Dune: Part One

Frank Herbert’s novel: Dune, is the epitome of classic science fiction. It’s widely regarded as one of the best science fiction novels ever written, if not the best.

The story takes place roughly 20,000 years in the future, in an interstellar feudal society. 10,000 years earlier, humanity underwent a religious movement that made computers and artificial intelligence of any type a universal taboo. This forced humans to develop in new ways, forming orders to specialize in particular capabilities.

The principle enabler of this type of development is the spice, melange. The spice enables the spacing guild to navigate their interstellar transports by seeing into the future, human “mentats” to perform the calculations and analysis formerly handled by computers, and the Bene Gesserit sisterhood to perform various paranormal feats, among many other things.

Pretty useful for one substance. The spice cannot be manufactured. Naturally it can be found on only one planet, Arrakis, informally known as Dune. Dune is a brutal desert world with giant sandworms and a native population known as the Fremen. The Fremen are an extremely hardy people oppressed by the ruling imperial houses, a people who are waiting for a savior, a religious messiah.

As it turns out, the Bene Gesserit have been engaged in a breeding program within the great imperial houses, with the goal of creating the Kwisatz Haderach, a male version of a Bene Gesserit, who would have capabilities they lack. But a member of their sisterhood does something she’s not supposed to, resulting in the Kwisatz Haderach arriving a generation early, and maturing just in time for his arrival on Dune to step into the role the Fremen have been waiting for.

The latest movie is actually the third adaptation. The first was David Lynch’s movie in 1984. I recall the theatrical version of this movie being moderately good, but I think it suffered by trying to cram the full story into a regular length film. Lynch also couldn’t resist adding his own strange elaborations. And it was later re-edited into a form I can only consider poor. (Lynch is rumored to have asked that his name be removed from it.)

The second was a TV miniseries which aired on the Sci-Fi Channel c. 2000 called Frank Herbert’s Dune. There was a sequel which adapted the second and third book: Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. I recall these actually being pretty good, and fairly faithful to the source material. But I haven’t watched them since they first aired, and don’t know how well they’ve aged, both in terms of special effects and production values.

This latest effort by Denis Villeneuve is pretty impressive. The production values are top notch, and with modern CG, the result is a movie that is pretty visually stunning. Villeneuve was also not keen to make the mistake of the 1984 film and try to cram the story into a two hour feature. This movie is two and half hours long and only covers the first half of the original novel.

Not rushing through the story gives Villeneuve space to handle the story more thoroughly than his predecessors. The book often relies on character introspection and quotes of their writing to relay a lot of information. The 1984 movie tried to replicate some of this, with results that could be described as mixed at best. Villeneuve handles it by adding new scenes that externalize or show the information onstage. In other words, he is faithful to the source material, but isn’t scared to change things to make it work in a different medium.

One visual thing I don’t recall from the other adaptations that this one has is the ornithopters. I remember being pretty fascinated by the concept when I read about them in the novel. But showing an aircraft with flapping wings wasn’t feasible in the earlier attempts. This one does, and they’re pretty cool.

This iteration is also more willing to show something I remember from the book, the Islamic and Arabic flavoring of the Fremen. Of course, this has a very different connotation today than it probably did when the novel was first published in 1965, when it probably evoked Lawrence of Arabia. By the time I read the book in the early 1980s, terrorist attacks and the Iran hostage crisis caused it to evoke different imagery. I felt like the first two adaptations downplayed this flavoring, for obvious reasons. But, counting on a hopefully more enlightened public, this version doesn’t. The actor playing Stilgar even reminds me of Anthony Quinn from the Lawrence movie.

It was kind of a bummer to get to the end and realize we won’t see the rest for a couple of years. The second part of this movie hasn’t been filmed yet. Actually, last I’ve heard, it hasn’t even been greenlit yet by the studio. I hope the fact that it was concurrently released in both theaters and for streaming doesn’t jeopardize that greenlighting. I actually watched it on HBO Max and really enjoy being able to.

That said, I also wonder why it couldn’t have been done as a TV series. Given the budgets now sunk into shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, Foundation, and others, I doubt the production values would have suffered much. And the whole first season could have been dedicated to the first novel. If Legendary Pictures doesn’t end up funding the sequel, I hope one of the streaming services, maybe HBO itself, will pick it up.

So I enjoyed and recommend it. Have you seen it? If so what did you think?

30 thoughts on “Dune: Part One

  1. I just got back from a viewing party at a friend’s house, and… I’m afraid I was underwhelmed. The pacing was a problem; I was restless throughout. I’ll refer to this movie as “the one with all the people walking” — there are so many long languid shots of… people walking. To me it seemed overly stylized — the Star Wars design ethic we’ve seen for decades. The directing of Jessica particularly disappointed. She’s Bene Gesserit and much more of a personality and a force than what we saw.

