Thoughts on the “Dune” movie (2021)

Note the title of this post does not include the word “review.” This isn’t a review in the typical sense. It’s long and rambling, even by my standards. But I promised Trent Lewin that I would share my thoughts on it when I finally saw it. (You can read Trent’s take here.) So, here goes.

The Book

I reviewed the book Dune here, on what was originally going to be the release date for the movie. I won’t bother rehashing everything I said there. Instead, I’ll just say that Frank Herbert went to write an article about sand dunes in Oregon, got fascinated with ecology and messianic leaders, and did a bunch of magic mushrooms. The resulting book is about what you would expect. It is interesting, multifaceted, and more than a bit bizarre. In some superficial ways, it’s just a good ol’ fashioned Sword and Planet adventure, with a hero who defeats his enemies, claims his birthright, and marries a princess… but if you’re expecting an Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn, your reaction is likely to be “WTF did I just read?”

Actually, that will probably be your reaction no matter what. It was mine, and I even (mostly) liked the book. It’s different, and I respect that. My biggest problem with the book is also a problem with the movie, so I’ll hold off on discussing that until later.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

In the early 1970s, Alejandro Jodorowsky planned to adapt the book into an epic film. The project never got off the ground, but did result in a sprawling collection of interesting storyboards and concept art, which you can see here. The artists appear to have taken the magic mushroom elements and run with them. The project spawned a documentary, which I have not seen, but which Josh Sawyer describes the ending of as follows:

“Alejandro says that in the end the actual making of the film would have ruined it, because it was absolutely perfect in his mind.”

Remember this.

Lynch’s Dune

After Jodorowsky’s attempt failed, Dino de Laurentiis bought the rights, and hired David Lynch to direct an adaptation, released in 1984. This film is a cult classic, but in my opinion, it’s a mess. The worst part is the constant voice-overs used to convey characters’ thoughts. This is in keeping with Herbert’s writing style, but it just goes to show you what worked on the page won’t work in a movie.

All that said, the film does have a unique and unsettling aesthetic, which is probably the most essential quality for any Dune adaptation. There’s no doubt Lynch had a vision, though it was a weird and probably not mass-marketable one. Not to mention that the special FX of the ’80s were just not up to creating the stuff he was trying to portray.

Villeneuve‘s Dune 

Psych! First, I have to talk about some other Villeneuve movies. This is the third one of his I’ve seen, the others being Arrival, which was pretty good, and Blade Runner 2049, which was turgid. It’s hard to make something cyberpunk that I don’t like, and yet 2049 managed to do it. So, I can’t say I was super-optimistic going into Dune.

But I watched it. I even got the “limited edition pain box” version, because, well, how could I not, with a name like that?

So what is the deal with this movie? Is it good? Is it bad? Does it do what it’s supposed to do? Come to that, what is it supposed to do?

Uh oh. It looks like we’ve run into a problem before we’ve even started. We can’t analyze Dune without understanding what a movie adaptation should be doing. So I guess more work is needed. Hold the phone, everybody!

Lean’s Dune?

Before Lynch, even before Jodorowsky, Sir David Lean was offered a chance at directing Dune, but he turned it down.

I sort of understand this, because Lean wasn’t a science fiction guy. But nevertheless, this is a tragedy of epic proportions. Because Lean was the director most qualified to direct Dune. Of course, I should stipulate that he would need his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Bolt.

Lean and Bolt created one of the greatest desert epics ever made, Lawrence of Arabia. If you read my review of the Dune novel above, you know my thoughts on Lawrence‘s influence on the entire Dune universe as Herbert conceived it. It’s profound. Lawrence of Arabia is an incredible adaptation of an extremely complex book, T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In fact, it’s pretty much the gold standard by which I judge all other cinematic adaptations.

It’s a completely faithful adaptation, but not in the sense that Bolt took every single thing in the book and included it in his script. That would be impossible. Rather, it’s faithful in the sense that it captures everything Lawrence records in his memoir: his initial hopes for a grand future for the Arab revolt, his own conflicted psychological turmoil, and his ultimate disillusionment at the cynical manipulation of himself and the men he led by the generals and politicians of the Great Powers. You feel all of it in the final scene as the broken Lawrence rides off to return to England, a motorcycle engine growling ominously nearby as the screen fades to black.

Ultimately, Lawrence of Arabia is about how an introverted, troubled, brilliant officer tried to accomplish something great by playing the role of a leader that deep down, he knew he never could be. And Dune, as a series, is about much the same thing. Frank Herbert said:

“The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”

“Lawrence of Arabia” was a hero. “Paul Muad’dib,” the “Kwisatz Haderach,” is a hero. But at some level, T.E. Lawrence and Paul Atreides know, more than anyone else, that it’s just a role; a story created to fit a preconceived pattern in the minds of the masses.

