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!
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.
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.