Villeneuve’s “Dune”: Blending Spectacle and Cultural Erasure

By Justice HaganJanuary 29, 2022

Villeneuve’s “Dune”: Blending Spectacle and Cultural Erasure
IT HAS BEEN nearly two decades since the last time Dune was adapted for the screen. The two Sci Fi channel productions, 2000’s Frank Herbert’s Dune and 2003’s Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune — essentially two four-and-a-half hour-long films — tried hard to capture the full picture of the novel but altered aspects of the story and characters and failed to provide the depth of storytelling that fans demanded. David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation was imaginative but deeply flawed in many ways, and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s famously unsuccessful attempt strayed even further from the novel than Lynch’s and was such a spectacular production failure that it became the subject of an acclaimed documentary. With no news of further plans to adapt one of the most acclaimed science fiction texts of the 20th century to film, it came as a welcome surprise to fans of Herbert’s visionary saga when Denis Villeneuve, the director of the critically praised Arrival, was hired in 2016 to try it again.

Of all the novel-to-film adaptations throughout the years, Dune might take the prize as the one approached with the greatest trepidation. There is something about Dune’s scope of — and appreciation for — ecology and history that just can’t seem to make its way to the screen. This is not to say that its depictions of humanity’s troubled past and the role humans can play on an interstellar level in the future are perfect — not to mention the novel’s issues with white saviorhood and gender — but its dream is a compelling one.

And Dune is just the first book of a series that spanned two decades of writing. The Sci Fi miniseries Children of Dune combined the events of the second and third books of the series, going beyond the scope of either Jodorowsky or Lynch in trying to tell the “whole” story of the Atreides family and their descendants. But it is important to note that there was no “whole” story when any of these film or television adaptations were made, as Frank Herbert passed away before he could write the seventh and final novel of the series. And though 2006 and 2007 saw Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune, written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson using Herbert’s notes for the final novel to bring the story to a somewhat satisfactory if too-delayed ending, the franchise had by that time already expanded beyond novels to include video games, comic books, and other forms of storytelling media.

While the first novel could stand on its own as a complete story, there is something about the unfinished nature of the series that lends itself to exploration by other artists with different visions. And though these new forms can certainly fall short of the expectations of audiences and critics, as was the case with Lynch’s film and doubtlessly would have been the case with Jodorowsky’s bloated dream, the Dune franchise as a shared endeavor calls to the community of artists for adaptation and transformation again and again. After all, though Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s novels are based on Frank Herbert’s notes, they are interpretations themselves and don’t necessarily represent the specific vision Herbert had for the final novel.

The rollout for Villeneuve’s Dune was accomplished with unreserved fanfare. Though this was certainly anticipated to some degree, little did we know how far beyond our expectations it would be — only the Star Wars sequel trilogy of the 2010s and Avengers: Endgame stand on the same level as the year leading up to the release of Villeneuve’s film and the stars that made up its cast. One cannot help but feel a little sorry for Timothée Chalamet, who plays the lead role of Paul Atreides, standing alongside actors like Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa, Oscar Issac, Stellan Skarsgård, and the rest of the film’s roster of award winners. Though talented, Chalamet’s performance was almost always eclipsed by the legendary performers whose supporting roles merited only minutes of screentime.

The film is a mostly faithful retelling of the first of three parts of the book, occupying that space of least resistance between providing just the right amount of spectacle and story from the novel, while lacking some of its cultural and historical essentials. Beginning with the departure of House Harkonnen from the governorship of the planet Arrakis — known informally as Dune by those familiar with the world — the events of the film follow House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides, as they assume stewardship over the planet at the command of the emperor. As the sole source of the spice melange, a substance that expands human physical and mental abilities to superhuman levels, Arrakis is the most valuable planet in the universe and a source of extreme wealth — and danger — for those who control it. Though it lacks some of the palace intrigue of the novel and the miniseries adaptation, a fair amount of the film centers on Duke Leto’s knowledge — a knowledge shared by his advisors — that this circumstance can only be a trap laid by their enemies and that their time is short before it springs. In the brief time they have on the planet, Leto tries to rule with justice and equity, in contrast to the Harkonnen butchers who abused the population. Sure enough, the almost oppressive anxiety of waiting for the trap to spring explodes when the combined forces of the emperor and House Harkonnen attack and rout the Atreides, due in no small part to the treason of the family physician, Dr. Yueh, whose betrayal is coerced. Paul and his mother flee into the deep desert, where they encounter the Fremen and Paul takes the next steps on his transformative journey.

