I’ve never read Dune, but for years I’ve felt like I know enough about it to get the general idea. From the needlessly awful 1984 movie, from reading National Lampoon’s Doon, and just decades of nerd cultural diffusion, I had a rough idea of the overall plot, the major themes, and why it was so influential.
I also knew that it was impenetrable and basically impossible to adapt. It’s set in the far-off future, over-stuffed with lore about different cultures and future technology, heavily influenced by psychedelics and incomprehensible visions, and focused on grand-level, intergalactic, machiavellian political schemes. It’s all a melange (so to speak) of guilds, great houses, witches, prophecies, ornithopters, fremen, stillsuits, and sand worms. I was perfectly satisfied to stay safely on the outside: aware of it as a cultural landmark, but without the need to dig any deeper.
But I had some time to kill, so I saw the new adaptation directed by Denis Villeneuve, and I really, really enjoyed it. So now I’m left wondering if I have to become a fan.
There’s so much that it does well, and so much of that is interconnected: a bunch of wise choices that aren’t that remarkable on their own, but all work together to make this an excellent adaptation.
One moment in particular isn’t all that noteworthy in terms of the overall plot, but it encapsulates so much of what I like about this adaptation: Duke Leto and Lady Jessica are in their bedroom, not long after arriving on the planet Arrakis, sharing a moment together while surrounded with a sense of doom over what’s to come the next day. As Jessica massages his forehead to help him sleep, Leto says, “I should have married you.”
Here’s why I think that brief scene is so remarkable.
- I always assumed they were married.
In all my years on the outskirts of the Dune phenomenon, I never got the detail that Lady Jessica was a concubine instead of Leto’s wife. The story works fine without that detail; their role in the story are just “Paul’s mother and father.” But the detail adds a layer of complexity to that relationship, putting scenes before and after into a different context.
- It does so much with so little.
Instead of subjecting the audience to a barrage of exposition, title cards, and inner monologues, this adaptation is sparse with its dialogue. Leto’s line punctuates the scene and is packed with implications.
- It’s a moment of intimacy amidst all of the world-building and grand machinations.
The main thing that makes Dune notoriously “unadaptable” is that it takes place on such a grand scale, you can’t connect with any of the characters. Villeneuve’s version takes the time to focus on personal relationships and motivations. I understand what’s driving the characters, what they want, why they’re doing what they do.
- It reinforces the theme of responsibility vs personal desires.
A recurring theme throughout the movie is that the characters are constrained by prophecies and destinies and titles that conflict with they actually want. Earlier, there’s a scene between Leto and Paul amidst the graves of past rulers of House Atreides, in which we learn that Leto’s father wanted to be a bull fighter but was denied by his responsibilities as heir to a great house. After that, the image of bulls and bullfighters reappears whenever Paul or Leto are fighting against their destiny.
This scene follows an argument between Leto and Jessica that suggests they were an arranged relationship, intended solely to produce an heir to the House Atreides and fit within the machinations of the Bene Gesserit. It’s a counterpoint to that scene, where we see that some intimacy has developed amidst the politics and amidst the routine, and he’s regretting that he let their respective roles get in the way of that intimacy.
- It’s simple and direct, letting the audience pick up as much complexity as they want from the context.
In most stories I’ve seen about royal courts and machiavellian intrigue, the characters tend to be cold, reluctant to reveal anything about their plans. Here, the characters speak so directly that if it were handled more clumsily, you’d think they were so on-the-nose as to be simpletons. But because the scenes are so carefully paced, given room to breathe and build on each other, characters can say exactly what they want, and the complexity comes from all the implications. In this moment, Leto says exactly what he’s feeling, and it gives a sense of the entire history of these two characters.
- It foreshadows the tragedy to follow, with a feeling of quiet sadness and resignation.
Leto is fully aware that he’s being set up, as early as the instigating event of the entire story. (I got the impression from the 1984 adaptation that he was caught unaware, which made him seem kind of stupid). His attitude once on the planet gradually shifts from trying to orchestrate a way to victory, to a sense of doom, regret, and trying to ensure the safety of his son. It’s clear that something very bad is about to happen, but instead of turning up the dial on the ominous foreshadowing, the movie instead shows us a man who wishes he had more time.
- It hints at the details that aren’t crucial to the characters’ story, instead of being explicit.
Most of the “essentials” of Dune are called out in this movie — hunter-seekers, Holtzman shields, thumpers, ornithopters, “fear is the mind-killer,” walking without rhythm, etc — but the movie doesn’t seem to particularly care if you’re getting it all. I heard that paper glossaries of relevant terms were distributed to audiences seeing the 1984 adaptation, which is the complete opposite of what the 2021 movie is all about. You’re not being prepared to contribute to a Dune wiki; you only need to know each thing’s relevance in the moment.
In this scene, I’m picking up all kinds of little details that aren’t dwelled on. Members of the court typically use sleeping pills to go to sleep. They trust the doctor of the house implicitly. Jessica and Leto aren’t married, but he regrets it. Jessica is so used to acting according to a grand plan that she rarely thinks about what she actually wants as a person.
There’s so much I liked about Dune that it’d be very easy to me to completely break the “One Thing I Like” premise and just start rattling off stuff. Like how the movie does such a great job of conveying unthinkable scale while still telling personal stories.
Or how it quietly references the history and legacy of Dune as late 60’s science fiction by having so many shots that could have been lifted directly from 1970s sci fi book covers. While somehow, astonishingly, not looking dated.
But what may be the greatest achievement of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune is that for the first time in my life, I really like Dune. I’m kind of invested in the characters. I want to see what happens next. Hell, I can mostly understand what’s happened so far, which is something I never would’ve thought would happen with Dune, a story that loses me the moment I read that it’s set 8000 years in the future.
I might even read the book! It might take me another 40-8000 years to get around to it, though.