Denis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated Dune is the second film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s popular 1965 sci-fi novel. Herbert’s Dune series set the precedent for space empire epics. It profoundly deals with themes ranging from imperialism, faith, political showmanship, and ecology. In short, the centuries-spanning story deals with the great burden of power, and the sacrifices it constantly demands.
Dune is set in the year 10,191 when the Known Universe is ruled by an autocratic Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. Though a sovereign ruler, the Emperor’s power depends on the prolonged support of the Great Houses. Landsraad is the body that represents all the noble Houses. The High Council – the inner circle of Landsraad – keeps in check the dispute between the Houses. Dune largely unfolds in the desert-planet Arrakis and follows the Atreides Family of planet Caladan. The story opens with the Emperor giving control of Arrakis to the genial Duke Leto Atreides.
The harsh desert-planet is the only source of melange aka spice, the universe’s most precious material. This magical substance not only enhances human lifespan, but is also crucial to intergalactic travel. In order to mine the spice, House Harkonnen – Arrakis’ previous rulers – resort to brutal tactics, especially to control the native population known as ‘Fremen’.
The Duke knows the command to oversee Arrakis and spice production is not a gift from the Emperor. However, he has no other option but to play the galactic chess-game. The key and the surprising element to this power struggle is Duke Leto’s young son Paul Atreides. Dune features his journey as he finds his path while confronting betrayal, prophecy, and love.
A Chronicle of Dune Adaptations
The world-building in Dune is full of layers and hidden meanings which are difficult to translate to screen. The novel also communicates a lot of information through inner monologues, a technique in a film narrative that needs to be subverted without befuddling the narrative flow. The first adaptation of Dune was made by David Lynch in 1984. In fact, a movie adaptation was in talks from the 1970s. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt is meticulously portrayed in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. David Lynch’s version didn’t make the smooth transition to film. It was a commercial as well as a critical disaster.
Nevertheless, the interest in adapting Dune didn’t wane. A three part mini-series was made in 2000. It was a considerable improvement from Lynch’s adaptation. Hollywood was still drawn to the ‘unfilmable’ Dune. After the success of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, visionary Canadian director Denis Villeneuve began work on his dream project. He wanted to make two parts out of the novel, which I think is a great decision since it gives breathing space to the viewers to understand the world of Dune. Though there’s been some gripe about the film’s portentous tone and lack of emotional investment, Villeneuve’s Dune is a triumph as it comes closer to capture the scale and magnitude of Herbert’s vision.
Let’s examine the narrative structure, which was built by Villeneuve and his co-writers John Spaihts and Eric Roth. And in the process also perceive how the script has translated the grandeur of Herbert’s Dune to screen.
Dune opens with a message conveyed in a Bene Gesserit’s Voice:
Dreams are messages from the deep
The Bene Gesserit are a mysterious and secretive matriarchal order who have cultivated the allegedly superstitious prophecy of Kwisatz Haderach aka The One. They use the Voice which is a form of mind control. The crux of Dune’s narrative is Paul Atreides’ bizarre dreams which position him as the prophesied figure. Hence the ‘deep’ in the message may mean Paul’s subconscious. Or the ‘deep’ could mean the Planet Arrakis which features a lot in Paul’s dreams.
Interestingly, the screenwriters open the narrative from the perspective of the Fremen. The Fremen are the strong native tribe of Arrakis. They live in the inhospitable wilderness of the desert, outside the colonized cities or towns of Arrakis. We listen to the pensive voice-over of a tribe’s young member, Chani (Zendaya). She speaks of the alluring ‘spice’ and the resulting havoc brought upon by House Harkonnen. She ominously wonders about the Emperor’s withdrawal of Harkonnens. And who their next designated oppressor is going to be?
House Atreides and the Imperial Decree
When the chapter begins, House Atreides of the oceanic-planet Caladan is already preparing to journey to Arrakis. There’s an inevitable sense of doom in the opening chapters of Herbert’s novel. Villeneuve maintains the same tone as Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is well aware of the political minefield that’s waiting to explode if he makes one wrong move. Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) continues to see the possible future in his dreams. Some are enigmatic like his recurrent vision of Arrakeen girl. Others are clearly foreboding like the death of Atreides’ swordmaster Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa).
