraid of their subjects, it’s the Harkonnens they are concerned about.

    As regards the rather tiresome post-colonial argument (and if you want a model the Ottoman Empire is the one I would suggest – how about the Fremen as the indigenous Berbers oppressed by the Arabs?) this entirely misses the point that Paul comes not to liberate the Fremen from the colonial yoke, but to destroy their ecology and culture and to lead them on a genocidal rampage across the galaxy. Far from overthrowing the Empire, he takes it over by marrying Irulan. The shadow of the forthcoming genocidal jihad hangs over this film, and I’m not at all sure how Villeneuve thinks he’s going to handle it, if indeed it isn’t edited out of Part 2.

    1. I would say that while the shadow of jihad hangs upon the whole story of Dune, it is not that oppressive. Herbert’s jihad involves a liberation of the galaxy from its hidebound social structure. The Fremen are going to make up its initial shock force, but it is going to rapture the downtrodden everywhere, with young poor people joining its stampede from all worlds, thus mixing up the human genepool. This is the hidden, mystic expectation of the humanity as a species, and Paul with his Fremen are just the trigger.

      So, while Herbert is conscious of the terrible human cost, he is actually cheering for the religious war to happen. He wants to be part of that orgy. The novel is dripping with excitement about it, not terrified.

        1. Agreed. The jihad is definitely portrayed as something horrible that Paul wants to prevent, but finds himself swept towards it by his efforts to survive.

        2. I do think there is a distinction between how Paul feels about it (terrified) and how the narrative feels about it (vaguely anticipatory, if only in a “this needs to happen” way)

        1. Also creepy are the fairly obvious implications of the precise mechanics of how a war gets the genetic remix being described. It’s not a process where all participants are willing.

          1. While obviously rape is a part of it, just the generla population movements (soldiers, refugees, etc.) is going to mix things up quite a bit on their own, even if everyone involved consents.

          2. just the generla population movements (soldiers, refugees, etc.) is going to mix things up quite a bit on their own

            I probably didn’t credit that as much as I should have because wars are something that happens somewhere else, to someone else, as far as my own experience goes. Narratives around war focus on the moving around more often than the staying in one place, so I don’t think about what happens when you have, if not a garrison, then positions that operate out of a base rather than on the march.

      1. Unfortunately that liberation and rapture fails to happen. Instead theocracy gets layered on the oppressive system and then the whole mess gets frozen in stasis for a couple of millenia by Leto II’s golden path.

        1. I agree about the facts of the story, but not of their interpretation: Leto II goes down his “Golden Path” with the intention to build up even more pressure, so that the resulting chaos is even deeper, and the humankind is scattered among the stars permanently. This way, Herbert doubles down on his species-level vision. Instead of Pauline Jihad, you get the Scattering, both fulfilling the same metaphysical need.

          And indeed, Herbert is bad as showing it to us. The Scattering takes place backstage, while we get an endless succession of Duncan Idaho and Paul gholas.

          1. Yeah. I signed off at that point. As far as I’m concerned God-Emperor is The End. Though personally my rereads tend to stop with Children of Dune. And I just love the Dune Encyclopedia-s version of the path forward.

    2. “this entirely misses the point that Paul comes not to liberate the Fremen from the colonial yoke, but to destroy their ecology and culture and to lead them on a genocidal rampage across the galaxy,”
      Bret explicitly mentions this in his essay, and the movie makes it clear, so I don’t get why you’re framing this as a rebuttal of either. Also, given how Paul’s visions show a pile of bodies being burned and himself looking down his fanatics from an imperial ship, I don’t think Villanueve plans to softball the horror of Paul’s conquests.

      1. So, in Dune, it’s very very very explicit that Paul does not want the Jihad. He’s keeping himself alive largely because he sees the Jihad as inevitable if he’s dead/martyred, while if he’s alive he might be able to divert it. But he’s not very confident of even that, seeing himself as being pushed by the tide of history/the collective unconscious of the human species, rather than leading it.

        Does the movie convey that? Granted it might be too early, if it’s the first half of the adaptation. Do the earlier adaptations convey that?