In a sense, Dune itself is an adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia, just in space, with psychic witches and sandworms.

On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Okay, I’m cheating now. That’s a book by Thomas Carlyle, which I have not read, although my understanding is it’s a series of essays about historical figures like Cromwell, Napoleon, etc. who rose to power. I suppose I should have picked a more creative title for this section, but what I actually want to talk about is hero-worship.

It so happens I’m reading Garibaldi’s Defence of the Roman Republic by George MacCaulay Trevelyan at the moment. It’s pretty much the definition of a hagiography, as Trevelyan makes no effort whatsoever to hide his blind adoration of Garibaldi.

Garibaldi is an interesting figure, with his own parallels to Paul Atreides. He too led a guerrilla war that battled great dynasties and inspired an impressive cult following in England with tales of his heroics. Indeed, he is one of those romantic figures of Mediterranean politics that should, I think, inform any interpretation of Dune, because Dune is heavily influenced by a powerful strain of Machiavellian political theory in its depiction of warring aristocratic houses and shifting family alliances.

Really, almost everything in Dune has some analogue in actual, if mostly forgotten history; which I suspect is why its world is one that so many people get absorbed in. It has echoes of things dimly remembered, or not even remembered, but somehow with a feeling of eminent plausibility, like having a dream that you think you’ve had before.

Villeneuve‘s Dune (For Real This Time)

Having established all that, we are now finally prepared to attack the question of whether the new Dune movie is any good or not. The answer will ride on whether or not it conveys the theme and mood of its source material.

The answer is… well, sorta.

Dune gets most of the little things right. The art direction is excellent. The acting is good. The atmosphere generally feels alien. Almost everything shown is a scene depicted in the book. Not only does it copy the things I liked about the book, but it even conveys the things I didn’t like. One of these is that I find Paul unlikable in the book, and I find him unlikable in the movies. Now, given the Herbert quote above, I think that may be deliberate. Because Paul isn’t a hero, but everybody worships him as such, you come away with the feeling that he’s a fraud. In every depiction, Leto is so much better and more interesting, and in both book and film, I feel like the story starts running out of steam at the point where he dies.

That makes the story weaker in my opinion, but I’m willing to give the movie a pass on this since I have the same problem with the book.

More significantly, though, there are places where Dune still feels like a product of the cinematic fads of the 2020s. One example is the damned washed-out lens filter. The scene that highlights this most is when Duke Leto and Gurney Halleck are looking over their newly-acquired holdings on Arrakis. Halleck tells Leto the sun is getting too high, and they can’t stay out. And sure, you can see there’s some sun, and imagine it’s probably hot.

But you don’t feel the heat. You don’t viscerally sense the sun beating down on you. In Lawrence of Arabia, you do.

This is the feeling I had throughout the movie. It’s good, it’s solid, but it’s also just not quite willing to take that extra step that propels it into timelessness. And timelessness is a very important quality for Dune.

If there’s one place where Lynch’s Dune has an advantage, it’s that the aesthetic is so weird it creates a uniquely alien vibe that really does convey the feeling that you’re in another world. I’m not saying that it’s a better film. It’s seriously not; it’s kind of a 1980s cheesefest if I’m being honest. But I am saying, Dune, more than most films, is one where a sense of aesthetics is incredibly important.

This is probably a little bit harsh on my part, I’ll admit. Every movie is of course a product of its time. Even Lawrence of Arabia, for as well as it holds up overall, has a few elements that date it as a 1960s Epic Motion Picture, like Maurice Jarre’s occasionally over-the-top soundtrack. If the problem could be reduced to a matter of lens filters, I wouldn’t complain about it. (Much.)

No, the problem here goes even deeper. And it goes right to the heart of what the core appeal of Dune is.

“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere.”

The universe of Dune is effectively a post-Enlightenment society. It’s not a coincidence that much of the book draws inspiration from pre-Enlightenment societies. In fact, the central idea of Dune is the rejection of rationality, from the Butlerian Jihad that destroyed Artificial Intelligences to the heavy emphasis on mind-altering drugs and visions. There is no evidence of Enlightenment concepts like “constitutional government” or “individual liberty.”

In my opinion, this is why the whole thing feels so weird and foreign. We are a society based on Reason, and on encountering a society that is not based on Reason, but on instinct, superstition, heredity and above all else, power, we feel like we have stepped into another universe altogether. (Although, if you think about it, considering the Enlightenment began in the 16th century, such societies are actually the norm, and we are the exception.)

This comes through very clearly in the book, which is one reason there are things in the book that, to be blunt, make absolutely no sense whatsoever.  They’re not supposed to. Remember: magic mushrooms.