Lady Jessica, Leto’s concubine, emerges as the key character in this early section apart from Paul. She is from the Bene Gesserit order. She disobeyed her order by giving birth to a son, instead of a girl. This is a way to control the bloodlines and balance the power base within the Great Houses. Therefore, Jessica’s decision sets off the conflict, and the prophecy comes into play. Earlier, we see that Jessica has been training Paul in the Bene Gesserit Way. The Bene Gesserit aren’t just well-versed in mind control, but also trained in a special martial arts style for combat.
Duke Leto accepts the Imperial Decree to take over Arrakis in a special ceremony. Here, we get a glimpse of the Spacing Guild – the third most important power base after the Emperor and the Great Houses. Aware of the trap in Arrakis, Leto sends Duncan Idaho on a scouting trip to meet with the Fremen. The Duke knows he needs Fremen as an ally to overcome the challenge thrown by the Emperor and his Harkonnen rivals. Subsequently, we get a glimpse of the obese Baron Harkonnen at his home planet Geidi Prime. And the terrifying monster of a man confirms Leto’s worst fears.
Before Paul shifts with his family to Atreides, he faces one important test. He meets the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. Despite Jessica’s reluctance, she tests whether Paul has what it takes to be The One. Is Paul the saviour from the outside who would deliver the desert-dwelling Fremen from the intergalactic evil? Villeneuve, Roth & Spaihts’ adaptation, just like the novel, sounds too thematically complex for such a simple interpretation.
The nexus of powerful forces, which includes Baron Harkonnen and possibly the Emperor, are working against the House Atreides
Paul’s premonitory dreams plus the prophecy of Bene Gesserit Order makes him the central focus of upcoming events waiting to unfold at Planet Arrakis
Duke Leto wishes to destabilize his rival’s plans by hoping to form a secret alliance with the Arrakis natives.
The evil Baron Harkonnen’s laid-back attitude to the Imperial Decree indicates that a sinister plan is already underway
It is surprising to discover how the three screenwriters distil Herbert’s sprawling narrative to its essence. For instance, how concisely dialogues are used to convey character motivations and their inner emotions.
The Arrival and the Test of Strength
Duke Leto, his son Paul, and Lady Jessica arrive at Arrakis and are welcomed by their massive military force. One admirable aspect in Villeneuve’s oeuvre is the sheer astounding scale of his staging. The finely drawn emotions work perfectly in tandem with Villeneuve’s sweeping landscapes. As the Atreides land on Arrakis in full regalia, restlessness stirs among the gathered native crowd. Chants of ‘Lisan al Gaib’ reach Paul. As the mother and son embark on a thopter – a dragon-fly like small flying craft – Jessica says Lisan al Gaib meaning ‘Voice from the Outer World’.
But this doesn’t strengthen the prophecy. Rather as Jessica points out, the Bene Gesserit has been at work in cultivating this thought among the Fremen. The family is transported to the secure Arrakeen town. The town protects the outsiders and their spice harvesting equipment not only from the harsh weather, but also from the giant sandworm. Known as Shai-Hulud in Fremen terms, the giant sandworm is a native life-form of Arrakis.
More grim news awaits Duke Leto. The spice harvesting equipment is largely sabotaged by the Harkonnens. Hence, it might take some time to achieve the huge production levels, also made possible by Harkonnens fiercely oppressing the Fremens. Meanwhile, Lady Jessica has a tense encounter with Shadout Mapes (the head housekeeper), in which she gives Jessica a crysknife, Fremen’s sacred weapon. Duncan Idaho returns from his scouting trip with a Fremen leader named Stilgar (Javier Bardem). Stilgar is sceptical of the Duke. Yet it becomes clear to House Atreides that Fremen can be a very resourceful ally.
At the same time, Baron Harkonnen’s move against Duke Leto is all set. Apparently, the Emperor’s truth-sayer Mother Gaius oversees the plan. As a Bene Gesserit she asks the Baron to spare Jessica and Paul. In Arrakis, a great test of strength awaits Leto. He, his son, and their men wade into desert territory to witness the perils of harvesting spice. They are accompanied by Kynes, Imperial ecologist and Judge of Change. Though appointed by the Emperor, Kynes is an inscrutable woman who is also accepted among the Fremen. She teaches the Atreides men the significance of a Fremen Stillsuit — how it facilitates their survival in the arid atmosphere.