    The odd thing is, it was fairly faithful to the book, but I think that’s the problem. The book is a classic SF text, but it’s a bit too cerebral to be a good movie. The pacing issues may come from that fidelity. A lot of that plays way better in the mind’s eye.

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    1. Sorry to hear that. It is a very stylized movie. But it mostly ends up working for me. I actually liked the portrayal of Jessica. There was a vulnerability there, but I thought the idea came across pretty well that it was her caring more about her lover and her son than her order found convenient. It probably does make her skilled ferocity later in the movie surprising for anyone new to the story.

      This is definitely a hard story to film. I do think it requires taking time, more time than cinematic movies are usually willing to devote. It’s why I think this would have been better as a TV series. Although I guess that’s what that Sci-Fi Channel miniseries was. Wikipedia lists it as one of their most successful shows. Which makes me wonder why they didn’t do more like it. But the management of that channel has rarely made any sense to me.

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      1. Yeah, I was disappointed. I really liked Arrival, and I thought Blade Runner 2049 was okay. Definitely Jessica’s vulnerability showed; my problem is that her strength, character, and training did not. Unless the movie needed it. She’s the consort of royalty strong enough to scare the emperor and strong enough to defy the Bene Gesserit. All I can say is I would have directed her differently; I didn’t like Villenueve’s directing there at all. (Or in all that walking, walking, walking. The pacing, in both senses, was a real problem for me.)

        I initially assumed it was a TV series. It surprised me Villenueve was attempting a Lord of the Rings movie thing. I liked that SyFy mini-series okay. Lynch’s version, the first half is okay, but the second half is hard to watch. Jodorowsky planned a version, but it never got off the ground. Pity; it would have been interesting. As surrealist filmmakers go, I’ve never connected with Lunch’s work, but Jodorowsky is the real deal.

        One thing we realized discussing it after is that the original story has a fair amount of BS in it. Villenueve’s fidelity to the book actually ended up bringing some of that out. I think that plays better in the mind’s eye than it does on the big screen. The story perhaps does lend itself to stylizing and surrealism. It’s interesting that Lynch did a version, Jodorowsky was going to do a version, and Villeneuve, not a surrealist but definitely a stylized filmmaker, now does one. The SyFy series, as I recall, was fairly straight forward, and it’s interesting to wonder if that had anything to do with the series not continuing.

        (The irony is that, for my money, the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim served up more interesting SF than the SyFy channel usually did.)

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        1. I’d never heard of Jodorowky’s interest. (Honestly I’m not sure I’ve heard of him at all.) Orson Welles would have made an interesting Baron Harkonnen. Although based on the wiki, it sounds like Jodorowky planned to take significant liberties with the source material.

          Yeah, Sci-Fi / SyFy, which occasional brief exceptions, had mostly been a joke. They did Dune, Battlestar Galactica, and began The Expanse, but have never seemed capable of sustained quality. Every few years they announce they’re getting back to science fiction, and that might last a year or two, before they introduce something like wrestling into the lineup.

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          1. I saw a documentary once about Jodorowsky’s planned version, and it would have been pretty wild. But as I say, I’m not sure the source doesn’t demand something like that.

            Wow, it’s easy to forget the SyFy channel started The Expanse — I just don’t associate that level of quality with them. 😮 I suppose they have a tough mission. In the Anno Stella Bella epoch, where everyone is doing SF, having a “science fiction” TV channel is pretty much like just having a TV channel.

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  2. I must question the loss of my faculties if you read Dune in the 80’s and I read Dune in the 80’s and you can remember so much about it and I can’t remember a damn thing.

    I suppose you read this: https://erikhoel.substack.com/p/we-need-a-butlerian-jihad-against

    Erik is a bit of an elitist (his recent novel was impossible for me to read — Rand’esque monologues going on for pages), but he’s got some good points.

    The meme of using a strange chemical to trigger the next stage of human evolution… I wonder about that and its origin. Niven’s KnownSpace meme also used the technique. Was this treatment due to the exploration of psychedelic drugs in the 60’s & 70’s? Interesting how it’s finally having a resurgence in the medical industry.

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    1. I probably remember more of it because I read three more books in the series. Although with Dune Messiah forward, after finishing each book I’d swear it was my last one, only to be drawn in later by a captivating description of the next book. But God Emperor of Dune hit my weirdness limit (for my teenage self) and I stopped after it (despite later finding the descriptions of Heretics and Chapterhouse compelling). The two adaptations probably helped as well in reminding me of the book’s contents. Without all that, I doubt I’d remember much from the first book.