        1. Villanueve’s movie very much does. Once Paul realizes what’s coming, he nearly has a panic attack and screams at Jessica for the BG meddling that’s led to this. He is no way happy about any of it. Lynch is convinced that Paul is actually just a classic Campbellian hero out to save the galaxy, and the miniseries is just uncomfortable with the whole idea and kind of tries to step around it.

  16. For those unfamiliar, in the novel, between each chapter there is a small inserted bit of ‘in-universe’ text. It is an inspired writing choice for a few reasons

    Though it was a popular technique from Golden Age SF. I have seen how-to-write books from that era warning against it as a cliche.

    Masterful use is indeed inspired, to be sure.

    1. Yeah, I don’t know whether Herbert invented it or just followed an established fashion, but many SF/F authors seem to have used the trope over the years. I guess it depends on whether it’s cleverly inserted into the plot or just a cheap exposition device. A good example that comes to mind (no major spoilers ahead) is Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire (2006), where each chapter opens with a fragment from a thousand-year old journal written by the Big Evil Guy. At first it looks like filler, but the attentive reader will notice that it slowly builds up to a crucial plot twist that happens right before the final climax…

  17. I’ll try to keep it short. I’m a Dune fan. Not fan as in “fanatic”, but I like it a lot.

    I watched all the adaptations.

    David Lynch’s version is incoherent, confusing (for someone who’s read the book a couple of times!), has changes for no good reason (sonic weapons) but has soul in spades, memorable characters, scenes, and sets. The second scene with the Guild ambassador has atmosphere so thick you can cut it with a knife.

    The miniserries from 2000’s has a completely different feel. But there’s a lot to like. Visuals, cast, characterization, sets are nowhere as good. But it’s faithful, cerebral, and a joy to listen to. It really shows Dune is a world of intrigue and complexity. This is the adaptation with brain.

    The 2021 is faithful, but has neither soul nor brains. Battles are dull, acrobatic and silly. Clearly no fans of Kali, HEMA or escrima were involved. No scene stands out (although I think the scene where Paul and Jessica freed themselves in the ornithopter was close). Music is loud (and I like a lot of Hans Zimmer’s music). Flowing robes in the wind. I strongly disagree about the cast. If I weren’t told, I wouldn’t believe these were very good actors. All interiors look the same – spacious, dark, lacking furniture, and they definitely don’t look like places where people live. Also, “small” details like the movie never explaining why people use swords in a setting which clearly has lasers and energy shields.

    My verdict: adequate, but bland. I would frankly by embarrassed to recommend such a bland movie to any of my friends. I would rather recommend Dark City (1999), Ex Machina, Brazil(by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python), District 9, Moon (2009), Demolition Man (not as shallow as it might appear at first), Predator 1, Terminator 2, Mad Max 2, Ghost in the Shell (the cartoon), Her, Minority Report, the original Blade Runner, the first Planet of the Apes, Robocop, Arrival (2014), Contact, The Thing, Alien, A Boy and His Dog (Fallout!!). I just don’t see the new Dune as worthy adding to that long list.

  18. I wonder how often Good Duke/Evil Baron has been a thing in fiction. We get that with Leto vs. the Harkonnens. BECMI D&D also had Grand Duke Stefan Karemeikos (good, Greek) vs. the Black Eagle Baron Ludvig von Hendriks (treacherous relative)… Possibly whoever came up with that was inspired by Dune? although there aren’t many other similarities.

    1. I think it comes from England having more dukes than barons in the early modern, compared to their rival powers.

      1. I would say that the point is wider: duke is an awfully high position. In central Europe and in medieval France, dukes held huge estates and were more or less independent political actors. In the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, in particular, dukes were essentially on par with princes and socially, considered royalty. In any country, there would be only a dozen or two dukes at a time.

        A baron, on the other hand, was a middle-level noble title. There were dozens or hundreds of them, and most of them were subordinate to some duke or prince. (There were Imperial barons, but most of them had a precarious situation. Even a theoretically reichsunmittelbar baron would need to ally with more major nobles to retain their fief.)