This movie, although it has no shortage of visions, hallucinations and other weirdness, doesn’t convey that. I’m not sure exactly why. Arrival did a good job of messing with the viewer’s mind to the point that if you want to understand the plot, you have to perceive time as a Möbius strip, which is also basically the state Paul is in by the time he meets the Fremen. Yet, I never got that feeling of otherworldly eeriness that’s so integral to the Dune experience.

Actually, no. There was one scene where I did get it. The creepy chant that plays while the Sardaukar soldiers are gearing up to attack Arrakis gave me the uncanny feeling of witnessing something completely alien to my own perception of reality. I liked that scene a lot.

Otherwise, though… it was an unremarkable movie. Not bad by any means, and with some enjoyable visuals and interesting shots. It just felt hollow and meaningless, which is in a way tragic because it tried so hard to be faithful to its source material that it lacked the boldness to do something truly unusual… which, paradoxically, is exactly what made its source material good to begin with.

But recall the words of Jodorowsky paraphrased above. Perhaps there can never be a perfect Dune adaptation because the universe of Dune can only be formed in the mind of the reader. And for every reader, it compiles slightly differently, as a unique and fragile structure, and to try and preserve or share this creation is a fool’s errand.

31 Comments

  1. An excellent review that I think gets to a lot of the mystery of the book (and the movie). I just finished book five in the Dune series. I was pleasantly surprised by book four, so I went on to book five. Now, I’m not sure I’ll make it to book six, but feel like I have to now. But … I think the biggest issue with Dune is that there is actually no heart and soul to the story.

    I’m going to blog about this, hopefully later today, but one of the things I realized as I read book five is that none of the characters in any of the books are “normal people.” They are all leaders and people with prescient ability and all sorts of other supernatural powers and abilities that render them essentially heartless and soulless. The books and the story line are about nothing other than the political power struggles of the ruling class and there is so much devoted to philosophizing and rhapsodizing about politics and power and religion and … well, the story just gets lost in all of that, and there is never, ever any progress made in these topics of great discussion. Maybe that was Herbert’s point? That leaders and heroes lose their humanity?

    But … one of the things you don’t really touch on in your review. Something I wondered about when I read Dune years ago and which somebody on Twitter was relentless about when the movie first came out. There is a huge foundation about this story that derives from the Middle East and Islam. From the desert wasteland to a lot of the terminology, so much of this seems to come from those two things — the ME and Islam. While you compare this movie to Lawrence of Arabia which, obviously was placed in the ME … what do you think about the idea that one of the elements of the story was related to Herbert’s views of Islam?

    1. Great question. I had to think about it for a while before replying. I read a quote somewhere from Herbert, saying essentially that Messianic religions seem to somehow flourish most in the desert.

      My sense is that Herbert’s understanding of Islam isn’t that deep, beyond a few basic concepts. Although, it’s interesting… in the 1960s, the term “jihad” would have been esoteric , whereas now it’s pretty well known. So, just the fact he was aware of some of these terms put him well ahead of the curve, for his time.

      Here’s my feeling: Herbert’s understanding of Islam was heavily based on what he knew of the Bedouin and other similar groups famed for guerrilla warfare. Extrapolating from that was what created many of the underlying concepts and themes in the story, as well as many of the terms etc.

      To put it another way… I think there are actually analogous concepts to a lot of the ideas that he derived from Islam which could be found in early Christianity or even Paganism. But he chose to use the Islamic terms and atmosphere because (1) it fit the desert setting and (2) it was less well-known at the time, so felt more “alien” to his readers.

      Having said all that, that’s just my general impression. And I’ve only read “Dune” and “Dune: Messiah” so far, so it may be there’s more to say after reading the rest. I think your point that non of the characters are normal people is spot-on. Thinking about it, I realized this is why Duke Leto in the first book is my favorite character. Sure, he’s an important nobleman in charge of a planet, but he still seemed like just a regular guy trying to do his job and be a good “husband” (even though Jessica’s not his wife, but might as well be) and father. He’s the only one who doesn’t seem overcome with weird megalomaniacal fantasies.

      1. You may be right about Duke Leto and he may just be the last “normal” person featured in the story. As the books drag on, all of the Atreides descendants seem to have mystical powers just because they are Atreides.

        As for the Islam angle, I do think it becomes more apparent in later books.

  2. Loved your analysis, as always. I think I already talked with you about how the unlikeability of Paul Muad’dib kind of ruined the fun for me, and how that will probably keep me from watching the movies, but I 100% appreciate this deep dive. The Laurence of Arabia tie in was fantastic, and I never would have known about it.

  3. A brilliant analysis. Puts my quippy review to shame. I love the emphasis on the anti-hero, but more than that, the lack of otherworldliness that is so central to such a story. I think you hit that right on – that might actually be the part I liked about Lynch’s version. I will see the second part of Dune, and I wish it well, but wow – if this had felt a tenth like Lawrence of Arabia, it would already be one for the storybooks.

