Dune is an incredibly, almost inexplicably dense novel. I wondered, back in 2018 when it was first announced that director Denis Villeneuve would split the film adaptation into two parts, whether that could overcome the difficulties that have dogged other attempts at translating Frank Herbert’s massive 1965 novel into something watchable in a theater (or in my case, at home on HBO Max while one of my teenagers asked why they still use swords in the year 10,000).
As it turns out, Villeneuve, whose work in thoughtful science fiction you’ll recall I like a lot, has come out of the gate with the first half of a sweeping sci-fi epic that goes in hard on making the subject matter understandable. Part of that, unfortunately, seems to be achieved by leaving out some important details and characters. If they are going to show up in the second film, it seems like they’ll feel rushed. If they’re going to be left out completely, we’re going to lose quite a bit of nuance.
Explaining the world of the novel is a feat so difficult that, in truth, Herbert himself didn’t really try to. A lot of the context you need to understand the distant future of Dune, in which religion, governance, economy and space travel are all their own monopolies and in which all commerce depends on a psychoactive drug called “spice,” is located in appendices in the back of the book. Exposition is sometimes delivered about things like the war against artificial intelligence (it’s why nobody uses computers) and the fact a secretive matriarchal organization who are manipulating human evolution have seeded religious prophecies all over the universe solely so they can use those prophecies to install themselves in positions of authority as a failsafe measure. Most of the time, though, that exposition is hidden in things like narration or internalized thought when it isn’t in a glossary somewhere.
Earlier adaptations have chosen different ways to try to get this across. David Lynch’s 1985 version (still considered to be one of the biggest failures in film history) has some of this delivered via weird narration from Princess Irulan, a character I’ll talk more about presently. The Sci Fi Channel (before it was “Syfy”) TV miniseries peppered a lot of this throughout but completely left stuff like, for instance, shields and lasers, out entirely.
Layered under a lot of questions about religion, political manipulation, and how greed appropriates and destroys the environment, though, is a story about the Fremen, the badass desert-dwellers on the planet Arrakis who are being oppressed by the vicious Harkonnens before the story about the main character, Paul Atreides, begins. Arrakis is the only place in the universe where spice—a drug that prolongs your life, causes an addiction so strong you die from withdrawal and lets you see through time (and thus navigate through space without computers)—can be mined. The Fremen, standing in here for various indigenous populations, are living in the desert, hunted for sport and economic reasons. Paul wins his retribution by the end of the book, but at the cost of becoming a figurehead for a holy war that rages across the cosmos.
For all that, the novel and every other adaptation always starts with Paul or with the broader universe before we get to Arrakis. Villeneuve pulls an interesting trick in the movie’s opening scene, framing the conflict for their perspective through narration from Chani (Zendaya), and ending with the question of who will oppress the Fremen next, now that the Emperor has seen fit to reassign the Harkonnens. He then delays the proper start of the story for about 20 minutes with scenes that establish the characters of Paul (Timotheé Chalamet), his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), and other members of House Atreides and their enemies, House Harkonnen. It’s only after this that Dune moves on to the first scene from the novel, in which Paul is given a life-or-death test by the Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) to assess whether he might be a successful product of her organization’s centuries-long breeding program to produce the next stage of human evolution.
Some of the scenes are reshuffled from the books, but the effect here is that we’re introduced to the weird stuff about Paul’s engineered destiny only after we’ve established what the world looks like, what the stakes are, and that Paul is training to use his mother’s witchy superpowers. It’s arguably a better order in which to reveal all of this information, and grounds the importance of the indigenous people we’re supposed to be rooting for. What’s a little less developed, in this go-round, is some material that adds up to Dune’s most dramatic story beats in the original novel.
On one level, Dune’s story is a gritty sci-fi desert war with flying ships, knife fights, laser guns and sandworms the size of kaiju being used as armored cavalry. It seems like Villeneuve’s adaptation, so far, is leaning more into that aspect.