      Erik is probably right that it would take a religious (or religious-like) movement to stop all AI research. I hope it never happens, for exactly the logical balancing he discusses. I suspect Frank Herbert came up with the taboo because he didn’t want to deal with AI in his far future story. Which is probably why he never got into the details of the Butlerian Jihad. (The Brian Herbert / Kevin J. Anderson books reportedly do deal with it, but I think the details are their own creation.)

      I do think the chemical enhancement thing comes from 60s drug culture. For that matter, all the ESP stuff in the books are themes that were pretty prevalent back in the 60s and 70s. Every science fiction TV show seems like they had their ESP episodes. Science fiction had been speculating about stuff like that for decades (driven in large part by John W. Campbell), and it felt like it reached its zenith in those years. The idea that the far future of humanity would depend on it seemed far more plausible back then. These days it’s not unusual to see Dune described as fantasy.

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  3. It hasn’t been that long since I read it, but sadly the only things I remember about the story are the giant worms, the water-recycling suits, and that it had something to do with religion. Where is my mind? Geez.

    While I wouldn’t be inclined to re-read it, watching an adaptation would be interesting, especially since my favorite part about the novel was the world-building. Another point in favor of watching it—and I hope it’s not sacrilege to say this—I found the book lacking in the area of character development, but this wouldn’t be as much of a problem onscreen where the actors could (theoretically) bring in some of what I felt was missing from the book. Still, like you, I do wish it were a TV series rather than a movie (and I’m kind of surprised they didn’t go that route…Dune seems perfect for that.) Generally I prefer bite-sized chunks rather than sitting through a whole film, and I wouldn’t appreciate coming to the end only to find it’s covered only half the story.

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    1. That sounds like what I remember from most books, so I totally know where you’re coming from.

      I think I know what you mean about character development. That was never Herbert’s strong suit. He was always more about exploring ideas. Although for me it wasn’t so much lack of development as a lack of intimacy with the characters. I always felt a distance from the characters in his stories. I remember one scene in the book where Herbert wrote that Paul was “distracted” after saying goodbye to Chani, his lover. That’s a pretty distant way to describe it, not really getting into what Paul’s actual thoughts would be at the moment. Herbert wrote in third person omniscient, and that distance is a danger of that viewpoint, although most fiction used to be written that way.

      I will warn you that this movie actually puts more distance between us and some characters whose thoughts we’re privy to in the book. For example, the Reverend Mother who visits at the beginning and holds the gom jabbar to Paul’s neck to test his ability to resist pain, is a much more inscrutable figure in the movie. But the actors are able to put some humanity into the major characters.

      Yeah, not finishing the story will probably annoy a lot of people. Although it will likely generate book sales for people who want to know how it ends, much as the early Lord of the Rings movies did. Although this is a much more cerebral work, so it’ll never have the popularity of that franchise.

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      1. Now that you mention it, I think you’re right about the lack of intimacy with the characters. I often felt I didn’t understand their motivations, which is tied to not knowing their thoughts and thought processes. You point out a good example of that. “Distracted” seems pretty thin, especially for what should be a poignant moment.

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        1. Somewhat curious, since I have an ebook copy, I dug up that scene. It appears I wasn’t completely fair to Herbert in my memory.

          “I shall return with your mother,” Chani said.

          “Send her,” Paul said. “Stilgar’s instinct was right. I am stronger when you are safe. You will remain in the sietch.” She started to protest, swallowed it.

          “Sihaya,” Paul said, using his intimate name for her. He whirled away to the right, met Gurney’s glaring eyes.

          The interchange between Paul and the older Fremen had passed as though in a cloud around Gurney since Paul’s reference to his mother. “Your mother,” Gurney said.

          “Idaho saved us the night of the raid,” Paul said, distracted by the parting with Chani. “Right now we’ve—”

          Herbert, Frank. Dune (p. 687). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

          Herbert does manage to clue us in to Paul’s feelings in that scene. And clearly the POV shifts to Gurney in the last two paragraphs where the “distracted” label happens, a crucial detail I didn’t remember.

          To be fair to me, with third person omniscient head hopping, it’s very easy to lose the POV, particularly for my teenage self who wasn’t savvy to character viewpoint mechanics. That and even in Paul’s POV, that intimate moment is still told with some distance.

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  4. I’m actually planning to see it in IMAX today. I’m really excited. Regarding the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, I tried to watch it again a few years back. Your concerns are justified. It really did not age well.

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    1. Seeing it in IMAX seems like a really good idea. Hope you enjoy it. It’s getting pretty good reviews.

