I Promise You, Dune Is So Much Bigger than the “Is Paul Bad” Debate

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I Promise You, Dune Is So Much Bigger than the “Is Paul Bad” Debate

Here’s the thing, when it comes to the overarching storyline of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi series Dune: It really can’t be conveyed by simply reading Dune, or by adapting that book into a film. When finishing the original 1965 novel, one might be under the impression in that moment that Dune functions at least modestly well as a standalone tale in a unique sci-fi universe, albeit one that ends with an ominous cascade of blood and galaxy-wide turmoil on the immediate horizon. But from the opening pages of Herbert’s follow-up, Dune Messiah, it is immediately clear that any perception we have built up of a character like Paul Atreides while reading Dune is woefully incomplete. This is a story that can’t be told in full without the context of its own sequels, a story where each subsequent entry (at least through the first three or four books) radically alters how we view the past actions of the characters in all the material leading up to that point. In a story where so much of the plot becomes entangled in past and future lives, and the ability to perceive (and thus control) the future, knowledge of the full timeline is a necessity to genuinely see the big picture Herbert is hinting at throughout.

This is all to say the following: You may have seen the internet furiously debating the question of “Is Paul bad?” in the wake of director Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two. The answer is that not only is this a pointlessly blunt and simplistic question to pose while critiquing the film, it’s also a question that the audience is fundamentally unequipped to answer without the context of subsequent chapters in a much larger and more complex story that has only begun to play out. Herbert certainly wouldn’t have reduced the breadth of his life’s work to simply answering the question of whether or not Paul Atreides is “a bad guy,” and neither should we. It simply isn’t that simple, folks. I promise you, there’s more to the story of Dune than reducing it to such black-and-white platitudes … but reading a few novels may ultimately be the only way to appreciate this, because even the likes of Villeneuve probably won’t have a chance to finish bringing the full vision of Herbert’s work to life.

The audience’s instinctual urge to turn Dune into something more concrete and simple speaks to both the desire of viewers for hand-holding from the film’s writers as they apply characterization, neatly assigning each character’s morality into various camps, and the mirroring mandate of the film studio to take this material and turn it into something capable of being sold to the multiplex masses. “Is Paul bad” is precisely the kind of ultra-concentrated prompt that serves the desires of film producers and marketers, being simple enough to launch hundreds of Twitter threads in the wake of the film’s release, digital gladiator pits in which new fans of the series duke it out in a quest to see who can simplify the story’s themes the most carelessly.

Suffice to say, these debates instead have the tendency to obliterate any form of nuance or subtlety that exists in the greater Dune storyline, separating the fandom into tribalistic, squabbling camps with such simple viewpoints as “Paul is a hero who liberates the Fremen,” or “Paul is a power-hungry madman who unleashes a deadly jihad on the galaxy.”

It’s not that the true answer is “it’s both of those things,” either. It’s that it’s both, and neither, and so much more. But the audience’s ability to make these judgments is constrained by another question: How much will Villeneuve be able to show us in any subsequent films? And has he chosen to make films informed by source material he may never intend to adapt? Does that source material even exist, if no one intends to adapt it?

The Great Moral Struggle of Dune

Dune is inherently difficult to condense because it contains fertile ground for debate on so many social issues that are relevant today, from environmentalism to xenophobia, free will to artificial intelligence, the morality of genetic editing to the distrust of powerful, supposedly benevolent institutions. If the entire breadth of the series can come down to a unifying theme–and I’m not really claiming it does, but if it can–then that theme is perhaps that of liberty vs. tyranny or free will vs. predestination.

For the majority of Dune, Paul Atreides is only dimly aware of the paramount nature of this conflict, because his abilities as the fabled Kwisatz Haderach sought by the Bene Gesserit breeding program haven’t yet fully awakened. From the beginning, he is plagued by a sense of impending doom, a feeling of “terrible purpose” he continuously alludes to. His slowly opening third eye warns him that there is danger and violence ahead no matter what path he takes, and that among other things he’ll have to choose the direction of that violence. In an effort to make the films digestible, more of Paul’s driving motivation is implied to be that age-old cinematic chestnut: Revenge for his slain father. But in the books, it’s more clear that a motivation as simple as “revenge” barely enters into the equation.

That isn’t to say Paul didn’t love Duke Leto Atreides, as he certainly idolized him as a young man growing up on Caladan. But Dune is a story about Paul’s awakening into an incomprehensibly wider world where he is bound by both the responsibility of leading large communities and, ultimately, the responsibility for the entire human species. We are seeing him progressively growing into a being for whom “love” is an increasingly abstract concept. As his abilities as the Kwisatz Haderach fully manifest, Paul’s consciousness is able to swim through ancestors going back to the dawn of man, and many possible futures. And when you can see and recall the sum total of human existence, emotion related to the present steadily begins to fall away from the process of decision making. It isn’t that empathy goes away, but instead that Paul develops more empathy for the species, and less for individuals as he sees the world from a 10,000 foot view.

And what Paul sees coming is horrifying, but only really touched on in the briefest of ways in Dune. Seeing Villeneuve’s film, one could come to the conclusion that the coming jihad–the film uses the term “holy war” to avoid Islamic scapegoating–is a conscious decision made by Paul to drench the galaxy in blood in avengement of his father, a childish tantrum to ransack the Imperium of Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV in response to the plot against Duke Leto. Paul’s Muad’Dib’s resistance to what are implied to be coming atrocities seems oddly shallow and inconsistent, while Villeneuve uses Chani throughout–to a degree almost hard to believe at times–to criticize his seeming thirst for nihilistic destruction.

