Food for the Soul: Dune

By Nina Heyn – Your Culture Scout

Frank Herbert’s novel Dune was published in 1965, and ever since, entire generations of people all over the world have read the book even if they were not ardent sci-fi fans. Some of them may have even seen the deeply flawed 1984 film adaptation directed by David Lynch that starred such disparate artists as Kyle MacLachlan, Sting, Jürgen Prochnow, and Silvana Mangano. Special Effects were in their infancy at the time compared with the 2021 possibilities, and Baron Harkonnen floating on barely disguised wires is not what audiences expect these days.

In 1975, the Chilean/French director Alejandro Jodorowsky had a more ambitious plan to adapt the book. He is the one who discovered artists H.R. Giger and Dan O’Bannon as perfect designers of the look of his Dune. He planned to have Pink Floyd to write music and Salvador Dali to star. Unfortunately, the director never managed to complete the funding for his movie, but he left a lasting impact on the history of cinema. Giger and Bannon went on to design the iconic look of the Alien movies, and Jodorowsky’s fascinating creative ideas resulted in a great 2013 documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune, that gives insights into what his adaptation would have been. Incidentally, this documentary was chosen as the 2014 Documentary of the Year on The Solari Report.

The 2021 adaptation of Dune by sci-fi master Denis Villenueve (who directed Blade Runner 2049 as a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) is designed to be big, bold, and technically top-notch—and this is before casting the hottest actors on the market—Josh Brolin as a loyal and brave protector of the prince, Oscar Isaacs as the kind Duke Leto Atreides, Zendaya as an Arrakis guerilla fighter, Javier Bardem as a Fremen leader Stilgar, and finally Timothée Chalamet as the young heir Paul Atreides.

Artists are always the canaries in the coal mine—they foretell and crystalize social and political issues before anyone else defines them. At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, for example, Romantic painters, composers, and poets were expressing revolutionary thoughts well before the nationalistic movements that swept Europe a few decades later. And in Dune, Herbert was talking about an ecologically devastated planet he named Arrakis and the preciousness of water as a resource decades before this became a primary issue here on Earth. When Villenueve shows us Arrakian freedom fighters opposing foreign exploitation of their natural resources, all we have to do is take a look at our own newspaper headlines.

This is one of the reasons Dune is worth seeing and reading—there is nothing like a nice fictional tale to explain reality. Mankind used to have myths, then folk tales, then literature; now we have movies and games to entertain but also to impart lessons about the world in fictional form. And Dune the movie also is certainly entertaining.

If you are not familiar with the plot of Dune, you should know that it takes place in a galaxy far, far away (Herbert was apparently pissed off for years that George Lucas based a lot of his Star Wars saga on the novel’s ideas) and tells the story of a young prince, Paul Atreides. The Emperor who rules over many planets of the galaxy assigns the noble Atreides family to take over from Baron Harkonnen the kingship of the planet Arrakis. Arrakis is not attractive—nothing but sand, scruffy tribes of nomadic Fremen, and giant worms that attack people and machines. But Arrakis has one thing that everybody in the universe wants—”the spice.” Like James Cameron’s “unobtanium” on Pandora in Avatar, the Arrakian spice is only found on that planet. The valuable substance allows interstellar travel, so everyone in the whole known universe is willing to pay any price for it, and whoever has the mining rights on Arrakis can be a very rich man. Duke Leto Atreides has no illusions—he knows that the Emperor is setting him up and the sudden assignment to Arrakis is not going to be a goodwill present. His son Paul is being prepared not only to rule but also to fight, and that fight is brought to him sooner than anyone expects. The story abounds with single combats, betrayals, massive battles of armies and spaceships, witchcraft, and desert survival, as well as constant threats from giant creatures and hostile guerrilla fighters. Villeneuve’s movie version only takes us about two-thirds of the way through the first book, and there are four books. A sequel to Dune has already been announced by the studio.

Villeneuve has already dipped into the sci-fi world in Blade Runner 2049 but even earlier and more importantly in his 2016 film “Arrival” where he imagined an exo-galactic civilization traveling in huge, egg-shaped monoliths. Similar imagery can be found in Dune—the spaceships are massive, dun-colored, clamshell-shaped monsters. The whole architecture of the palace on Arrakis is designed in the Brutalist style of concrete architecture of 1950s Britain—massive, utilitarian, gray, and unfriendly to humans—presenting a great visual metaphor for a future world where improved technology and decreased resources intensify all the ills of this world. Villeneuve also seems to share with Herbert a fascination with linguistics, communications, and semantics—issues that arise immediately when different civilizations collide. In Dune, Paul is initially taught that the Fremen are just a bunch of rag-clad natives who need to be pacified to ensure uninterrupted mining operations, but very soon he discovers that from up close, the Fremen share his values of honor and bravery, that they have mastered the hostile desert environment much better than the invaders, and that his destiny may be tied to them rather than to palatial ceremonies.

Filming a high-budget sci-fi studio adaptation of a famous novel, Villeneuve knew that he had to deliver a blockbuster-size adventure. Thus, there is no shortage of elaborate fights, panoramas of space soldiers fanning across the horizon, landings of massive ships, and giant worms erupting from the sands. This is why both filmmakers and critics are recommending watching this Star Wars-size spectacle on the big screen (the film is also available on HBO, but it does, indeed, look better on a big screen).

The question is, why would we watch this sci-fi adventure at all? Other than for entertainment—which this film certainly delivers—perhaps the answer is. . . because watching metaphors of political and social life is more fun than reading the news. The themes of Dune are as old as the Mesopotamian cities, including the constant fight that an older civilization has to wage with new peoples pushing forward (after all, this is what any migrant crisis is about) and the constant fight for resources. The entire history of mankind is the history of these struggles. Sometimes it is about Visigoths threatening Rome, sometimes it is about the conquest of the Americas, and sometimes it is about resources in Africa or the space race. Herbert reached for these universal themes to create a universal tale, and Villeneuve has just given the tale a large-scale, technologically state-of-the-art form. And if you are not into pondering the metaphors, there is always a giant worm stalking our hero among the dunes.