        So, telling a story about an evil baron would be like telling a story about an irresponsible chemical factory today: there are so many such factories that the you are not accusing any particular business of maldeasance. On the other hand, telling a story about an evil duke would essentially be about a certain, identifiable individual. It is like telling a story about an evil global social media corporation. There are few enough around that your story is not a fairy tale anymore. And such story could get you to a serious trouble.

        On the other hand, making a story where a middle-level evil guy gets reined in by a benevolent semi-monarch is a story that reinforces the social system. People love to hear such stories.

      2. I’m not sure that dukes are especially associated with Englishness, especially as there weren’t any in England throughout most of the Middle Ages, unlike in neighbouring countries. The more important distinction here seems to be between count and earl, seeing as the latter became accepted as the distinctive English variant of the former, and counts didn’t exist in the British peerage. Hence ‘earl’ carries connotations of Merrie Olde Englande (to an anglophone audience anyway), whilst a count sounds suitably dastardly and Continental. Thus we get Count Dracula, Count Dooku, Count Baltar, Count Olaf etc.

        As for baron vs duke, I have to say my initial thoughts were that there was little difference between them. However, having had a skim through the (admittedly partial) list here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fictional_nobility, it does indeed seem like fictional barons are predominantly villainous, whereas dukes and duchesses are more mixed. I might cautiously speculate that because baronies are the most common form of peerage in the English-speaking world, the name became used as a stand-in for the nobility as a whole, and thus took on the brunt of that class’s bad reputation in an increasingly republican age e.g. 19th-century American tycoons were dubbed ‘robber barons’ and ‘oil barons’ to liken them to exploitative medieval aristocrats, and perhaps the negative connotations then filtered back to tar literal barons even further.

        Final minor point, but whilst I suppose Herbert’s space-feudalism may simply have different hierarchies to the real world, I have to say that I found it mildly jarring that the ultimate arch-villain and the galaxy’s most powerful nobleman is only a baron. It’s a bit like meticulously detailing a sci-fi government based on the modern US army, only for the all-powerful antagonist to be revealed as a 2nd Lieutenant.

        1. Maybe it’s something to do with the sound of the words: “baron” starts with a plosive and has two short syllables, giving it a punchier, slightly more aggressive sound than “duke”.

          1. I definitely think that plays a role. Baron has the echo of ‘barren’, and a bunch of other tough-sounding words like ‘barracks’, ‘barrage’, and ‘barricade’. Thus, even though the majority of modern barons are jowly ex-businessmen, in my mind it still conjures up an image of some flint-eyed psycho in chainmail prowling the battlements of his windswept keep.

        2. “It’s a bit like meticulously detailing a sci-fi government based on the modern US army, only for the all-powerful antagonist to be revealed as a 2nd Lieutenant.”

          You’d be amazed how often the most powerful ship in a space empire’s navy is a “heavy cruiser”, though. It’s like ship design got sent back to the 19th century or something.

    2. It’s suprising really when you consider that barons were lower on the nobility food chain, you’d think they make a better underdog?

      1. My guess would be that because barons are lower on the nobility food chain, they are more often associated with exploiting their subjects. While the duke might be the person a non-noble appeals to for help against their abusive baron.

    3. Whilst barons as a rank exist in the UK, individual barons are usually referred to as “Lord X”, so hearing someone called “Baron X” makes them sound slightly foreign and exotic.

    4. I assumed that Herbert picked titles without regard for which ones outranked which others. But it’s possible the Harkonnen’s title reflects their origin: The Atreides are important because of an ancient family connection to the Emperor, but the Harkonnens purchased their title.

  19. I feel like one big part of the book that the movie mostly failed to capture is the feeling of dread: the sense that something terrible is going to happen, we can see it coming, but we can’t stop it. This feeling is a huge part of what the book is doing thematically with all the stuff about prophecy and free will, and in the first half the way this is conveyed to us is by making it very clear from literally the second scene what the Harkonnens’ plan is, and that it’s probably going to work.

