Keeping faith

Frank Herbert’s Dune has been a part of my life for many years—I started reading it for the first time just before I started secondary school. I re-read it several times, along with its sequels up to Chapterhouse Dune, after which I stopped trying to stay abreast of the series. I recall thinking that neither Heretics nor Chapterhouse were that good, and by all accounts the later books penned by Herbert’s son Brian are really poor, but the first novel and the first two sequels (which form a more or less coherent, self-contained narrative) I recall as being among the best books I’ve read. I realise on reflection that I’ve not re-read them since I read the whole sequence up to Chapterhouse (my third reading of the original trilogy) in my late teens, shortly after leaving home, and it’s clearly time that I revisited them. Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Herbert’s writing summoned up a world so vivid that I have thought of myself partly as a native ever since I first went there, and the ways that he directs his drama have conditioned my sense of how politics and big epic themes should appear in fiction. I remember Dune as a serious, subtle, and meticulously crafted book, which presents its entire schtick with an unwavering straight face, even when it’s preposterously overblown, or when there is humour simmering beneath the surface. It’s a book about ecology and free-will, at least as much as it is a book about politics or galaxy-spanning galactic empires, and it’s populated with characters so striking that my own images of them are still present and compelling over thirty years since I last read it. It was filmed once before, disastrously, and televised once, ineptly, and it has a reputation as an unfilmable book. Its complexity and nuance are irreducible planks of its being, so adaptation clearly presents a problem. But what Denis Villeneuve has done is to look at the dramatic and world-design materials in the book, and see what kind of a film he could make out of them.

The film he has made is an enormous space-opera blockbuster. He’s doubled down on the epic, and perhaps wisely, declined to tackle the subtlety. His most astute decision is to retain the resolutely straight face with which Herbert told his story, and assuming he gets to tell the whole tale (this film adapts the first half of the first book, and its sequel has been green-lit) he is faithful to the breadth and scope of Herbert’s narrative vision. How much he cares about his ecological vision is not yet apparent, which is to say that the ecology of Arrakis (the eponymous world on which most of the action takes place) is only touched upon in this film. Herbert’s cultural invention is beginning to unfurl, with all of its majestic detail and historical depth intact. Perhaps now was the right time to adapt this book, since it has had such a profound cultural impact, which has only become more deeply embedded since David Lynch’s equivocal and wrong-headed adaptation in 1984. Star Wars is one of Dune’s most obvious children, but there are many others, and it has profoundly shaped contemporary expectations around what sort of themes and dramas are proper to the genre of science-fiction. It’s probably easier for a film-maker in the third decade of the twenty-first century to trust both Herbert and the audience, to put their faith in the holistic coherence of the work and the viewer’s willingness to buy into it. When Lynch made his film the funders of cinema still assumed that the box office didn’t like science-fiction, and needed SF films to be smushed awkwardly into something resembling the contours of a mainstream thriller, which often resulted in completely incoherent final edits. Star Wars, Blade Runner, Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and other early classics notwithstanding, successful SF movies were regarded as mooncalf outliers, black swans that couldn’t have been predicted and couldn’t reliably be repeated. Now we know better: people love that shit. They love all the things that readers loved about Dune, and all the things that emerge when that approach is brought to the movies: they love that it is long and slow; they love that it requires you to take funny looking clothes and made-up languages at face value; they love that none of the characters could have been played by John Wayne; they love the effort that goes into models and effects; they love the ‘let’s pretend’ seriousness that lets the story deploy inexplicable technologies but keeps hard limits on what they can do; in short, they love going to a place that is very unlike the world they live in, but which is in some sense plausible—a place which rewards their imagination with experiences as consistent as those offered up by an exotic holiday destination.

Villeneuve’s cast were fully on board, playing ‘Atreides and Harkonnens’ with all the seriousness that I did as a child (to the total mystification of my playmates). By far the most impressive aspect of the film, for me, is its atmosphere. The frightening, ruthless mysticality of Timotheé Chalamet’s Paul’s encounter with Charlotte Rampling’s Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam is as vivid on the screen as it was on the page, and the sheer strangeness of aspects of Herbert’s invention remains intact—strangeness which Lynch appeared to mistake for whimsy, but which is in fact founded on materials Herbert often developed through research as much as through invention. There’s a good reason for everything in his book, and that’s something that never escapes the viewer in Villeneuve’s adaptation. Herbert’s most interesting technological ideas are all intact, despite the nearly sixty years that have elapsed, and it was pure joy to see the way that Villeneuve’s team realised the ornithopters, the personal shields, the hunter-seekers, and the stillsuits. I have some reservations about the film, which may turn out to be unjustified when I re-read the book, and mainly relate to the great subtlety and nuance I ascribed to it as teenage reader, but if there are any lessons to be learned from similar adaptations over the last decades, it’s that nobody can nail everything. Where Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films were a beautiful visual rendition, and had some wonderful moments of high fantasy, while almost completely betraying Tolkien’s creative vision, I think that Dune: Part One keeps faith with Herbert, and there is little higher praise than that.

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