It’s hard to argue that Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming adaptation of Dune, perhaps the most influential sci-fi novel of all time, is not facing high expectations. Despite a lackluster adaptation by David Lynch and several Sci-Fi Channel series that flew under the radar, many film enthusiast have high hopes that Villeneuve will finally honor author Frank Herbert’s original story with a proper tour-de-force. Although details still remain scant, the film’s marketing campaign is very heavily aimed at portraying the novel’s critical themes, differentiating it from prior adaptations. Truth be told, the Dune novel is packed with an intense amount of commentary, most of it subtle but poignant, and all of which is more prevalent than ever during one of the most tumultuous years since the Civil Rights Movement. If Villeneuve properly combines his film-making mastery (demonstrated via Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, Sicario, etc.) with commitment to Frank Herbert’s messaging, I am confident that his two-part film will go down in film history as one of the most important adaptations to screen. Here are some key themes addressed in the novel that I expect we will see:
[Very] minor spoilers from the novel to follow
On the environment:
Dune is most notable for its commentary on the necessity for environmentalism, a poignant and novel theme at the time it was written. The majority of the story takes place on the planet Arakis, home of the Spice Melange, the key driving traded good in the universe. The entirety of the planet is desolate sandy desert, leading to the novel’s namesake. This imagery is the most surface-level theme of Dune but still important nonetheless: the lack of any water resources is frequently refereed to. In order to traverse the desert, inhabitants have to wear Stillsuits, suits that recycle water for consumption. Dune’s core plot revolves around the House Atreides, who’s homeworld is the watery planet Caladan, arriving to Arakis to assume the role of chief spice miners. The entire Atreides family, particularly the stories (anti)hero, young Paul, become keenly aware to the values of water, and sustaining the environment. Their perceptions, however, are not as heightened as the planet’s indigenous people, The Fremen, which brings another key issue to mind:
On the dangers of capitalism:
Much of what we learn about Arakis is described by the planet’s ecologist, Dr. Liet-Kynes. Without getting too deep in spoiler territory, we learn that the manufacture of Spice, instrumental in permitting space travel, is symbiotic with the planet’s dry, borderline inhabitable conditions. While Spice provides innumerable opportunities for people across the universe, it’s mere mining and refinement is thoroughly destructive to an entire society and ecology. Therein lies a dychotomy in economics: resources for global good, vice the impact that securing these resources may have to detrimental effect on others. Dune never treats this issue trivially and say “Capitalism BAD, environmentalism GOOD”, but rather uses symbolism to emphasize a duality and need for greater awareness in the processes of capitalism.
On race and socioeconomic disparities:
As implied, The Fremen are the disenfranchised people of Dune. They are not outright slaves, and many are employed. They are, nonetheless, a suppressed people, more keenly aware of their planet and its resources, but in far less control. The Imperium that ultimately rules much of the galaxy views them as a vital source of low-cost labor, adapted to hardships, but unfit of a noble caste…
Racial suppression is the most heated issue in America at the time of this write-up. As our entire nation analyses and traverses the decades of subtle socioeconomic disparities and in some cases pure racism, Dune will likely translate the strong imagery of “more than slaves, less than free” from the novel to the big screen. As a strong believer in using film to unite viewpoints via comparative imagery, I have a strong feeling that this portrayal will open up a more honest discussion on race, extremely beneficial, even if the film’s impact won’t be monumental. Even though Villeneuve completed this film prior to the tragic murder of George Floyd, I believe our nation has enough examples of malice and suppression to have inspired this film…
Also unique to Dune at the time of publication was its portrayal of women as figures of strength and insight. Another core group in this universe is the Sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, a school that conditions women towards extreme height of the senses and insight into the future. These women both seek and are sought for their insight as advisors, concubines, or often both, a core character being the concubine of Duke Leto Atreides and mother to Paul, the Lady Jessica. This is where I see my predictions sidetracking the most. Frank Herbert’s novel chooses to portray certain aspects of motherhood as a unique sign of feminine strength, rather than attributes of repression. Many of Lady Jessica’s virtues are shown in the form of keen awarneness of emotional states, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of others’ interpersonal skills, and an acute sense of creativity. The one negative factor by today’s standards is that she is sometimes sidelined as a worrier, a trait commonly found with other female characters written at the time. My worry is that Dune will follow the trends of other films, where female characters are typically portrayed by male directors as do-it-all badasses who beat the crap out of everyone as a means of portraying “ideal femininity”. This has resulted in most of these characters mirroring each other and often being uninteresting. My hope is that Villeneuve will balance the novel’s unique themes, while also shying away from some of its more traditional portrayals of women.
On the pitfalls of strong leadership:
Strangely absent so far from my write-up is the mention of Paul Atreides. Dune’s story is ultimately that of Paul’s. Paul is a sacrilegious child of Lady Jessica, in that the Bene Gesserit permit their kind to bear only daughters. Paul’s existence was a signal to the sisterhood that Jessica wished to produce the fabled Kwisatz Haderach, a man with the [extremely strong] abilities of the Bene Gesserit. Paul is also faced with a prophecy among the Fremen, who speak of a “Mua’dib”, a savior who will lead and free them. While I will keep spoilers vague, Paul is ultimately thrown into a position of great strength and influence. Denis Villeneuve compares his hero’s journey to that of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, which is an excellent comparison. Paul is no “white savior”, but rather a symbol of how a leader with great intellect and talent can easy fall into the realms of authoritarianism. I think no more needs to be said here…
Dune releases on December 18th of this year. COVID-19 will still be around, likely in the form of a second wave. We will have found out who the next (or continuing) President of the United States will be. The country will be in a recession, with the jobless rate likely floating around 9%. It is almost useless to point out the obvious fact that it will be a time of great stress, resentment, and anger in our country. Dune is packed with commentary on nearly all these issues. If the promise of Villeneuve’s epic work is held, I believe this movie has a good chance to resonate for a very long time.