Dune fails to convey the depth of the novel’s narrative

Good day kweens and kings. Today I’m going to talk about Dune. Dune is an adaptation of the classic science fiction novel by the same name, written by Frank Herbert. Dune has gone on to be an extensive series of books, but the original Dune — written in 1965 — remains renowned as a standalone story. Dune has had two previous adaptations — a film by David Lynch that was both a box office and critical failure and a miniseries on SyFy — but this adaptation is really the first and only chance Dune has had to get a proper mainstream release. It’s directed by Dennis Villeneuve who has become an incredibly successful mainstream director. He rose to prominence with Incendies earning him an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film, and cemented his status with surprise hits like Prisoners and Sicaro before moving onto bigger budget Sci-Fi with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. Villeneuve has said adapting Dune has been a dream project for him, and it seemed like a perfect match given his pedigree.

I read Dune for the first time within the past year, and I am sorry to say I thought this film was disappointing. There’s really only one thing I want to talk about which is the nature of film adaptations of novels but I will also comment briefly on the climax in this movie. This movie is technically proficient but I thought it failed as an adaptation, which ruins anything it had going for it.  

Premise

If you’re unfamiliar with Dune, the basic premise can be difficult to distill into a sentence. Dune is a combination of space opera political intrigue and interpersonal stories for the diverse cast of characters.

The world of Dune is an intergalactic empire with various lords of houses vying for power under an Emperor. One of those lords is Duke Leto Atreides of House Atreides, a ruler of a prosperous planet who is informed by the emperor he will be in charge of a new planet called Arrakis. Arrakis is a desert planet which houses a valuable resource known as “spice.” The empire harvests this spice for space travel, but the act of harvesting is difficult for a variety of reasons. Arrakis is unbearably hot. The average human will die of dehydration within two hours in the sun, so they require stillsuits to retain their water and hydration. The native population of Arrakis are fearsome warriors called Fremen, who aren’t too friendly with the empire’s houses. Finally, the local fauna of Arrakis includes massive spice worms that are attracted to technology and respond by destroying it immediately.

On the personal side of things, Duke Leto is concerned about his house. He suspects moving to Arrakis is a plot to destroy his house and wants to keep things together while he prepares his son Paul as the next duke. Paul’s mother is Lady Jessica, a woman who Duke Leto never married so there is some unspoken tension in their relationship — and more importantly tension over Jessica’s loyalty which is a major topic of the story. This is especially the case because Jessica is part of a secret feminine order known as the Bene Gesserit who have superhuman abilities such as “the voice” which is a kind of supernatural persuasion over others.

There’s a lot more I could talk about, but I think I should transition to my overall point with this review.

Adaptations

To the extent that Dune is a book you should read, it is because of the depth of the narrative. If my attempt at a premise is any indication, Dune is so many different things it’s impossible to summarize it as one thing. The story has a number of unique characters with differing objectives and motivations for their actions which makes the political intrigue exciting. The worldbuilding in the novel is relentless so you’re always learning more about this deeply fascinating universe. Through the story and worldbuilding there’s tremendous potential for impactful narratives about all the things we read about in stories. It is not an overstatement to say everything that science fiction has to offer is in the novel Dune.

But a lot of that good stuff is not in this movie.

The film Dune is a very literal adaptation of the novel. It is an adaptation from a director who probably doesn’t like using exposition. Unsurprisingly, the film does not have a lot of exposition — outside of some brief background information established at the very beginning. The problem is the novel has a ton of exposition. It is partly written like a history book, reflecting on events that have already occurred and conveying the certainty of events to the reader. This is a big problem for a film adaptation because so much of what we learn through reading Dune is not through the events of the story, but from the words written by the author in between these scenes. Which means there’s no easy option for adapting that information to film. If a filmmaker wanted to successfully adapt the experience of reading Dune, they would either have to insert this exposition somewhat blatantly, such as through voice over narration, or they’d have to rewrite a lot of the scenes in the story to make it work for film.

This adaptation does not do either of those things and opts instead to do what I call a very literal adaptation. If there was a scene in the book, it’s a scene in the movie. If some element of the story exists exclusively through the thoughts of characters or exposition in the text, that is not adapted into the film. There may not be any missing characters, but there may be a character in the movie that you don’t realize is significant. There may be some conflict hinted at through the events of the film, but you may not pick up on it unless you’re looking for it. Which means the only way you can get everything the movie has to offer is by already being familiar with the book. In my mind, that means the adaptation has failed.

I’ll admit this is difficult for me to judge because I read the book somewhat recently, but let me give an example without spoiling anything. There is a character in the story who plays a pivotal role in both the novel and this movie. This character makes the decision to go against a prior action they’ve been performing. The reason for this action is very complicated. The character has a vague delusion about their spouse’s health and believes they can help their spouse through a particular set of actions. The novel understood this character’s complicated motivations could not be sprung onto the reader in the middle of things, so the novel made the decision to frontload the reader with the knowledge of what this character is ultimately going to do. In fact in the novel, the first thing you learn about this character is their relationship with the action they’re going to do. This was a necessary creative decision in the novel, because there’s already so many other characters and houses with differing motivations, you can’t toss another random one in there and expect people to keep up. This movie does exactly that. It throws in this random turn of events, and half-assedly explains it after the fact. Now technically, the character in the movie does say just enough words to hint to book readers “we didn’t forget about this subplot, we just didn’t have time!” But if you haven’t read the book, you’re getting left behind. This movie has a bunch of things like that. The result is all the criticisms I had of the novel are even worse in the movie.