      I’m pretty surprised by how unavailable the Sci-Fi Channel version is. It doesn’t appear to be available for steaming anywhere. You might be able to find a copy on DVD, but that’s about it. I would have thought SyFy, if no one else, would periodically replay it. Even if the special effects are cheesy now, it still seemed far superior to that 1984 movie which is still everywhere.

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      1. The movie was awesome in IMAX! I do have a few nit-picky criticisms, and I really wish the dinner scene had been included. But overall, the movie was awesome.

        As for the Sci-Fi Channel version, if somebody were to watch it on YouTube, because somebody else posted the whole thing on YouTube without permission, that would be wrong.

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        1. I’m with you on the dinner scene being cut. What is it with these movie guys that they don’t want to do that scene? Granted, a lot of the drama depends on being inside the characters’ heads, but it still makes for a lot of interesting dialog.

          Noted!

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          1. It’s like skipping the cantina scene in Star Wars. I’m sure you could write that scene out of the script, and the plot would still work. But you’re giving up something really special and unique by doing that.

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  5. I really enjoyed Arrival. And I enjoyed this latest version of Dune as well. I read a number of the Dune books in college and re-read the first one about six or eight years ago, but am still a little fuzzy on how the first one ends up (without doing a little internet plot summary research). All that said, I did really enjoy the movie. I like the majestic scenes and sounds, and for me it recreated well the sense of Arrakis’ character–this barren and dangerous wasteland that is also a magnet for greed and a source of riches. Also, the aloof, warrior culture of the Fremen was done pretty well I thought, though it wasn’t front and center. I have no complaints on this version.

    I should probably dig out the book and read it again… 🙂

    Michael

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    1. I’m in the same boat Michael. I read the first four Dune books as a teenager. Although I’ve gone back and read the opening chapters and portions of the appendix of the original book, I’ve never just re-read the entire thing. At this point my memory of the book is probably hopelessly contaminated with the adaptations.

      Given I’m having a hard time keeping up with the new stuff I want to read, it may be a while before I ever read the original again in full.

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      1. Sounds like Villeneuve’s interested in taking it at least through a third movie, to be based on Dune Messiah. No talk of going further. Dune Messiah would be a pretty depressing place to end the series though. The Sci-fi miniseries wisely combined it with Children of Dune. Of course, it might be that he doesn’t want to be perceived as counting too many ducks before they’re hatched.

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  6. I saw it with my wife and son today. We don’t go out to the movies but maybe once a year, that is if we think something might be good enough. This certainly was. My eyes were wet with tears from nearly beginning to end. Beyond the story, which I’ve known by heart since my youth, I think what mainly got me was the “earthquake” of a modern theatrical sound system in support. Without that I suspect those emotions wouldn’t have materialized with nearly that strength. So it’s good that we made it to the theater for this one. I suppose we wouldn’t have if the sci-fi channel’s version hadn’t gotten my wife into the story. So cheers for that version too! And indeed, for this one I would have appreciated that level of detail, and so maybe triple?

    We won’t mind waiting a couple of years for the next bit, but instead will appreciate a quality continuation whenever it might reach us. But hopefully they won’t try to finish it in one go. And for anyone who might be as moved as I was, I suggest making sure that they get the strong audio iteration found in places like a modem movie theater.

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    1. Wow Eric. Glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, seeing it in the theater seems to be a better experience for most people. I didn’t do it because, at least for me, for the last several years, the theater experience isn’t what it once was. Maybe I just have too good a home entertainment system, or just aren’t going to good enough theaters. It is better than the home experience, but not better enough to drag me to it. At least unless I have a friend or family member that wants to go and make it a social event.

      From what I’ve read, he plans to finish the first book in the second movie, but also hopes to do a third movie covering the second book, Dune Messiah. It’s not clear if he plans to go any further. Although as I mentioned to someone else, the end of Dune Messiah would be a grim place to finish a movie series. Not that Children of Dune was happiness and light.

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      1. I really should set us up with a rocking movie sound system for our bedroom. We still use the cheap LED monitor sound. Hopefully some day I’ll straighten that out.

        Since I did enjoy it I shouldn’t complain about this Dune not being detailed enough. Here the door is open for other versions to get more detailed if they like. And I guess I wouldn’t object to Messiah being the end because of it’s darkness. I suppose I’d just like to see more of what’s been started here. The first book seemed like the best however.

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        1. Definitely the first book is the best. It’s the one that has at least a somewhat sympathetic hero. The second book large deconstructs the first’s heroic tale, and I struggled to connect with any of the characters in the others that I read.

          That said, I’d probably be up for a Dune TV series that ran through all the books.

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