    The movie skips past most of this and I think suffers for it. We don’t know what the Harkonnens’ plan is, we don’t know that Yueh is the traitor, we don’t even know there is a traitor I don’t think.

    1. I think it goes back to the whole character driven and action by implication that the book goes for and the movie doesn’t. Pushing along a sense of dread and stripping surprise away from all the interactions requires the audience to really identify with the characters, because how the characters are reacting to the sitaution and their feelings are going to be the primary vehicle that carries the drama.

      In a book, you can give a lot of page space and the reader has a lot of time to characterize and identify with a cast that’s fairly large. Even with just the Atriedes household, we have what I would identify as 6 and a half major characters; Paul, Jessica, Leto, Halleck, Hawat, Yueh, and maybe Duncan Idaho. If you want to give each of them a 5 minute scene to establish character, you’ve just spent a fifth of the movie’s runtime on just that, before you even get to anything like any of the villains or the desert planet itself. And you have to trust that the actors are charismatic enough to carry a heavy dramatic burden you’re putting on all of them and make the audience sympathize with their doomed plight.

      I’m not saying it can’t be done. But it’s a huge gamble from the filmmaker’s perspective, and I can see why a filmmaker would choose not to do it. Which I think circles back to a simple, unfortunate conclusion: Dune is a very hard book to make an adaptation of. A lot of what makes it amazing doesn’t translate well out of its original medium.

      1. Yeah. I didn’t time my last read of Dune, but probably around 8 hours? (200,000 words / 400 words/minute). This movie was just 2.5 hours. And talking speed is like 150 words/minute.

  20. I was curious what Bret would think about the scene during the battle in Arrakeen where the Harkonnen ship releases a bunch of missiles that seem to be indiscriminately targeting the civilian sectors of the city.

    Although visually spectacular, this seemed to me to be superfluous given that it appeared the Harkonnens had already won the battle and secured everything of strategic value in the city. In which case, why needlessly kill the civilians (i.e. their future work force)? It reminded me of Bret’s discussion basically of the reason to conquer stuff is to take control of its economy and not just to destroy all of it.

    Further, the civilians of Arrakis all remember the Harkonnens and how nasty they are. It’s not like they are invading for the first time and it would be necessary to make a big demonstration of blowing a bunch of them up to show how serious they are. If anything they seem to be destroying stuff they built during their period of ownership.

    Someone suggested to me it was because the Baron this time was going to use genocide against the Fremen so this was just his start. It’s been a while since I read the books but as I recall Arrakeen is full of non-Fremen–if this is wrong though please advise! I do think though if genocide was really their goal, it would have been a lot cheaper and more effective to just methodically go through the city, and this would have preserved the buildings and things.

    Anyway, it was a spectacular shot and works well for both visuals and storytelling (these guys are evil!) but I did not quite understand it from a world-building perspective. I would love to be corrected though if someone has some theories.

    1. It could be that agents identified a particularly enthusiastic collaborator with the new regime. It could be a demonstration to all that the real boss is back and forget all that Atreides guff, they couldn’t hold the city for an hour once we came back. Could be Rabban being casually and needlessly brutal because he’s been given a free reign to be cruel.

      Could be the bar that the ship commander had an extensive tab at that he never paid when they pulled out and he wanted to start his return with a clean slate.

    2. If I recall correctly, in the book the intent is to use one of his nephews to brutalize the local population and then the second will come in and rule with a light touch. Basically carrot-and-stick, but with separate people for each and more genocide. That doesn’t really come across here as Feyd-Rauth isn’t in the movie.

    3. Honestly, my own theory is that for whatever reason, Villeneuve decided to go with a “simpler” Harkonnen enemy. Not that Herbert was exactly subtle with laying down that the Harkonnen were the Bad Guys ™, but even what texture they had in the books was erased to making them pure evil 1 dimensional villains.