A Crawler harvests spice in the desert field. The rhythmic sound made by the crawler draws a giant sandworm. Duke Leto jumps into action when the usual protocol to rescue the crawler fails. During the rescue operation, Paul wanders around inhaling the spice in the air. Later, we learn that this has led Paul to see a foreboding vision of the future.. Nevertheless, Leto and his men emerge unscathed and save the spice-harvesting crew. In the process, they get a spine-chilling glimpse of the magnificent Shai-Hulud. The section ends with Paul explaining his vision to his bewildered mother.
Duke Leto’s apprehension about the grim prospects in Arrakis gets confirmed
The Duke makes little headway with the Fremen, yet he is proved right about the desert-warriors’ untapped potential
The prophecy surrounding Paul gets more complex; his vision has gotten more intense when exposed to spice melange. However, the Fremen lore about Lisan al Gaib looks like an implant of the organized religion
We learn about the ingenious Fremen creations including sand compactor and Stillsuit that’s essential to survive the harsh conditions of Arrakis
There’s an air of mystery over the true identity of Kynes. She fulfils her role as the Imperial ecologist and yet her association with the Fremen makes us wonder about her allegiance.
Though we don’t get a clear view of Shai-Hulud, we witness its massive scale and how it can totally sabotage the spice-harvesting operations in the deeper regions of Arrakis.
The tension surrounding the giant sandworm’s appearance leads to the narrative’s first big action set-piece. Yet the scenario is utilized to further convey the strength of Duke Leto’s character, particularly, the way he put himself at risk to save the workers in the Crawler.
The Betrayal and the Displacement
In this section, we are introduced to the prison planet Salusa Secundus. It’s the home to Sardaukar, the ruthless elite military force of the Emperor. House Harkonnen requests the aid of Sardaukar forces in their coup against House Atreides at Arrakis. Naturally, the invasion won’t be successful without a betrayal from the inside. Dr. Yueh, the head physician of House Atreides, becomes instrumental in Harkonnen’s plans.
Yueh facilitates the Harkonnen attack, and lays a trap for Duke Leto. Shot with a poison dart, Leto is paralysed but conscious. Though a traitor, Yueh has his reasons to betray the Duke. Hence he gives the man a chance to bring down his rival. The doctor replaces the Duke’s tooth with a poisoned molar, giving him a chance to seek revenge on the nefarious Harkonnen. Meanwhile, the Sardaukar and Harkonnen forces’ surprise attack totally destabilizes the Atreides.
Duncan Idaho barely escapes with a thopter; Paul and Lady Jessica are caught by the Harkonnens. The mother and son use the Voice to kill their enemies and safely land in the middle of the desert. Duke Leto finally kills himself, and in the process attempts to take down his rival too. But the Baron Harkonnen with his antigravity suspensor suit manages to escape the poison gas released from Leto’s false tooth. Lady Jessica, displaced to the desert, deeply feels Leto’s death. She and Paul spend the night in a tent.
Paul tells his mother about the most intense and dangerous of his visions. He speaks of a holy war that will be waged in his name. He is frightened by the fanatical legions and the rise of a warrior religion that has come together to fight under the House Atreides banner. In the morning, Paul and Jessica reunite with Duncan Idaho. Accompanying Duncan is Kynes. Despite working for the emperor, Kynes takes the three to a secret Fremen base. When the Sardaukar find the base, Duncan sacrifices his life to save Paul, as glimpsed in Paul’s vision. Kynes also takes down the Emperor’s men with her, finally declaring her allegiance to the Fremen.
Paul and Jessica escape from the cavernous Fremen base. They take a thopter and are pursued by the Harkonnen aircrafts.
The fear over Duke Leto’s fate is realized. He is trapped and killed by a traitor from within.
We comprehend the Emperor’s Sardaukar forces’ major role in annihilating House Atreides.
We witness the Bene Gesserit Voice in action, and what a powerful killing weapon it can be
Duncan Idaho and Kynes’ deaths come across as the biggest acts of sacrifice, which facilitate Paul and Jessica to escape from the clutches of their enemies.