The novel’s chapters each feature epigrams from one character who is almost totally absent from the plot until the last few pages of the book: Princess Irulan, the daughter of the emperor, who we know as a historian based on her writings about Paul, which lead us to believe that he’s going to become a major historical figure. We learn, in the last few pages (after he’s defeated, killed, disempowered and humiliated everybody in the universe who might pose him a threat) that his winning play is actually to marry Irulan so that his theft of the emperor’s throne is legitimate. These passages that open each chapter are actually hagiography, written by the wife of the guy who now sits on the throne of the universe and could destroy all of mankind with a single order, if he decided to.
Herbert must have known it was not a good move to end a book with the main character solving a major political situation by marrying somebody the readers had never heard of, and so making sure they recognized her name and would be treated to a retroactive revelation of her character was a pretty masterful move. Both Lynch and the Sci Fi Channel decided to make hay out of it by positioning Irulan in the plot itself: She gets a scene or two in Lynch’s movie and actually gets a more involved character arc in the miniseries. So while it’s true to the plot of Dune that Villeneuve has left her out of this movie, it feels weird, particularly because at one point, Paul says that his plan is precisely that he’s going to make a play to marry the emperor’s daughter.
If she’s introduced in the second film, will it feel rushed? It’s also what I wonder about another character whose absence actually seems even more gaping, that of Feyd-Rautha, nephew to the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), and brother to the baddie who is in the film, Rabban (Dave Bautista, a great choice for the role). One of the tragedies of Dune is that of Paul’s heritage: He’s the “Kwisatz Haderach,” the result of a 90-generations-long selective breeding program designed to make him an all-seeing superhuman. Feyd is also one of the products of the program, and the book leads up to a duel between the two that is a major climax of two running threads: The feud between Atreides and Harkonnen, and Reverend Mother’s last desperate attempt to wipe out the monster she can’t control (Paul) in the hope of salvaging the one she may still be able to (Feyd).
It’s not an absolute dealbreaker not to include Feyd, but it feels like shortchanging some of the book’s major themes. If he’s introduced in the second film, it’s at the very least going to raise the question of what the heck he was doing during the pivotal events of this movie.
There are other things, good and disappointing, about Villeneuve’s adaptation that are interesting to contemplate. Among some welcome differences: Jason Momoa is very well-used as Duncan Idaho, a character whose importance to the whole series of novels will inspire those unfamiliar with his story to blink and say, “...huh?” and who gets a little more time to make an impression than he has in other adaptations. Baron Harkonnen’s portrayal, in the novels as well as the other adaptations, has been as an Evil Gay Man, whose sexuality is coded as part of his wickedness, and Villeneuve seems to have quietly just ignored all that in favor of making the Baron a sinister, treacherous schemer. In the novel, Paul is good at everything right out of the box, and in this adaptation he still has a lot to learn.
One other omission, though, potentially closes off or doesn’t properly set up a major climax from the novel, one which I hope makes it into the second movie. Dr. Yueh (Chang Chen) betrays the Atreides to the Harkonnens at a crucial moment, resulting in Leto’s death and the exile of Paul and his mother Jessica. In the novel, this is an unexpected turn because Yueh has some kind of mental conditioning that makes him unable to betray his masters—the Harkonnens figured out how to break that conditioning, and so were able to use him as an asset. Yueh is around for only a little while, but he’s a deeply tragic and conflicted character, caught in the middle between his duty to his lord, his love for his wife, and his hatred for his enemies. It feels like he got short shrift in the movie, especially when you consider that the facts surrounding his betrayal are part of what led Gurney (Josh Brolin) to believe that Jessica betrayed House Atreides. When he discovers that the Fremen’s warlord prophet Muad’Dib is actually Paul Atreides and that Jessica is alive, Gurney comes close to killing her before the truth is revealed.
It’s one scene in the books, but it is essential to the family drama and cloak-and-dagger maneuvering that’s fundamental to Dune. It could still happen in the next movie of course, but it’ll lack some crucial context unless the movie backs up to explain something about a dead character from the first film.
Villeneuve has definitely made a movie that’s not too tough to understand and is at times pretty funny to watch. It’s tough to say, until we get that conclusion, whether we’ve got a movie that does justice to the monumental novel it’s based on, though.
Kenneth Lowe is a desert creature. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.