Birds circle overhead, and you know that they are carrion eaters. You pray for water, but you know it will not come. You pray for night. Water. Moisture. Something. This is Arrakis, world of spice, world of Dune, it chews up and spits out outworlders. An undeniable sound rings in the acrid air. It hisses, it slithers. Something massive comes your way.
A Maker, the Fremen of these terrible deserts would say.
To you it is a worm. To you it is death.
Dune is a profoundly strange and excellent novel.
Published in 1965, it manages to remain futuristic in it’s vision today. It is no surprise that another film adaptation is on its way.
The full story stretches over more books than I have so far read, and the lore is deep and sometimes obscure. It is reminiscent more of Lord of the Rings than Star Wars, which it so clearly influenced. I will attempt to provide just enough story context to portray my thoughts on this first book.
It is a story about a noble family – the House Atreides – who are betrayed by their Emperor. Threatened by their growing strength, he forces them to move to a hostile world named Arrakis. It is clearly a trap, arranged with their rivals – the Harkonnen – but at the Emperor’s word, they have no choice.
Arrakis is a cruel planet, but vital. Water is so sparse that stillsuits are required to reclaim personal water, but it is the only place that the geriatric spice melange can be found, an addictive substance which makes interplanetary travel possible. Harvesting it is made hazardous by the roaming gigantic worms who seek out travellers on the sands of the sprawling deserts.
We follow Paul Atreides, heir to the Atreides House. He is the product of selective breeding, overseen by the fascinating Bene Gesserit, an all-female enclave of advanced humans who seek to create the ultimate being, one with the ability to see clearly into the future. Paul was not meant to be this one, but his mother Lady Jessica disobeyed her orders to birth only daughters to Duke Leto Atreides, and Paul was born. His perceptive powers, persuasive manner (typified by the use of the voice, which is so powerful that the Bene Gesserit who have mastered it are repeatedly called witches), and expert fighting style are hammered into him by the training of his mother, father, and loyal consorts, but in the presence of the mysterious spice his powers grow exponentially. This puts the native Fremen of Arrakis in religious awe of him, as he fits the description of their great prophecy.
When all goes wrong for the Atreides, Paul and Lady Jessica are taken in by the Fremen. Paul, known amongst them as Muad’Dib, begins to raise them out of the desert and into greatness, seeking revenge for his fallen house.
I’ll say no more. I recommend reading the book for yourself, but an enthusiastic and excellent summary of the tale can be found here.
Frank Herbert’s world is wonderfully archaic at times. Paul trains with weapons suited to medieval combat, as shield technology negates the effects of fast moving projectiles. Gladiatorial combat is common, and perceived insults have the possibility of ending in duels. The politics of the world is more akin to The Witcher, or Game of Thrones, than Star Trek or Star Wars. It has the same constant scheming and double crossing which makes the politics of those worlds interesting. The villains plot against each other as much as they do against the Atreides and the Fremen.
Despite the similarities with historic fantasy, the bizarre nature of the Bene Gesserit provokes a sensation of futuristic otherworldly-ness, a sensation of an existence so far beyond our own rudimentary being that it becomes hard to explain. They are beyond human. They are evolved. They find a mystical level to basic senses, to persuasion, and to perception. Paul Atreides exemplifies these evolved abilities, taking on the memories of his ancestors to develop a new level of human consciousness. Eventually, he comes to hold powerful prescient vision. The vital futuristic element of this world is not the spacefaring, nor the development of shields and lasguns, but humanity itself. It suggests a future where our technology will change, but more importantly humanity as a whole will change, evolving far beyond our current state of being.
Despite this strangeness, Herbert is keen for us to never lose hold on his character’s humanity, giving us close insight to the inner machinations of key players. His style is often purposefully expository, which melds perfectly with the major themes of the story. We are shown the difference between inward thought and outward projection through forays into the inner monologue of characters, which often contrasts with their spoken words. Every character is in a fight, not just against the external pressures of the strange world, but to master themselves.
In this evolved universe the power of self control is more vital than ever. Each fight encountered is never just physical, it is also a battle of wit where victory relies on the reading and assessing of opponents. Paul is clearly defined as small and skinny, not a figure of physical dominance, yet he is a spectacular warrior. The key is to see what your opponent is thinking, in fights, conversations, debates, and negotiations, and as Paul masters this he becomes an exceptionally talented fighter. In the world of Dune the way to get ahead is perception and deception: get into your opponents head, and keep them out of yours.
My thoughts whilst reading Dune lingered on the clearly tempting idea of cinematic adaptation. I have yet to watch David Lynch’s 1984 attempt, although I think curiosity will eventually get the better of me, despite how I find it difficult to see how this novel works as a movie. The inner monologues and long expository conversations work well on paper as they go at the speed of the reader, and serve as important development points for characters, but how does that translate to film? There are certainly distinct and dynamic moments in the story which spark exciting imagery that if done well would make for spectacular cinema – the huge worms, the tense duels, the devastating storms – but without the moments between these instances, they would lack punch.
How do these lengthy passages translate into something cinematic?
If anyone can answer that question I believe it is Denis Villeneuve, director of the latest upcoming attempt to put Dune on the big screen. His last film, Blade Runner 2049, was meditative in pace, using long, thoughtful moments of calm between bombastic instances of action to tell a complex story in as few words as possible. As a novel it makes sense for Dune to overflow with words, conversations, and inner musings, but on screen this would fall flat. I believe the only way to adapt it would be to transform these long expository passages into purely visual storytelling. Words are best suited to novels, images are best suited to cinema. The right actor making the right expression, shot in the right light, in the right framing, can indeed tell a thousand words, and Dune is a story of many thousands of words.
If the film fails, the book doesn’t go away. If it succeeds it doesn’t go away either. It is important to remember that. The book is the book, the film is the film, and we should judge it accordingly. The nature of the medium through which a story is told influences the story itself. Blade Runner 2049 is a purely cinematic story, it would not naturally work as well as a novel because it is weighed and measured to fit the format it was designed for. Remove it from that format and those precise measurements become baggy and worthless. It is the same with Dune, it must be re-measured and re-designed from the ground up to function and succeed as a film.
With Villeneuve at the helm, I believe this could be the case. If it is then we might have something really special to look forward to when it finally comes out.
Until then, there is plenty more Dune for me to explore.