“Dune” was released this past Friday, Oct. 22. courtesy Legendary Entertainment

Highly anticipated film “Dune” delivers

In “Dune,” director Villenueve transports viewers into the world of Arrakis providing a different, yet fantastic adaptation of the novel.

This first section will be completely spoiler-free both for the film and book series. Released on Oct. 22, 2021, the most recent adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 speculative fiction novel “Dune” premiered in theaters. “Dune” follows the young scion of House Atreides, a constituent noble house of the Galactic Empire, which faces down the treacherous emperor and long-time rivals House Harkonnen. Lingering in the background lies the origins of Paul’s birth and the expectations of his parents, advisors and even the indigenous population of Arrakis, as they begin to see him as the messiah prophesied by their ancient Reverend Mothers.

Denis Villenueve’s take on the work focuses heavily on the presentation of the world, taking extreme efforts to get the details of the setting right while streamlining the plot to introduce the world of “Dune” to new viewers. However, some of those efforts to guide the audience will be extremely strange to those who have a vested interest in seeing the film as a one-to-one depiction of the book. Although that sounds like disparaging criticism, Villenueve and his team do an excellent job in bringing the world of “Dune” to life, especially in how remarkably coherent and beautiful the special effects appear, with very few immersion-breaking moments of “wait, that doesn’t look quite right.” Similarly, segments of the film did drag or meander in unexpected places, especially in the middle third of the movie, which, honestly, could be intentional on the part of the creators. Overall, a supremely aesthetically pleasing experience with believable acting and a recognition of the source material while updating certain philosophical concepts to connect with a modern audience.

Spoiler discussion for both the film and book ahead!

First and foremost, Villenueve’s film is not directly an adaptation of “Dune,” Herbert’s first work in the so-called “Duniverse.” More accurately, Villenueve’s film covers the first three fifths of the first book. For those unfamiliar with the book, Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, is the ducal heir to House Atreides headed by his father Leto, Oscar Isaac and concubine mother Jessica, Rebecca Ferguson. The latter individual was trained by a society of women, the Bene Gesserit, who specialize in bodily control, falling into an advisory role to most of the Great Houses and seeking to breed a superhuman through careful manipulation of gene cultivation.
The film and book begins with House Atreides facing an imperial decree to leave their fief, the planet Caladan, and relocate on the desert-world Arrakis, known colloquially as Dune. Dune is the singular planet in the universe that produces a mystical substance known as spice, which is used to facilitate faster-than-light travel, as well as previously ruled by the Atreides’s archenemies, the Harkonnens. The Harkonnens enjoy a well-deserved reputation for brutality, with the old Baron, Stellan Skarsgård, guiding the young Beast Rabban, Dave Bautista, in hunting the indigenous and ferocious Fremen while forcing the population into deadly working conditions.
The main physical plot of “Dune” centers on this rivalry between Houses Atreides and Harkonnen, with the galactic emperor aiding House Harkonnen by lending them three battalions of imperial shock troops. Politics aside, “Dune” entertains another metaphysical plot as Paul reconciles his unique upbringing as a boy trained by the all-women Bene Gesserit, a child trained in the mental computation techniques meant to convert him into a human computer, and the potential superman of the Bene Gesserit, the Kwisatz Haderach. Of course, this all combines with the eventual coup that kills his father and puts Paul and his mother into exile, revealing the most intriguing part of the book: Paul, under the influence of the spice, can see into the future.

For those familiar with the book, the film ends after Paul, played by Timothée Chalamet, defeats his first real physical adversary and sets out with a group of Fremen, desert tribesmen, to a place of relative safety in Sietch Tabr. It’s disappointing to see “Dune” separated into at least two films, but the decision makes sense. Aside from the supernerds, like me, who wanted to see how Villenueve would handle the already strangely-paced text’s ending, holding off on forcing the plot to move at lightspeed and investing 150 minutes into building the characters and their relationships seems to be an excellent compromise. However, some of the characters lose out on their emotional development and stature with the streamlining and ending the film where it does. I personally suspect that if/when the second film is made, there will be a seamless transition between the two works; I believe the plan was always to make two films that will join together, probably in a special edition, into one much longer movie.

Some characters do lose quite a bit of their character and personality in this adaptation, and, unfortunately, the character that loses the most is Lady Jessica, concubine to Duke Leto. The film emphasizes her moments of doubt and emotional turmoil in the text while reducing her more powerful and in control aspects, although Villenueve does shift one scene where previously did most of the fighting to Jessica brutally executing two guards.

The changes serve to make her appear constantly off balance and emotional, which is, admittedly, present in the book, but book Jessica handles her emotions in a much more internal, less explosive way. This focus on emotionality also illustrates the largest change from the text: a reliance on large gestures. The text highlights very small changes in an individual’s body—flinches, dilation of pupils, tension in muscles—which don’t translate well to film in a readily-apparent way.

Instead, character faces are open and prevalent, which would work well in a normal film, but part of the environment of Arrakis is the high cost of water, a detail the film hints at. Yet, the characters very rarely don all the equipment necessary to sustain life in the open desert. It’s a relatively minor detail, but similar details litter the film. Hard won information gained through careful analysis by characters that lead to small, impactful revelations is calmly explained through background audio logs, reducing the mystery of the planet and the capabilities of the characters. Instead of Paul watching carefully and using inductive reasoning to impress the ecologist Dr. Kynes, the gender-bent film Kynes, played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, seems to already believe in the legend of Paul as the Fremen messiah.

It’s not bad, just different, which is where most of these details fall.

The film is not lesser because it does not religiously follow the source material, but a great deal of the setup in this film makes no sense without understanding the context the book brings. However, understanding that context forces the watcher/reader to reconcile the differences between the two works. For example, the film continuously highlights this little desert-dwelling mouse creature. Those that have read the book know this to be the type of mouse Paul takes his Fremen name from, Muad’dib, but nowhere in the movie is that explained, leaving it as this strange, cute critter that has no bearing on the plot, except in the case where the first “Dune” film would be seen in conjunction with, assumedly, the second one. It’s still an excellent, well-acted, beautiful film and these idiosyncrasies are only visible in the context of the wider scope of “Dune.” I would see it again, for sure.

Post Author: Adam Walsh