Dune should've been less Dune-y

Dune. Illustrated | Warner Bros. Pictures, iStock

Of all the great Hollywood curses — from the making of The Exorcist to the ill fates that befall Superman actors — perhaps none occupies the imagination as much as the doomed efforts to adapt Frank Herbert's Dune.

David Lynch's universally maligned attempt in 1984 is remembered as one of the most spectacular box office bombs of all time. The director considered it to be such a "total failure" that he replaced his name in the credits with the pseudonym Alan Smithee. A young Ridley Scott also made an unsuccessful attempt, ultimately departing the uncompleted project to make another sci-fi film instead. Most mythical of all was Alejandro Jodorowsky's planned 15-hour adaptation with an intended score by Pink Floyd and appearances by Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dalí — a vision so delusionally (and hallucinogenically?) ambitious that the failed film became the subject of a documentary.

Now Denis Villeneuve's adaptation, out this Friday, is being celebrated as the curse-breaker. But in truth, his Dune joins this line of failures because it repeats the mistakes of its source material. Villeneuve's Dune is too Dune-y.

Published in 1965, Dune is the first chapter in the chronicle of Paul Atreides, whose father, Duke Leto, is appointed by the emperor to manage the nearly inhospitable desert planet of Arrakis, where spice — an addictive drug essential for space travel — is mined. Arrakis was previously managed by House Atreides' greatest enemy, House Harkonnen, a ruthless, Soviet-like people who conspire secretly with the emperor to take the planet back. Caught in the crosshairs of this political melee are the indigenous people of Arrakis, the Fremen, who consider Paul — who is the culmination of a centuries-long eugenics program — to be their reluctant messiah thanks to a prophecy planted by the shadowy religious sisterhood to which Paul's mother, Jessica, belongs.

Also, there are sandworms.

Herbert's Dune was enormously influential to the science fiction and fantasy community, a progenitor of Star Wars, The Wheel of Time, and Game of Thrones. With its Byzantine politics, its absorbingly strange worlds (requiring four appendices, a glossary, and cartographic notes), and a female-forward plot that was relatively unusual for the genre when Dune first published in 1965, it's remained a popular read through the years, selling millions of copies worldwide (and even appearing in Instagram ads as a sort of status prop). It's a book I've personally revisited over the years and enjoyed immensely, even despite its flaws.

However you feel about it, though, Dune is a complicated book. It's this thorniness that's allowed it to be co-opted by white supremacists and neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer, and "Villeneuve's film adaptation [is] highly anticipated on white nationalist sites such as Counter-Currents and the Daily Stormer," according to Jordan S. Carroll, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Their affection for the book depends on a wilfully selective interpretation:

Dune was initially received as a countercultural parable warning against ecological devastation and autocratic rule, but geek fascists see the novel as a blueprint for the future. [...] Paul is a mutant übermensch whose potential sets him apart from everyone else. [...] In the fascist reading of the novel, space colonization has scattered the human species, but what Herbert calls a "race consciousness" moves them to unite under Paul, who sweeps away all opposition in a jihad that kills 60,000,000,000. For the alt-right, Paul stands as the ideal of a sovereign ruler who violently overthrows a decadent regime to bring together "Europid" peoples into a single imperium or ethnostate. [Jordan S. Carroll and the Los Angeles Review of Books]

Understanding Dune this way requires picking and choosing parts of the text. It's not the only, or even the most natural, interpretation. But Villeneuve's film, as an uncritical adaptation, leaves the door open to exactly this understanding. And because his Dune is intended to be one installment of a trilogy, this first movie never gets to the parts of the series that firmly upend the portrait of Paul as the übermensch hero of the Fremen. Dune: Part Two (let alone Part Three) has yet to be greenlit, which means right now we're left with a standalone picture that serves as a testament to the murky, and easily warped, politics of Herbert's work.