But friends, Paul Muad’Dib has his reasons, and the real motivation for the jihad is certainly not a hunger for power, or an emotional reaction to an emperor’s betrayal. Paul does what he does because in his eyes, he has no other choice. Dune only begins to hint at the core philosophical debate that rages through the entire rest of the series: What kinds of tyranny are morally justified, if they’re carried out in order to avoid an even worse future?

What Paul sees coming down the pipe, in the grand scheme of things, is the ultimate death of the entire human species. He sees spacefaring humanity as too constrained by reliance on the planet Arrakis and its production of spice, the only way to conventionally travel on an interstellar scale. He sees the likelihood of mankind atrophying if left to its own devices, and faces the question of what someone in his position is morally obligated to do, if they know humanity will simply slouch off into obsolescence and eventual extinction if left alone. Should the slow degradation of humanity just be allowed to play out, in the name of letting humans make their own choices? Or should the species be forced, shocked into defending itself from its worst instincts?

Paul also sees the following: HE is the ultimate problem that he must help the galaxy overcome. Someone who achieves the abilities of the Kwisatz Haderach inherits so much power, in the form of prescience (the ability to clearly see the future), that Paul’s mere existence effectively makes freedom impossible for many. After all, if the supreme ruler of your empire can literally see the future, what hope does one have in resisting his machinations? How do you know you’re not doing exactly what he wants you to do at any given time? What plot against an all-seeing monarch could possibly succeed?

Dune Messiah, Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune eventually codify this idea more clearly: Prescience in the Dune universe may have been a goal of the Bene Gesserit, but it’s also a huge problem. Paul fears the emergence of others like himself, godlike beings created through the right combination of random genes. He knows that someone with his abilities could use them to hold the entire galaxy under their thumb, with no goal beyond complete domination and personal power. Paul thus embarks on the plan he ultimately comes to refer to as “The Golden Path,” which is a long game intended to protect the human species from the threat of prescience, to remove mankind from the ability of a single prescient leader to control it. And doing so will require unimaginable sacrifice. The jihad? That’s just the start of things. We are talking about generation after generation of tyrannical machinations, in order to prevent additional tyranny. It’s a process that weighs heavily on Paul, resulting in the sobering climax of Dune Messiah and the emergence of some key new protagonists.

Denis Villeneuve and Dune’s Franchise Expiration Date

Dune: Part Two review

Director Denis Villeneuve has not been shy about his intentions to deliver one final film in his Dune series, going so far as to even refer to that film as Dune Messiah, the title of the next of Frank Herbert’s original novels. But one has to wonder whether this is really the sum total of Villeneuve’s ambitions, because Herbert’s Messiah makes for an extremely odd, arguably dissatisfying stopping point in telling this story. Specifically, stopping at Messiah would likely rob the series of the grander theme of liberty vs. tyranny described above, forcing the story into a tighter focus around Paul himself rather than Paul’s progress and failures in approaching The Golden Path. There’s a reason why the well-regarded but unfairly forgotten Sci Fi Channel miniseries Children of Dune from 2003 is so titled–it recognized that the Dune story couldn’t be tied up in a natural series arc by only adapting Messiah, and thus functions as an adaptation of both Messiah and Herbert’s Children of Dune from 1976. Together, this full story at least brings the outline of The Golden Path (and the emerging story of Alia) into clearer focus, which provides context for why the Paul Muad’Dib of Dune seemingly chooses to not stand in the way of the start of the jihad.

We can presume that Villeneuve is no doubt aware of the entire arc of the series, but is his writing (along with Jon Spaihts’) informed by it? Does the writer/director see Paul Atreides as the person whose ultimate failures give rise to the immortal God Emperor of Dune, who picks up where Paul left off? Or does he see Paul as a self-contained character without such grand motivations that are driving his actions? These choices will inform how viewers look at Dune and Dune: Part 2 years from now–are we seeing the seeds planted that will end in the relative anticlimax of Messiah, or in the grander reveals of Children, in the arrival of a new generation that has learned something from the mistakes of their forebears?

Regardless, beyond the sophomoric instinct to reduce Villeneuve’s story to date to simply “Is Paul bad?” for the benefit of the multiplex masses, the answer is that we really can’t say for sure without the director keying us in on what Paul’s actions are truly building toward. The journey of Muad’Dib remains incomplete, and sadly the possibility is quite high that this story is destined to be cut off before it can fully unveil its most important layers of complexity. When people called Dune “unfilmable” for decades, this aspect is part of what they were referring to–you can put the events of Dune on screen, but the audience will miss the true meaning of Herbert’s story unless they’re eventually given the context of multiple sequels that no Hollywood film studio likely wants to make.

I hope that having gone this far, the Denis Villeneuve adaptations of Dune can go that much farther. A combined Dune Messiah/Children of Dune hybrid might represent the best chance to untangle the myriad threads that Villeneuve has been tugging on, while providing enough insight to recontextualize Paul’s actions throughout Dune: Part Two. Trying to delicately thread this needle would no doubt be a laborious undertaking, but given that Villeneuve dared to adapt the monolith that is Dune in the first place, here’s hoping that he has the stamina to carry the story across the finish line in the way it deserves.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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