Like the Sci Fi miniseries, the giant sandworms make only a couple of appearances in the film, and the connection between them and the production of the spice, though heavily implied by this point in the novel, is only hinted at in the film. With their introduction, we gain a degree of the understanding provided in the novel, which contains far more exposition on the topic of the titanic creatures than any film could. But while the audience isn’t provided with some of the less critical facts of the sandworm, we do come to learn both its Fremen name — Shai-hulud — and the reverence they have for it. The Fremen believe that the sandworm is a physical manifestation of God, and that its cycle of life on Arrakis is a divine one. When Jessica chooses Shadout Mapes as the caretaker of their home, the woman presents her with a crysknife, a sandworm tooth made into a weapon sacred to the Fremen. Mapes’s emotional realization of the prophecy coming to fulfillment, along with the use of the crysknife in the scene, quickly cements the sandworm’s importance in the culture of the Fremen. Like many of the Fremen, Mapes believes in the prophecy of the Lisan al Gaib, the Voice of the Outer World, that identifies Paul and his mother as messianic figures. The Fremen refer to Paul as Mahdi, a divine personage who will lead the Fremen spiritually.

It is in this connection to Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) culture, religious history, and prophecy where the film diverges from its source material in significant ways. When writing Dune, Frank Herbert ventured deeply into MENA society and culture in creating the Fremen and the other peoples and cultures of the wider setting of the novel. This is not to say that he presented them with perfect accuracy, but he was one of the first Western writers to use the genre of science fiction to address the realities of natural resource exploitation and the colonization of those spaces of exploitation. Though some writers might feel no need to gain insights about cultural and spiritual beliefs from the societies that they are borrowing from in their work, Herbert’s own research notes show a careful reading of these histories and spaces.

But whether or not the novel provides an accurate adaptation of the prophecy of the Mahdi or precision in depicting the Persian and Turkish dynastic tradition in the court of the emperor does not mean that these things can be casually removed from the story. After all, Herbert’s decision to create a story that was not Western-centric and that imagined the ways that MENA cultures would manifest millennia into the future showed a belief that they are a significant part of humanity’s shared heritage. By deliberately removing the more explicit references to Islamic cultures and traditions from the story — perhaps most noticeably changing “jihad” to “crusade” — and only leaving a token trace of them to match the desert aesthetic, Villeneuve forces the story back into a Western perspective, one with which American and European audiences will more easily understand and identify, something which is further confirmed by continuing to cast — as the Lynch film and miniseries did — actors from every background except MENA to play Fremen roles.

Though apprehension is a reasonable stance when starting a novel filled with Islamic-inspired themes and references written by a white, male, American author and published in 1965, Herbert’s portrayal of those themes and references remains significantly more thoughtful and holistic than that of the filmmakers who have tried to adapt his work in the subsequent decades. For example, the Fremen society into which many of these cultural markers have been placed is depicted in the novel as one not only deserving of respect but also possessed of a unique endurance and strength necessary to resist the oppressive forces in the story. It is only though Paul’s transformation into Muad’Dib — his Fremen name — through Fremen tutelage that he is able to fulfill his destiny. And while we have only seen a portion of the story that Villenueve intends to tell, at this point it doesn’t seem like the Fremen from the novel have made their way to the film. Though they still possess a “desert power” that will doubtlessly play a role in overthrowing the returned Harkonnen forces, simply being mysterious has replaced the quiet reverence that was so characteristic of their mystique in the novel.

However, filmmakers and storytellers today might not feel comfortable reaching for the same repository of cultural knowledge that Herbert did more than half a century ago, and this is at least partially rooted in the history of war and occupation of MENA lands as well as texts featuring MENA cultures depicted in ways that have offended both through their inaccuracy and their negative portrayal. But telling the story of Dune requires more than just a desert setting and the occasional Islamic reference; this rich cultural and religious history needs to be woven into the story in a way that would diminish or compromise it if it were removed. Unfortunately, with Dune: Part One, we have a film that discards those challenging and enriching parts of the narrative, choosing to reduce the MENA contributions to Herbert’s epic to those token gestures of the exotic common in Western-centric storytelling.

There might never be a Dune film that accomplishes all of these narrative goals. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Villeneuve’s film, or any of the other film and television adaptations, have been failures. Clearly there is something about Dune that drives art and artists to revisit the story in new ways, some ineffable quality or power that inspires writers and filmmakers to present the epic to new audiences and generations. Maybe one of them — perhaps Villeneuve’s second film, if they can find a way to change course — will find a way to honor the Islamic themes and MENA heritage essential to the novel, rather than replacing them with something easier and Western. Maybe then we’ll see what a Dune film can really be.

I just hope we don’t have to wait another 20 years.


Justice Hagan is a lecturer in the English department at Marquette University.

LARB Contributor

Justice Hagan is a lecturer in the English department at Marquette University. His areas of research and teaching are 20th- and 21st-century literary and cultural studies, and his latest projects focus on forced migrant literature, adoption studies, and science fiction.


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