    I have to take exception on BR 2049! I love that movie passionately. It had feels aplenty, and much weirdness, and felt somehow faithful to the original.

  4. Don’t leave out Richard P. Rubenstein’s Dune mini-series It covers the whole book. The latest ends as Paul is exiled, making us wait for a second and most likely third movie. Harlan Ellison said that the Dune movie in 1980 was wrecked by an incoming President of the studio not wanting to give the previous guy credit.

    1. I really need to watch that mini-series. That’s the only reason I didn’t include it here.

  5. I read the first Dune book eons ago, and I’ve watched Lawrence of Arabia twice, and I’ve actually read Seven Pillars of Wisdom (not recently). Dune to me is like a dream I had a long time ago, and I’m happy to leave it that way. Great analysis, Berthold. Now I know as much about this epic story as I need to.

  6. This review is brilliant. By moving through the history of ‘Filming Dune’ and citing seminal influences you have summed up the very strangeness almost incomprehensibility of the Dune universe (Ok…just how do you guys fold space..uhh?). I tried the books and beyond the first novel just ‘didn’t get them’…not in tune I suppose.
    This film does sound an intriguing movie to watch, which I will probably do when all the corporations have finished gouging money out of folk and second-hand copies start to filter out.
    But ‘Dune’, though? How can you do justice to any viewpoint without going into great detail. Taking Heinlein’s work apart is easy, but Herbert’s Dune, to flip back time it was written and I was but an early teen ‘I mean, like man…It’s so far out. Y’know, like it’s cosmic man. It’s vast,’
    PS: Blade Runner 2049…..And I thought it was just me who was wading through ‘something’ not quite right and not getting the message. I loved ‘Arrival’, the concept of language being vital and leading to an transcendence of Time. Annd I saw ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in the cinema went it came out first. Amazing. Certainly an influence.

    1. You’re right! “Y’know, like it’s cosmic man.” is pretty much the only way you can describe it.

      I’ve only read the second book after Dune so far and it was bizarre and incomprehensible. Some good lines, but just too… weird.

      1. Same here. I did try back in the early 1990s to read the whole shebang, but failed, could not tune into the wavelengths….. And if reading fiction must empathise or like at least one major character…..nope.
        ‘Just not my scene man,’

        1. That’s what all the Philistines say. :p
          To be honest, Harrison Ford was never high on my list of brilliant actors. Rutger Hauer on the other hand was /was/ brilliant.

          1. And with good cause, 😃 historically the expert jury is still out over these folk…

            No doubt without Rutger Hauger that film would not have achieved it’s status.
            (And Vangelis’ score)

  7. Great read, Berthold. I passed on the Ace paperback version of Dune back in 1965, during my golden years of SF reading, and have never found any reason to revisit that decision. From what Mark said, I would hate the book. I think the desert setting didn’t work for me, nor did a Messianic hero, and it was probably too far out for me back then, since was one of several people of my generation that wasn’t betting stoned in 1965. It was, however voted their favorite SF book by the views of the SF Youtube channel Media Death Cult, this fall by a large margin, and is said to be the best selling SF book of all time.

    I’m not a movie guy, so if I saw Lawrence of Arabia, I would’ve seen it on TV, back when they ran movies on broadcast TV. Though I did read a biography of him, “Hero” by Micheal Korda, but I have no real recollection about the fellow.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts about Dune, I enjoy learning about books and movies that I have no intention of reading or viewing. It’s always nice to know something about them.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I always worry people who haven’t seen the thing I’m writing about will find it incomprehensible.

      I have the book “Hero” somewhere; I should find it and read it.

  8. I agree wholeheartedly about the weirdness comparison between Lynch’s and Villeneuve’s Dunes. I’ve come to realize that weirdness in movies counts for a lot with me, and that weirdness is something in increasingly short supply in Hollywood these days.

    I love the comparison with Lawrence of Arabia as well. I love both Seven Pillars of Wisdom and the (entirely successful) movie adaptation.

  9. Mmmm….I haven’t seen /this/ Dune adaptation but I have seen all the others and they were awful, true stinkers. But then I’m one of those people who would walk over hot coals to save the book from a bonfire!
    To be honest, Dune was always a meld of scifi and fantasy, but I rather like that.
    I saw Lawrence of Arabia at the cinema over two epic nights when I was about twelve, one of the few outings we ever took as a family, and like you, I think it’s one of the greatest movie’s ever made. Would Lean have captured the essence of the book? No idea. All I know is that the current director said he wanted to create /his/ vision of Dune because he loved the book. That’s good enough for me. 😀

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