      Consider, in the books, after the Harkonnen retake Arrakis, the Baron’s instructions to Rabban were to “squeeze”. He explicitly forbade extermination of the local population, instead wanting to drive Rabban to produce as much money as he can (Moving all the troops to attack the planet cost some 60 years worth of Arrakis’s output) but also knowing that Rabban would then oppress the populace immensely and open the door for his bait and switch to bring Feyd-Ruatha as a savior. In the movie, his instructions are to “kill them all”. In fact, Feyd-Ruatha is entirely absent. Simply blowing everything in sight up is of a piece with the whole kill them all mentality that the movie Harkonnen have.

      Also, yes, the “Fremen” most directly refer to the people living outside the Faufreluches class system on Arrakis. The desert nomads. The people living in “pan, sink, and graben” in the cities and villages and the like, are not considered Fremen, although there is quite a bit of intermingling between the two groups.

      1. In the movie, the baron instructs Rabban to “squeeze” (though it’s not clear whom). He then orders extermination, not of everyone on Arrakis, but specifically the Fremen. The Fremen, it’s clear, never worked for the spice-extracting industry and in fact interfered with it.

        1. Offhand, I can’t recall the movie making a distinction between the Fremen and the people on the near side of the Shield Wall. It certainly seems to imply that all the natives are Fremen, at least from an assumed stance of someone who hasn’t read the books but is watching the movie. (Hard to step away from my own perspective, you know?

          1. They changed some things in the movie, but I think the city people are still non-Fremen.

            Jessica asks one of the servants if she’s Fremen, which would be a stupid question if all of the locals are Fremen. Also, when people talk about Fremen in general it always makes sense from the perspective of the Fremen being specially the desert people.

  21. “the resulting Dune series will rival Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings for the best speculative fiction film adaptation yet produced”

    Rival??? Assuming Villeneuve maintains his pace, Dune will knock The Lord of the Rings into a cocked hat. Dune is made for grownups, Jackson’s Rings for adolescents. And that is even before we get to quality of adaptation (which, at its root, is a question of the filmmaker understanding the source which he is adapting.)

  22. I do not think that colonialism is a well-fitting analogy for what is happening in Dune. Colonialism essentially means some power moving to an unclaimed area and subjecting it to its rule, then perhaps fioghting over it with another power. However, in Dune we are talking about an empire that is thousands of years old, and the book does not imply in any way that Arrakis would be a fresh addition; in fact, it could hardly be as its spice makes the interplanetary traffic work for ages. I would therefore argue that a better analogy would be, say, the Habsburg king of Spain transferring the fief of Catalunia from one important family to another.

    The common folk has never been consulted over who would rule them, and seldom had reason to love their rulers. The tensions can get high if some group feels different and fears for the future of its way of life. For instance, the Chods (with special privileges as border-guarding folk) have been a part of the Czech kingdom for about 500 years, therefore clearly not a colonial situation, but when they changes higher up in the feudal structure filtered down to them, they rose in revolt and lost it all.

    1. Very little colonialism happened in unclaimed territory. Since 1492 only St Helena was really unclaimed. Before that you have Danish Greenland and Iceland. And before that the Indonesian expansion. All other historical colonial projects displaced, conquered and/or killed a local culture/nation/community.

      1. Just like Europe, East and South Asia, and everywhere else.

        There isn’t a territorial claim on earth that wasn’t established by invasion, conquest or warfare. Singling out European colonies as somehow unique is somewhere between hypocritical and something worse.

        Personally, I’m still awaiting my reparations check from the Duchy of Normandy.

      2. In other words business as usual for every known branch of humanity on every continent. We all live on blood soaked, stolen ground. The only difference lies in how long ago.

    2. It seems to me that the politics of Dune make more sense if you ignore the claim that the imperial institutions in the backstory are thousands of years old. Imagine they had all popped up in the last century or two instead.

      That would make it much more plausible that no one has found out where the Sardaukar come from, or what Guild Navigators look like. Various Bene Gesserit may have decided their loyalty to their children and families outweighs their loyalty to their order, and taught its secrets to their children, but the knowledge has not had time to spread yet.

      The Baron might plot to overthrow the Emperor, and the Emperor fear a plot by the Duke, because their is no history that says such plots must fail.

      And Arrakis might have been conquered by the Empire in the last generation or two, perhaps by the Harkonnens themselves, which would be why even they seem to know so little about it, and no one on it seems to care about the Padishah Emperor.