Look, when I read Dune this past year the most prevalent reaction I had was thinking it was overrated. It’s certainly groundbreaking and has a lot of accomplishments. I can even say I like Dune. It has fantastic worldbuilding. I love Part I of the novel which focuses on the political intrigue. It’s very ambitious and in the context of the history of science fiction it deserves to be remembered forever. There weren’t books like Dune in the 1960s. It deserves to be remember and adapted for mainstream film audiences.

But one of my biggest criticisms of the novel was how impersonal it felt. I never got enough time with the characters in the story and the relationships felt like clinical prescriptions for servicing a plot valued with higher importance. Paul especially feels alien and lacking attachments. This is where fans tell me he’s supposed to be that way, which oddly enough means they totally agree with my assessment but want me to feel differently about it. As bad as these problems were in the novel, it is even worse when there’s no exposition text explaining Paul’s inner psyche or his conflicting thoughts about the various visions and events that occur on Arrakis. The novel version of Paul made an attempt to connect with the reader, but without adapting those narrations into the film you have a very different relationship with the main character. You’re watching a stoic actor perform scenes that are true to the novel, but it all feels hollow.

This is on top of the classic book adaptation complaint that some of my favorite parts of the book are not in the movie. I’ll pick one example by saying Leto and Jessica’s relationship is nonexistent in this movie. It has been reduced to three or four lines, none of which have much impact without the rest of their relationship to explain why these interactions matter.

For example, in this movie Leto asks Jessica: “Will you protect Paul?” And to me, this question is an important beat in the story. Because Jessica is from a secret order that has its own motivations for what it wants in the universe. This order is widely distrusted by both general citizens in the empire, but especially the Arrakis Fremen, and House Atreides. It also doesn’t help that Jessica was never married to Leto. The reason for this was because Leto was keeping himself available so he could partake in a political marriage to strengthen the house, while maintaining Paul’s independence from political dealmaking so he could focus on the skills he needs to lead. That may be an admirable motivation, but the result is Jessica is kind of resentful toward Leto. She definitely loves him and Paul, but she has always been an outsider in her own home and her feelings may not be completely understood by the Duke who is now on a perilous planet and has reason to suspect someone may not be loyal to him. Leto asking Jessica “Will you protect Paul?” is meaningful because he can feel he’s gripped in a plot against his house and is desperate to confirm who his allies are, enough that he’s willing to bare his insecurity to the woman he’s loved for years.  

Except… none of what I just said is in the movie. The only thing that is in the movie is that line “Will you protect Paul?” Without the context, this question is a no brainer. Yeah, she’s his mom. What else would she do? The subplot with Thufir’s distrust of Jessica is gone. Her internal monologues about their relationship are gone. Leto’s regret for not marrying her is reduced to a sentence. Leto’s explanation for the nature of the relationship is gone. It’s all been cut out for time. So I can’t necessarily tell if the moment still works without all that other information, but in my experience it seems unthinkable this adaptation would attempt to have that moment without the context. You can apply this thought to pretty much every narrative beat in this movie.

It may be that I am too close to the novel, but I think as the movie went on it became less effective at what it wanted to do. And it gets much worse once you get to the protracted climax.

Exhausting climax

The second half of this movie is exhausting. I think Hans Zimmer put together an orchestral swell that ebbs and flows for literally 60 minutes. I imagine there’s going to be a featurette on HBO about how Zimmer wanted to replicate the feeling of sand blowing over the dunes by intentionally composing this annoying score. It may not be completely his fault though, because the pacing of the back half feels disjointed and confusing. Again, I’m someone who read the book and I felt confused. I felt like I was watching the climax of Phantom Menace following multiple characters doing different things at different places. Which was especially disappointing because I liked the first part of the novel so much for the political intrigue, and there’s really none of that.

Conclusion

The only adaptation of Dune that would matter is one that captures the depth of its narrative. This movie tried to give itself more time by splitting the movie into two. This is technically only “Part I” although “Part II” will only come out if the first part is financially successful, so we may be waiting another three four years for the follow-up — if at all. But truly this novel is worthy of 9 or 10 part miniseries. Even at 2 and a half hours, this movie feels like its trying to skip to the good part, but that moment never comes.

I would say this film is not so much an adaptation of Dune the novel, but an adaptation of your friend trying to tell you what Dune is about over drinks. It has all the weaknesses of that delivery of the story. Your friend forgets some characters, he minimizes subplots he didn’t understand, none of the story beats feel natural they’re just a list of things that happen, and at some point he gets tired of explaining everything and it just sort of ends. That’s really what this movie feels like. As I said, I read the book recently and my favorite part of that book was the political intrigue which has all been taken out. So maybe I was never going to like this adaptation, but I wanted to like it and I thought it was disappointing.

2 responses to “Dune fails to convey the depth of the novel’s narrative”

  1. ghostof82 says:

    I agree with you- I too was disappointed with the film. As a sci-fi epic its fine, brilliant even, but as Dune, its a little sub-par. To be fair to the film, I think the majority of the issues stem from the book. Its just too big, too complex, too full of worldbuilding. Its ironic, as the film streams on HBO Max, that what Dune probably needed to be was a ten-part HBO series in the mold of a sci-fi Game of Thrones, where episodes could focus on Thufir Hawat and Mentats and his suspicions of Jessica. and another on Yueh and another on the Baron and his machinations and the ancient feud between the two Houses.

    Lynch tried and failed, Villeneuve tried and nearly got there.. I don’t know, maybe there’s a Directors Cut coming. I thought the film was too short, so I’d love a longer cut with more of the Dune I remember from the book.

    • Arthur says:

      Yeah definitely agree with your analysis and suggestions. I think a lot of Dune fans see it as unfilmable just because there’s so much going on. But with the success of miniseries, I wonder why that approach wasn’t taken? The book is so dense with potential episodes, it’s a real shame.

      Thanks for commenting!

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