Will Denis Villeneuve’s Dune live up to Frank Herbert’s novel?

A new adaptation of the Dune trilogy seeks to avoid the quagmire of cultural appropriation while remaining faithful to the original’s wide-ranging spirit

October 11, 2021
Timothée Chalamet (right) in Denis Villeneuve's Dune. Credit: Warner Bros/Lionsgate
Timothée Chalamet (right) in Denis Villeneuve's Dune. Credit: Warner Bros/Lionsgate

As a specialist in Arabic and Islam, I often hear swipes at western media outlets for their ignorant portrayals of the Middle East. Last year, audiences took to social media to clobber Wonder Woman 1984 for its simplistic Arab stereotypes: social backwardness signalled by traditional garb; the power-mad Egyptian oil magnate expelling the “heathens”; a tone deaf scene in which Wonder Woman, played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot, saves two Egyptian boys from an oncoming truck, a scene made more awkward when read alongside a 2014 Facebook post in which Gadot backed the Israeli Defense Forces after they killed four Palestinian boys. As Roxana Hadadi wrote of these bungles: “Racism didn’t need a 2020 comeback.”

Given such—not unfounded—venom, I didn’t expect much sympathy for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (which follows David Lynch’s 1984 Dune film) out this October following a yearlong Covid-19 delay. After all, Frank Herbert’s original 1965 Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel pulls heavily from Arabic and Persian loanwords, as well as from Islamic and Jewish mysticism. White men filching Middle East culture to build their own fanciful interstellar society: what’s not to get ruffled about?

Yet the book is a thoughtful and generous engagement with a different culture. One of Herbert’s aims was to treat Islam as equal with other world traditions. Also, the first three books—Herbert wrote six Dune novels, followed by another eight from his son Brian Herbert and sci-fi author Kevin J Anderson—criticise what AP Thornton called “the habit of authority” and rail against abuses of the natural environment. All this gives the Dune saga its lasting appeal.

It’s the year 10191. Humankind stands on this side of the “Butlerian Jihad,” a war against sentient machines. Claiming victory, the humans then ban artificial intelligence—“Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind”—only to spawn a feudal, pan-galactic empire ruled by the despotic Padishah Emperors. There are secret societies with eerie mental and physical disciplines, including the Bene Gesserit, a covert sisterhood who can unlock genetic memory. They use this power to launch a millennia-long breeding programme and produce a superhuman called the Kwisatz Haderach fated to topple the empire.

This liberator proves to be Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides and his Bene Gesserit concubine Jessica. By order of the 81st Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, the House of Atreides takes up rule on Arrakis, a pitiless desert planet and the only source of a spice called “melange” that fuels space travel, prolongs life, and spurs all-out war. The Atreides family is opposed by House Harkonnen, a cold industrial folk with a taste for brutality, and backed by the Fremen, stout nomads who see Paul for the prophesied saviour he is. With their support, he wrests control of the spice trade and ousts Shaddam IV, becoming master of the universe and founder of a new faith.

If this recap of Dune sounds familiar, that’s because the plot apparently had a huge impact on Star Wars, which came out 12 years after Herbert’s first novel. An unforgiving desert world; a secret society with advanced powers; a messianic youth destined to overthrow an evil intergalactic empire—the parallels are uncanny, but they only explain so much.

“It’s certainly a different kind of sci fi than Star Wars, which was created to comfort and entertain,” writes Daniel Snyder of the Lynch adaptation of Dune. Rather, that novel was like “the anti-Star Wars, undoing everything Lucas’s trilogy did to make sci-fi a friendly place.” Dune wanted to challenge audiences with strange words and concepts—gom jabbar, Kwisatz Haderach, Lisan al-Gaib, versus the reassuring “blaster,” “droid” and “Force” of Star Wars —rigged into a universe too stubborn to fit inside a 90-minute film.

Dune’s sheer bulk explains the abortive plans of Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky for a 10-hour opus starring Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí. It would have had music by Pink Floyd and designs from Alien movie artist HR Giger. This groovy leviathan, remembered in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, dried up in 1979 along with the cash flow. But even if it had gone forward, it still might have skipped past the original spirit of Dune. Jodorowsky’s new age concept art misses the desolation of Arrakis, and his obsession with all things “mystical”—a rented castle for writing the script, nicknaming his collaborators “spiritual warriors”—seems as shallow as the 1960s countercultural take on Eastern wisdom that inspired it.

Lynch’s Dune fared a lot worse. Slim by comparison at two hours and seventeen minutes, this “noir-baroque” fantasia conjures other Lynch projects like Eraserhead and Twin Peaks, but without the sure footing. Lynch seems lost and grasping inside a universe not his own. The film was widely panned for its poor edits, snail-like pacing and junky special effects. Lynch himself disowned it.

Some Lynchian moments do deliver on their promise, however. The opulent imperial palace smacks of Cecil B DeMille’s golden-age Hollywood. Dream sequences of unborn fetuses and industrial hellscapes pair well with the unsettled light and sound of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But without more of the grand themes of political corruption and environmental exploitation, Lynch’s attempt winds up a half-baked curio of cinematic history.

That said, Lynch and Jodorowsky weren’t wrong about the mysticism. Herbert clearly knew about Middle East esoterica. The messianic title Kwisatz Haderach comes from Jewish Kabbalah: Kefitzat ha-Derech, “The Leap of the Path,” referring to miraculous travel between two places. Or the Fremen word Lisan al-Gaib, “the Voice from the Outer World,” an Arabic honorific for the great Persian Sufi poet Hafez. These come with other Islamic terms like mahdi, “the Rightly Guided One,” a promised restorer of justice and true religion; and Padishah, a Persian word meaning “great king.”

Despite all its sonorous terms for authority, Dune scolds the messiah complex. Herbert’s first readers were stunned when the second book, Dune Messiah, took Paul Atreides from beloved saviour to cunning dictator. “There can be only one answer,” says fictional historian Bronso of Ix: “that completely accurate and total prediction is lethal.” And yet warnings about unchecked authority litter the first novel. “A popular man arouses the jealousy of the powerful”; “greatness is a transitory experience”; “any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere.” The keen reader sees this ship launching from far off.

Which brings us to the newest iteration of Dune. “Is Denis Villeneuve the man to do it? The evidence is mixed,” writes film critic Kaleem Aftab. Villeneuve himself, already dropping hints about a sequel, hopes to tackle “contemporary issues” like the role of women or overexploitation of the environment. Yet what’s missing from prior versions is self-awareness about the corruptions of power. Here is a lesson for today’s noxious political leaders but also for the critics, including those who—however noble their cause—go too far in snuffing out what they see as cultural appropriation. When asked in 1979 to sum up the message of the Dune trilogy, Frank Herbert said: “I am showing you the superhero syndrome and your own participation in it.” Some have yet to grasp this wisdom.

Dune is released in the UK on 21st October