      Then the scorpion-pit politics of the Empire, and the colony-like politics we see on Arrakis, make more sense.

      1. Pretty sure in the novel Arrakis *had* only been conquered a long lifetime ago – Liet-Kynes’s father was the first Imperial Planetologist

        1. I’m less sure that is proof of the planet recently being conquered and more that the Guild generally discourages too much attention being paid to the source of their spice.

      2. If the institutions of empire / government had only recently appeared, Baron Harkonnen wouldn’t have bothered with such a convoluted plan. In the early period of kingdoms and empires in our history, nobles just raised armies and invaded each other without needing approval of the ruler.

        When Baron Harkonnen speculates that one of his descendants will become emperor, that’s the kind of long term planning needed in say China, or the later Holy Roman Empire.

      3. I think they’re all justifiable in a multi-millenarian Imperium.

        *no one has found out where the Sardaukar come from, or what Guild Navigators look like*

        A few probably did, but didn’t live to tell the tale. There’s no Internet: information dissemination is non-trivial in the Imperium, while bypassing censorship would be nearly impossible. You need a Guild ship to carry the news.

        *Various Bene Gesserit may have decided their loyalty to their children and families outweighs their loyalty to their order, and taught its secrets to their children, but the knowledge has not had time to spread yet.*

        Bene Gesserit training isn’t something you shout out loud to people on the street, and now everybody’s a ninja telepath. It takes many years of training starting in early childhood, under careful supervision. Also, there are mental disciplines and secret knowledge that go hand in hand with physical conditioning. Not really something to spread around.

        *And Arrakis might have been conquered by the Empire in the last generation or two, perhaps by the Harkonnens themselves, which would be why even they seem to know so little about it, and no one on it seems to care about the Padishah Emperor.*

        It’s my understanding from the books that the Guild carefully discouraged curiosity about Arrakis. It knew exactly what its weak point was. “It’s a hell hole that churns out spice, nothing more to know really..”

        Also, Imperial overthrow might be relatively common in-universe. The new Emperor marries a Corrino scion and then it’s business as usual. Paul certainly isn’t in any doubt as to how it works.

        1. “Bene Gesserit training isn’t something you shout out loud … Not really something to spread around.”

          Indeed. The Great Houses who were in on the secret would doubtless just train their own children, and perhaps a few close relatives. But in a steady-state population, the average person has two surviving children. So the number of trained people should double in a generation. And grow a thousandfold in ten generations. And billionfold in thirty generations.

          Thirty generations is about a thousand years, so if the Bene Gesserit have been around for several millennia, their secrets should no longer be very secret. At least, not the ones that provide a valuable life skill.

          Similar arguments apply to the secrets of the Guild, Saudaukar, etc. You can keep a secret for a few decades. But you cannot have thousands of people keep a secret that would be greatly valuable to know for millennia. Not unless they are segregated from the rest on mankind. And it’s hard to keep people segregated from their spouse. And even harder to keep mothers segregated from their children. I suppose the Guild might manage it, but probably not for ten millennia.

          1. The BG at least have arbitrarily powerful tools of mental and social control. An organization that can get a member to facilitate the potential murder of her own son who is also the planetary ruler’s heir (in the middle of his justly paranoid police state) as part of a test, and can also manipulate entire cultures over centuries to maintain religious slots they can plug into at need, can arguably also exercise similarly implausible and lengthy discipline within their organization.

          2. Only if the other parent is not also trained. Otherwise two children is replacement level, not an increase.

  23. We must remember the Fremen aren’t indigenous to Dune. This is just the latest stop on a stormy diaspora that’s seen them chased from their homes, carried off and enslaved, released on unknown but invariably unpleasant planets repeatedly.

  24. On the subject of why Dune is really a tragedy, Norman Spinrad covered this well in a couple of page 1/3 of the way into his essay ‘The Emperor Of Everything.” Originally published in the January 1988 issue of “Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine” (available in the Internet Archive) and republished in his collection “Science Fiction In The Real World.”

    tl;dr: While it has the nominal structure of yet another adolescent power fantasy, it is in fact a tragedy where Paul tries everything he can to avoid the jihad, he is doomed to fail.

