Dune is a spectacular feat of adaptation, taking source material long considered unadaptable and rendering it in sumptuous vibrance. It is perhaps the most loyal adaptation to the source material that I have ever seen, practically a scene-by-scene adaptation. If there’s a scene from the first half of the novel that has lodged itself in your mind, it’s in the movie.
Yet that’s also a weakness of the film because it is so completionist that it has no sense of what its own rhythm should be as a different medium. And so a memorable page or two of the book when translated onto screen requires several minutes. This distortion of page to screen accumulates, and the film begins to drag throughout its first half even as it slams in scene after scene and so there’s little sense of the passage of time. As a consequence, the movie feels both too rushed and too long all at once.
I struggle to describe the movie this way because it didn’t feel like a drag to me, precisely because it was like slow soaking in the old friend that the novel is to me. That is, the experience to me wasn’t of watching a movie, but of getting to admire the book as a book from new and delightful angles, like slowly re-reading it and savoring it from a different perspective. But to someone who isn’t enamored with the book? Who hasn’t read it? I cannot speak for them, but I’m suspicious that the movie doesn’t work particularly well actually as a movie.
But let’s set aside that question and just revel a bit in the glimpses of such gorgeous sights that slow meander allows. Of guild ships like planet-swallowing whales, disgorging thousands of ships like dust motes. Of impossible vertical craft floating downward like feathers despite looking carved of stone, monoliths of grace. Of lumbering sand crawlers plucked up into the air by balloon. Of ornithopters, at once as delicate as dragonflies, and stolid groaning machinery of steel and grease.
The locations feel the same way. Palaces built like medieval fortresses, all rough rock and bulwarks, foot-thick stone doors that glide open at the touch of a finger. It’s a world that feels lived in and real, while creating a distinct visual aesthetic that grafts feudal forms onto science fiction magic that enables impossible function. Not since the original Star Wars films have I felt a science fiction world combine jaw-dropping uniqueness, with a gritty and dirty reality of familiarity.
And yet it often feels like a world where the people were left out. Other than a crowd shot upon landing, Arrakeen is all but empty. It’s all stone and baking clay, like one of those ancient Egyptian cities abandoned to the sands a thousand years ago. And so when inevitable battle erupts with fire raining down, it feels like spectacle with little consequence.
For a world of vast vistas and endless sands, the direction makes it curiously small. Protagonists will walk for a day in the middle of nowhere on an entire planet and conveniently find one of two people they know. They’ll walk another day and find the second one.
So much of the richness of the novel is in the inner dialogue and thoughts of the characters, especially Jessica and Paul. Paul’s constant interior struggle with being able to see infinite futures while being forced to navigate the present simply does not translate onto the screen. That leaves an emotional hollowness to the exercise, wherein we have a perfectly rendered world in its literal sense, without the inner life that makes the story more than a rote exercise of good guys and bad guys.
This is especially true when the film tries to communicate his visions as anything more than confused glimpses of the future, or parlor tricks where he knows something he shouldn’t about a stranger. More so too with needing to translate the omnipresent inner dialogues of non-central characters, like every other Fremen character turning their head and hissing in subtitle, “OMG he’s the one,” while everyone pretends nothing is being said.
Let’s talk about the Fremen. There’s a fundamental orientalism to their portrayal that the movie cannot get away from. They are exotic and in their exoticism they are terrifying and dangerous. They’re weird and alien and not real people. A lot of this is the source material. More of it is the simple fact that the movie adapts the first half of the novel, while it’s the second half that contains living with the Fremen and seeing them as themselves as opposed to the unseen demons out in the deserts.
The novel — like all novels, like all art — is an artifact of its time and context. But to retell the story means updating it on the margins to accommodate the ways it resonates with a modern audience. Science fiction reflects reality, and so when we’re presented with an occupying imperial force of wastelands filled with riches, we can’t help but draw the lines of our own generational experience. We can’t help but map this onto the 50 years of American and Russian empire in the Mideast that we’ve watched unfold since the publication of the original novel. Especially with the brutal departing empire ruled by a dude with a Russian name, at odds with the dudes with American-sounding names and a belief in their own protagonism.
Again, by being unable to portray the inner conflict and dialogue, and being unable to humanize the Fremen, the three-dimensionality of the novel collapses down to a simple story of good guys and bad guys, of the rise of a hero. But Herbert famously wrote these novels as a critique of the heroic ideal. They rope you in with Paul’s heroic journey, all the while setting you up to see the ravaging whirlwind of his passing, of the nightmare holy war of a hundred billion dead just to set up another goddamned empire.
Maybe that’s what Villeneuve is trying to set up. Maybe he has every plan of filming Dune Messiah and Children of Dune to complete the critique. But it’s not apparent from this first half of the first novel that it would be possible to meaningfully do so.
All of that being said, I absolutely think you should watch the movie. It’s masterful in visuals, in acting, in building a world that I want to see a dozen more hours of on my screen. But the irony is that as good as it is, it’s doomed by the fundamental unfilmablity of the novel. That makes it an astounding complement to the novel, but I don’t know that it actually stands on its own.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
Header Image Source: Warner Brothers