Fans have attempted to defend Dune over the years, arguing that Paul's reluctance to accept his fate as the Fremen's messiah is intended to complicate what would otherwise be a white savior narrative (the Fremen are clearly inspired by Arabic and Islamic cultures, while Paul — always depicted in film adaptations as being of white European ancestry — is loosely modeled on Lawrence of Arabia). Villeneuve himself falls into this camp, arguing that his movie is "the opposite" of a white savior story. Other fans have likewise defended the books by pointing to Herbert's numerous quotes about how his series is intended as a cautionary tale against zealotry, idolization, and hero worship.

Still, even a galaxy brain take that Paul ultimately isn't the hero of Dune doesn't change the fact that he's the protagonist or that all his foot-dragging about being the messiah to the Fremen makes him, as Carroll writes, "look like the Nazi Einsatzgruppen who pitied themselves for being forced to endure the difficult task of committing mass killings to build the thousand-year Reich." Additionally, that the Fremen are so easily duped by a manufactured prophecy doesn't exactly imbue them any meaningful agency. Not to mention the mere fact that "'the Arabs are destined to kill everyone in a religious war' is not a good look, no matter what complicating factors are in play," as historian Paul B. Sturtevant dryly points out on his blog.

Villeneuve could have used his adaptation to interrogate the text and frustrate fascist readings. Instead, he seems to have been most interested in high-gloss visuals and, as he put it in an interview with Nerds of Color, an outcome that feels, to him, "authentic, it feels honest, and true to the book." Unfortunately, this means he parrots Herbert's mistakes.

Take, for example, Villeneuve's inability to envision anyone but the French-American actor Timothée Chalamet as Paul: "We were like, 'who should play Paul?' And we both said, 'It's Timothée Chalamet.' It has to be Timothée ... There was no plan B," the director further recalled to Nerds of Color. But there's no reason Paul had to be a white character, a casting decision that emphasizes the never-fully-subverted colonialist undertones of the story.

Likewise, while Herbert used the language and culture of the Middle East as aesthetic inspiration, Villeneuve's Dune veers uncomfortably close to Orientalism with its superficial borrowing of Islamic dress, language, prayer, and musical influences. There are no Middle Eastern actors in any of the principal roles, and while the cast is on the one hand impressively diverse, that "one-ethnicity-fits-all casting" — as critic Hanna Flint has put it for SyFy Wire — doesn't absolve the film from the fact that it borrows from Arab Islamic culture without following through in its casting choices. Further, if the Fremen are to be ethnically diverse in their appearance — Zendaya, who is Black, plays the Fremen woman Chani, while Spanish actor Javier Bardem plays the tribal leader Stilgar — it gives even less credence to Villeneuve's insistence that a white man had to play Paul.

Likewise, American costume designers Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan were supposedly inspired by "the clothes of desert people such as Bedouins and Tuaregs" in dressing the Fremen, while Hans Zimmer's score includes "vocals bordering ululating," as The Observer points out. All of this is an effort in exotification, conveying that Dune is set in "another time, another planet." Of course, the "exotic," "otherworldly" inspiration is the cultures of millions of people in our own world. It's only exotic in the West.

And there was no reason Villeneuve had to do ... well, any of this. Case in point: He notably removes from the script all traces of Herbert's vilely homophobic writing of the Baron Harkonnen, which had no place in a 21st-century adaptation. But had Villeneuve not been so single-minded about otherwise making his adaptation of Dune so Dune-y, there might have been opportunities for him to direct a script that more effectively communicated the best version of Herbert's ideals, or that more forcefully subverted the white savior reading, or that unequivocally rebuffed any fascist or eugenic interpretations Villeneuve should know are coming.

As African history graduate student Katherine (Hyun-Joo) Everett writes in a remarkable blog post for Ohio State University about this very issue, "Although Herbert was great at conceiving how white, Western systems of power are inherently flawed, he was not able to imagine any better alternative. A way to move beyond the issues within a traditional Dune adaptation would be to more seriously consider Afrofuturism."

But why stop there? To quote Sturtevant, the historian, "maybe, just maybe, this is not the f--king time" for another Dune adaptation. Or, at least, not one that has so little interest in challenging its source text in any significant way. Perhaps it's not that Dune is cursed — it's that we haven't managed to take its caution against hero-worship to heart: Villeneuve should have realized idolizing Herbert's story would only lead him astray.

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