  25. I’ll point out an interesting loop that’s now showed up in Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Marvel movie universe: newer movies make old stories more accessible.

    With Lord of the Rings, decades of Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs online and off, and huge numbers of quest fantasies made the LOTR films more palatable to movie-going audiences than they were, say, in the 1970s. People were so used to the tropes of the story that they had to be reminded at first that LOTR was the trope originator.

    Harry Potter benefited from decades of magic school stories, going back to A Wizard of Earthsea and before.

    As for Dune, let’s be blunt: swords and magic shields are silly for war. Why are the warriors not wearing shields, anti-stab suits, and, I don’t know, punching each other out because they can’t be cut? HOWEVER, a decade of Marvel movie craziness, wherein superheroes duke it out because blades and fists work but guns do not, made it easy to have the fights in the 2021 Dune without explaining how the tech worked. You should properly object that Superman was catching bullets and punching robbers in the 1930s (as was the Flash and Batman) so this kind of de-escalation was well-embedded in American fiction well before Herbert wrote Dune. And you’re right, he benefited from the trope too.

    But there’s another loop in Marvel: Jack Kirby’s crazy alt-mystical stuff, on display in Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr. Stragne, Avengers, and now the Eternals. These normalized alt-religion to the point where Paul Atriedes becoming Maud-Dib is just another standard trope, not something trippy and threatening. And that’s okay too.

    I’d just suggest that Dune:The Series is possible now because of LOTR, Harry Potter, and Marvel made billions on serialized stories and because they also normalized tropes that were novel and problematic in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s made all the difference between this movie and its predecessors.

    One thing I’d add: The Herbert family were executive producers on this movie, and to me, it showed. This wasn’t just Villeneuve’s unique vision. And hey, at least this time I’m not ranting about how the stillsuits still don’t work and the sandworms are physiologically backwards, exhaling oxygen and all.

    1. Why don’t warriors in Dune wear anti-stab armour? For the same reason that modern infantry aren’t armoured head to foot and ride everywhere in tanks, and even medieval knights didn’t wear full armour all the time. It would be very expensive for diminishing returns at best, and at worst so hot and cumbersome as to be counter productive.

      The energy shields provide great protection against a wide variety of weapons. Body armour would provide more protection, but remember that there’s no cultural dislike of poisoned weapons in Dune (except maybe among Fremen) so it wouldn’t be *that* much more useful.

      And we know that fighting inside a shield is hot and tiring due to lack of gas exchange. (Early practise bout between Paul and Gurney.) Wearing body armour, especially anything sealed against poison, would be miserable. Instead of being stabbed, your warriors would now be incapacitated or dying from heatstroke.

      And there is the whole cultural pressure that encourages this style of fighting. I thought way too much about this last time Bret wrote about the Fremen:

      http://members.ozemail.com.au/~laranzu/rants/whyDuneWarfare.html

      1. *there’s no cultural dislike of poisoned weapons in Dune (except maybe among Fremen)*

        I think the fremen Maula pistols have poisoned projectiles by default in the books. There is no “light” wound. However, melange does render them immune to a number of poisons common in the rest of the Imperium, so mass chemical attack vs population isn’t feasible on Arrakis.

      2. When people actually fought with swords, they wore armor, for all its disadvantages. They stopped because guns outpaced armor.

        1. And (nearly) all soldiers and warriors in Dune are wearing force field armour, which offers fabulous protection. Any medieval knight would swap their full plate harness for a Dune shield generator without hesitating.

          My point is that armour doesn’t need to be perfect, it needs to be good enough, and adding more protection is far too expensive and/or actually works against you.

          1. But that force armor is against lasguns and bullets, not hand weapons. Would wearing a breastplate or mail shirt to protect your guts against those hand weapons really be a net loss? Especially since (a) you can use advanced materials like titanium alloys or plastics and (b) the armor doesn’t have to withstand warbows.

