God help me, I almost prefer David Lynch's version of Dune
The new version fails to grapple with Dune's anti-hero themes and depoliticizes the narrative
SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS *
SPOILERS FOR CURRENT FILM, SPOILERS FOR COMING FILMS, SPOILERS FOR DUNE THE BOOK AND ITS SEQUELS
I consider the Dune series one of the greatest in science fiction, a series with deep political meaning and a prophetic ecological vision far ahead of its time.
So disappointment with any film adaptation is kind of baked in for me, but the surprise was that in some ways, I almost prefer the old 1984 David Lynch version of Dune to the current one in theaters.
Now, the new Dune movie by Denis Villeneuve is by far the better film in any conventional measure, from gorgeous cinematography to smoother direction and far better acting throughout. For someone who hadn’t read the books, I’d no doubt recommend the new version over Lynch’s film, since they quite possibly would run out of the theater from the latter yelling WTF!
But still, for all the over-the-top overacting and just plain gross scenes in the Lynch version, it in many ways better captured the bitter ironic humor of the original Dune series, while the newer version is so self-serious at every point that there’s little room for irony. And that’s a problem, since bitter irony is the core theme of the Dune book series.
A parallel issue is that the new Dune’s Paul has no real hero’s journey; he is already not only super-competent but completely self-confident. In this film, adapting only half of the original first book, Paul is already planning to be Emperor, which is supposed to be the culmination of his whole evolution over the years covered by that first book. Lynch’s Paul is still super competent but he still stumbles a bit towards his eventual near-Godhood at the end of the book-film.
The deep theme of the Dune books is the danger of good people becoming dangerous messiahs because they fall for their own propaganda. But you need people to grow into that self-delusion for it to be meaningful, not have it there from step one as is true in the new adaptation.
Part of the problem is that the new Dune film focuses almost exclusively on Paul’s story, while Lynch embeds it far more in the broader politics of the world that Paul will ultimately disrupt. The opening scene for Lynch is a confrontation between the Spacing Guild leaders and the Emperor – both of whom never even appear in the new Dune.
Having that broader politics in the forefront of Lynch’s version makes clear both what is rotten in the existing system but also making clear the balance of power that Paul may upset.
That political lesson by Lynch is accompanied by a hell of a lot of ham-handed exposition, so Villeneuve’s version is a more streamlined story of a plucky boy with evolving powers taking on the corrupt bad guys of his galaxy.
But here’s the problem with such a streamlined story– and complete spoilers here – PAUL IS THE BAD GUY.
For author Frank Herbert, Paul Atreides is a good person who is destined to unleash mass murder and genocide across the galaxy. The book sets the reader up for the sequels which highlight Herbert’s core antipathy to the heroic trope of a singular hero overcoming evil and bureaucratic opposition that dominates almost all of fantasy and science fiction. It is precisely Herbert’s appreciation of both the utter repulsiveness of existing institutions in his universe but also the dangerous allure of charisma to smash that establishment that is the core of his writing.
Herbert wrote an anti-hero parable and any Dune film has to capture that in the nuances even as it takes the viewer along for the initial ride to messiahhood.
How evil was Paul and the regime he would create? Evil enough that Paul himself would become it’s sworn enemy by the end of the second book and, in disguise, become a prime antagonist to it for most of the third book. And his son Leto II would de facto join him in that endeavor.
Herbert would write a fourth book in his series, God-Emperor of Dune, whose whole theme is that it would take a 3500-year dictatorship to destroy the cult of hero worship in mankind, to make the lesson indelible that charismatic power is never, ever to be trusted to make sure an evil like Paul Muad'dib would not happen again.
Herbert’s son noted in an introduction to the second book that his father was a Democratic speechwriter and was obviously appalled by Hitler. But he was also worried about the cult of personality around JFK – and was thankful when Watergate seemed to destroy the kind of executive hero worship that he thought endangered society.
Dune society and its politics are key – since they ARE corrupt and well-deserving of destruction, but Herbert’s point is that hoping for the heroic messiah to cut through the politics is worse than the disease.
When Trumpists talk about destroying the “swamp” and build a cult around Trump as the singular agent to destroy it, that is the fascist politics that Herbert sees as the enemy of humanistic society.
But it’s easy to hate charismatic dictatorship when the leader is obviously evil like Hitler or Trump, but Herbert wanted to make clear the danger is just as great when a good person is given such absolute power by a crowd legitimating their power. The point is to be repulsed by cult worship of any leader.
This actually parallels the theme of another icon of youth science fiction, namely Ender Wiggin of the book Ender’s Game. Ender is another superhumanly competent youth given enormous power to seemingly save humanity from an evil alien race– only for it to turn out he commits genocide against a peaceful opponent. Again, like Paul, Ender would in later books become the enemy of his own celebrity, writing a book honoring the alien race he murdered and destroying his own former heroic reputation.
And like Paul, Ender is treated by most readers as a good guy and hero, despite both being genocidal killers.
This is in fact the exact danger Herbert was writing about, that the cult of the hero is so overwhelming that even the worst misdeeds are largely forgiven in the bath of the charisma of the great leader.
Now, Denis Villeneuve states that he plans two more films, including extending the narrative to Dune Messiah, so he no doubt has plans to highlight the downside of Paul’s ambition and triumph – but he foreshadowed almost none of that theme in this first film. Hopefully, he plans to rip apart that mythmaking in future movies but, the lack of world-building and narrow hero’s-quest approach to the first film has grossly depoliticized the film compared to Herbert’s storyline, so Paul going bad may dangerously veer into being seen as merely a personal tragedy and not the inevitable result of charismatic worship.
With a cliffhanger, all we can say is “we shall see” but despite the beauty of the film, this first installment has some deep failures as an adaptation of the books.