Paul’s vision about Duncan comes true; it makes us wonder how his futuristic visions about the war and massacres would come into existence
Lady Jessica’s role as both a mother and skilful teacher seems one of the crucial elements to Paul’s eventual destiny
Rite of Passage
Paul guides his thopter into a massive sandstorm while being pursued by the Harkonnen forces. Flying against the storm, it looks like the thopter will be torn apart. At that moment, Paul has a vision of a Fremen, who is later known as Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun). The man could be a mentor for Paul in the near-future as he is destined to live with the Fremen. In Paul’s vision Jamis says:
The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve. But a reality to experience. A process that cannot be understood by stopping it. We must move with the flow of the process.
Hearing these words from the possible future, Paul stops fighting against the storm. He switches off the blades, and they both later safely crash-land on the other side of the storm. To avoid sandworms, they immediately run to the rocks, and wear the Fremen Stillsuit. Exposed to spice melange, Paul continues to have clear visions about the Arrakeen girl and Jamis. Nightfall approaches, and the mother and son are yet to find the Fremen sietch. Sietch is the Fremen term for community. Inevitably, they attract the attention of the sandworm. In the ensuing chase, for the first time we see the sheer immensity of the sandworm.
Shai-Hulud aka sandworm is pivotal, not only to the spice but also to the Paul Atreides’ saga. Hence the encounter between the two is haunting to say the least. The sandworm is eventually distracted by a thumper, and the Fremen tribe saves them. Paul remembers Stilgar. Yet the Fremen don’t have any noble intentions to rescue both. As Stilgar says,
What wealth can you offer beyond the water in your flesh?
In the ensuing conflict, Jessica easily overpowers the Fremen including Stilgar. And Paul meets the mysterious girl of his dreams – Chani.
Since Jessica has overpowered Stilgar, Jamis – the man in Paul’s vision – challenges Stilgar’s leadership. Jamis calls for the Tahaddi challenge. Paul – on behalf of his mother – fights Jamis, who can replace Stilgar if he wins. Chani hands over a crysknife to Paul. She says that she doesn’t believe him to be their outer-world messiah. Besides, she has no hopes for Paul winning against a great fighter like Jamis. During the fight, Paul overpowers Jamis at one point. He gives Jamis a chance to yield. But a Tahaddi challenge is fought to the death. Eventually, Paul delivers a fatal stab to Jamis. The Fremen now truly respect Paul and welcome both of them into their tribe.
The part one of Dune ends with Paul approaching a sietch. In the distance, Paul sees a Sandrider — a Fremen capable of riding the giant sandworm. Chani emphatically declares,
This is only the beginning.
Paul has taken a first step into a larger world where more adventures await him. Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation has covered just over half of Herbert’s 500-plus page novel. While this ending doesn’t offer a satisfying resolution, all the narrative threads are perfectly set-up for a bigger pay-off.
We are puzzled by the nature of Paul’s visions. As shown in his dreams, Paul has finally met the girl haunting his dreams. Yet confusion prevails over Paul’s vision of Jamis as his Arrakeen mentor
While we see Jamis being a mentor of sorts in the vision, the man meets his death at Paul’s hands. This conveys that Paul’s visions are not always perfectly accurate.
We can’t dismiss the shades of truth in Paul’s vision as he is now part of the Fremen community. He also correctly predicted Duncan’s death and his mother’s pregnancy.
Freewill does play a role in Paul’s vision coming into fruition
The messiah trope is once again subverted in this section too, particularly in the way Chani regards Paul. If we recall Mother Gaius words, “On Arrakis, we have done all we can for you. The path has been laid.” Therefore, there’s a hidden and complex political game at play in establishing the ‘Lisan al Gaib’ lore and Paul living with the Fremen.
We briefly witness Jessica’s fighting skills in action. Moreover, after the tense encounter with Jamis, Jessica’s position among the Fremen, and her relationship with Paul will become a pivotal element in the upcoming second part.
There were doubts over Dune’s prospects at the box office before its release. Fans can now rejoice with Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures having officially greenlit Dune Part Two. The sequel is slated for October 2023 release. If the second part also proves to be a box-office success (I know it will be!), the studio may opt to adapt Herbert’s follow-up book Dune Messiah. The two books collectively chronicle the full journey of Paul Atreides. It would be fantastic to have a Dune movie trilogy, provided Villeneuve directs both the sequels. With Villeneuve’s Dune, decades-long quest of Hollywood to make a successful adaption of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi is finally realized.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’