        2. My understanding is that the sword combat in the Dune world is quite different from sword combat in history because the shields fundamentally change the techniques that will succeed. Unless I am mistaken, swinging a sword would still be too fast and would get stopped by the force shield.

          My understanding is their technique is based on going fast (to out-maneuver your foe) but then suddenly slowing down as you cross the force field, and then speeding it up again to cut–so it’s quite different from any real technique where it makes the most sense to hit the person with the most kinetic energy. For this reason I think the short swords and knives are the most useful to them–once you have slipped through the force shield, you need to quickly accelerate to slice.

          That’s not to say that you are wrong and armour would not be useful in the world–this could be right, I just don’t know if its self-evident. There are some reasons that physical armour might not be useful. Perhaps the emphasis on finesse in this future war means that the benefit of heavy armour to block is outweighed by its limits to your movement. Similarly, if an adversary has entered your force-shield, they’re probably already using so much finesse that they could get to the weak spots of your armour anyway, so its benefit would be negligible. Or perhaps the knives of the future are just so sharp (and as some have commented, possibly poisoned) that they’re not that useful.

          It might still be that armour would be best and the Houses are mistaken in how they conduct their warfare. And I think the Sardukar in the film might have been wearing some simple armour too–maybe in the Dune combat school it does make sense to protect certain spots on you.

    2. I side more with the people who say it is cheap CGI that made LOTR and now Dune possible.

      There have been ‘high concept’ science fiction movies in the past with unusual ideas, such as Forbidden Planet and Planet of the Apes. Never common, but that’s no different from books or TV.

      I’ve got the Jodorowsky’s Dune doco about that attempt to make a Dune movie in the 1970s, before even Star Wars: A New Hope. The backers then didn’t seem too bothered by Dune being confusing or upsetting, it was already a best seller. The movie didn’t get made because it would have cost a fortune and because the director was crazy. (In a good way, but I can see why no-one wanted to give him what would today be a few hundred million dollars.)

  26. I quite liked the actress for Irulan in the 1984 Dune movie which is played by Virginia Madsen. So I am looking forward to what actress will be playing her in the New Dune Movie.

    Whilst I don’t think the Brutalist architecture would fit the Atreides home on Caladan. On Arrakis and on Geidi Prime it works well since it fit those places.

  27. Dune is my favorite book. I have read it and the original six dozens of times. I really enjoyed this film. They didn’t ever explain the lasgun shield problem, did they? We were told why shields are suicide on open sand. I thought the shield VFX from Lynch’s version were quirky and interesting. I have long wondered whether that effect was just cheap and easy to do. I learned today from a YT channel of VFX artists it was extremely difficult with the technology of 1983. They didn’t really do anything with the mentats, or do anything to explain the Butilerian Jihad. Piter is almost cut out of the story entirely, and Hawat has a much reduced part. And looking at the ornithopters, which were amazing, I can’t not ask how that flight control system works without computers. How do shields, or anything, work without computers? I suspect when Herbert wrote it he did not anticipate how computers would colonize every aspect of our lives. At least they make all the tech look real and lived in. Here’s a thing that bothers me, much in the Lynch version and a little in VNV: Jessica should not display emotional distress. The BG are all ice cubes. The Sardukar: better. Lynch version had garbage bag suits. SciFy had ridiculous ren fair costumes. There is a scene in the book where Yueh encounters a Sardukar Colonel and the description makes me think of Daniel Craig playing a bad guy. But we got super soldiers, and it worked.

    As you mentioned, there is very little porting of dialogue from the novel. Lynch did more of that. The master class on that is LOTR. Jackson and his co writers knew the material well. They could assign lines to different characters as the scene required and even the initiated would have to check the text. I like that they cast a young man as Paul. Gender flip on Liet Kynes is a great choice. I was hoping for Edward James Olmos and Michelle Rodriguez for Esmar and Staban Tuek. But we probably won’t meet them. I really hope they don’t cut the gladiator fight with Feyd and the captured Atredies soldier from part 2. And I have HBO Max, so I will watch this a few more times (did see it big screen).

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