DUNE, PART 1
Sci Fi circles are buzzing about the release of Denis Villenue’s film adaption of Dune, which has earned enough good and bad reviews to go around. I come at this not as a film buff but as a life-long Dune fan.
My take on this latest adaption stems from a very specific point of view. Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel is one of my favorite books, and I have read it several times. I have also read the series from Dune Messiah through Chapterhouse: Dune and several of Brian Herbert’s and Kevin Anderson’s prequels. I know well David Lynch’s 1984 film adaption plus both the Dune and Children of Dune miniseries from the early 2000s. I have attempted to absorb some of Jodorowsky’s effort on Dune (bananas). We have a Dune board game from 1979 that is as complex as you would imagine. My husband makes Shai Hulud bread from time to time, a cinnamon spice roll with slivered almonds for teeth. My handles always include Ghanima. I have a “Surf Arrakis” sticker on my snowboard. And I have walked into a Halloween party as Chani, with only one person from the senior set understanding what I was trying to do. This is my starting point.
What draws me to Dune? The complicated layers of politics, religion, family, eugenics, climate change, resources, colonization, love, and power. While some characters obviously bend towards heroism or villainy, ultimately everyone has blood on their hands. I like those stories. I like when it isn’t clear for whom you should be rooting. I like that winning isn’t always winning. I want it to be messy. Dune delivers on all of this. Plus it’s weird AF (Guild Navigators, anyone?), and I could read about the Bene Gesserit all the live long day.
Despite what appears as devoted fandom on my part, I am not all in on all things Dune. I find many areas deeply problematic in the Dune body of work. To go through it would require another post entirely, but I will say Dune was written in a certain time and place from a certain individual with his own issues. There are phobias, appropriations, and tropes galore. For these reasons, while I am still a fan of the original trilogy despite these concerns, Herbert lost me post Children of Dune. While it is revered by many, I think God Emperor of Dune jumps the shark (Jumps the worm? No, it’s the worm who jumps…and squishes everyone). Moving past Emporer, he tried to readdress some of these problematic themes in a way that I find ultimately cringe-worthy. Similarly, the films are also made at specific intersections, and I think it is important to always take a critical look at how choices play out. Plus at the end of the day, the book is just really hard to adapt into a movie. I don’t know that there will ever be a film everyone loves.
This bring me to the current attempt, which I enjoyed. I think Villenue stays faithful to the novel but also smooths out some of the rough patches for a more contemporary sensibility. The Baron Harkonnen is still an evil, floating menace, but his portrayal is not as grotesque or gratuitous as prior versions. Rabban is a bad dude but not a dolt. Leto is an emotionally open father. Jessica gets to deliver the Litany of Fear this time around. They flipped the script on Liet Kynes, who is now played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster. And there are numerous edgier lines of dialogue from past iterations left out or worded anew to get the point across while leaving some of that original baggage behind. Could there have been other choices made to push the needle further while still telling this story in an authentic way? Sure. But I appreciate what I am seeing.
I also do not take issue with how they scale the story down in order to focus. We don’t meet Feyd, Shaddam or Irulan yet. Some of the early cast of characters who have depth in the books but are often truncated in film are featured a bit more, particularly Duncan Idaho, who is downright playful and has more screen time in this version than any other I have seen (which of course they did because Jason Momoa). And they spend a lot of time with Paul’s visions, which is tricky. These visions are of prime importance, and it’s an interesting puzzle to figure out how to show them. In this film, there are many, and they get the heart of the matter and foretell his central struggle that runs through book 3.
While these choices make sense to me, I can see how they may be frustrating to others. You are introduced to a heck of a lot of people, many who die or disappear, and then we spend the second half with Paul’s and Jessica’s progression towards the Fremen. The pacing pivots, and the movie ends with no closure. I see people asking, “Why did they leave it there?” “Why do we need to care about XYZ?” “What was that all for?”
I get it. This is not meant to be a stand alone movie, and they better make Part 2. But even if they don’t, I will watch it again. It’s a feast for the eyes, it’s referencing all the iconic stuff, and the cast is a roll call of coolness. Before this, I was a Timothee Chalamet fan, so I am down with his emo take and loved the scene of him freaking out in the still tent. Oscar Isaac brings rainy PacNW beard energy from Caladan, and I dig it. Rebecca Ferguson is flippin’ magnificent as the Jessica I have always wanted. I am really looking forward to more Javier Bardem and Zendaya. I hope they make Josh Brolin sing. But my favorite person of this entire thing by far is Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat. That parasol, y’all.