Dune (2021) review

14 December 2021


The stakes were high for Denis Villeneuve's film adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, which is one of the most beloved science fiction classics, often compared in its epic scope to nothing short of The Lord of the Rings. It is a book that has long been overdue a definitive screen adaptation, but has always defied one, being dense, lore-heavy and philosophical.

This is not to say that there have not been earlier attempts to adapt Dune. There was Jodorowski's drug-fuelled attempt that imploded under its own weight. There was David Lynch's ill fated 1984 adaptation, whose end result was so bad that it was disowned by Lynch himself. (He later blamed the failure on studio intervention.) To not to curtail the scope and the breadth of the work, an attempt was even made to make it into a television miniseries, but this failed over a budget that was no match for the book's ambitions.

So, fans and regular moviegoers alike were waiting with bated breath for this latest attempt. Finally, a film adaptation that had the budget, that had the technology, that had the talent, and that even secured itself an appropriate amount of runtime: the film that was ultimately released runs in excess of two and a half hours, but tells only half the story. Clearly, the good intentions were there.

But then Covid hit and the film's original 2020 release dates were pushed back. Upon its ultimate release in 2021, the film's fate was still very much in question: will moviegoers flock into cinemas in the middle of a deadly pandemic just to see this film? Because if they did not, that would ensure no second half, because no studio would throw that much good money after bad.

What a relief it therefore was that the movie did not bomb. Audiences did come to see it, earning for it a respectable $41,000,000 in the first weekend alone, allowing the studio to commit to making the sequel within that very first week.

The Internet was abuzz. Not only was the marketing machine working overtime to ensure the best possible word of mouth, film viewers from respected critics to the last of the YouTube commentators were falling over each other, praising the miracle that was this film.

Were they correct? Should we believe the hype?

If I had to describe my reaction to Denis Villeneuve's Dune in one short phrase it would be that Dune (2021) is a frustratingly good failure.

Why failure? Well, personally, I came out of this film with a feeling of disappointment.

Don't get me wrong: it works as a film – at least as well as any other recent summer blockbuster movie it can be compared against – but if its point was to translate Frank Herbert's vision to the big screen, I feel it did not do what it set out to do.

But where it gets interesting is that I found it quite hard to pinpoint why. For that...

Warning: Beyond this point, this review contains major spoilers, at least for people who haven't read the novel Dune. The review compares and contrasts many pivotal scenes between the original and its adaptation. For people who have seen the film but have not read the novel, I tried to keep spoilers to a minimum regarding anything that might appear in the film's "Part 2", but the review is still not 100% spoiler-free.

Initial reactions

My initial, gut reaction was that this was a case of bad casting, bad acting, some questionable design choices and a bad script. So, let's start with those before delving any deeper.

To keep the discussion focused, I will centre my analysis on a few pivotal scenes, mostly the gom jabbar scene (and, more generally, the Reverend Mother's visit to Caladan and the Atreides family's last month there), and Paul's first excursion to the desert (the ornithopter rescue scene). The first is, in the book, our introduction to the world of Dune, and the second – our first first-hand introduction to the planet Arrakis. Both are iconic scenes in the book, because they efficiently and elegantly convey certain ideas very early on in the narrative, which then set the book's entire trajectory. (We will use Paul's later conversation with Kynes as a scene that demonstrates much of that trajectory.) As we shall see, the film misses these ideas again and again, creating a facsimile of the scenes without conveying any of their underlying meaning. As a result, the film goes off in a very different direction and tells a very different half-story in Dune: Part 1, a trajectory that, from the looks of it, can only spin completely out of control in the concluding Dune: Part 2.


Many people have decried the casting of Jason Momoa and of Zendaya in this film, but I was generally not opposed to these choices... except for reasons we'll get to later. By and large actors in this film were chosen to portray characters that they have already portrayed successfully in previous films. Jason Momoa is simply recapping here his role as Aquaman, complete with the bravado, the Marvel-trademarked quips, and even the fake-out death and heroic comeback. Similarly, Zendaya was simply cast here to play another Spiderman's M.J.. She is meant to look pretty and be enticing to the protagonist, while in direct interactions with him she is meant to squint a lot and project a general disregard. Even actors who have proved themselves in a much broader range of roles and have known-excellent capabilities merely tread here old grounds. Josh Brolin, portraying Gurney Halleck, is really just redoing his old take on Cable from Deadpool.

By and large these are not bad choices. They give each character from Duncan Idaho to Gurney Halleck to Thufir Hawat a completely distinctive look and feel. Whereas in reading the book the reader may be excused for occasionally not remembering who is who, here there is no chance for confusion.

The person I do see as seriously miscast in this ensemble, however, is Timothée Chalamet, playing leading man Paul Atreides. This is ironic both because he's certainly not the worst actor in the cast, having tackled in the past other challenging roles successfully, and because people who challenge this particular casting online tend to be immediately roasted for all the wrong reasons. In general, people who claim Chalamet is miscast say that he is too boyish for the role, and those who try to defend him point out that the man was 25 when Dune was filmed and he was playing a 15 year old boy who is described on the very first page of the book as small for his age. All of that is true, and all of it is irrelevant.

Paul is 15 and is small for his age, but he has been trained from an early age. He is a trained fighter, having been trained by some of the best in the business. He has been trained in the Bene Gesserit way to become a candidate Kwisatz Haderach, he has studied with one of the finest Mentats, and has been groomed from early age in leadership in order to ultimately replace his father, Duke Leto, as head of House Atreides. This upbringing of his shows in every page of the book. Paul constantly impresses and leaves at awe people who are older, physically larger and with more authority than him. This is true not just for casual acquaintances but also for people who have known him all his life. In one scene, Paul is speaking with Kynes, the ecologist, who was sent by the emperor in order to passive-aggressively sabotage the Atreides family. Paul single-handedly manages to convert Kynes into becoming an ally that helps them, against all reason, at a time when Paul's entire house is in ruins and Paul has absolutely nothing to offer Kynes in return. The exchange is witnessed by Paul's mother, who hardly says a word during it because she is so stunned by Paul's abilities.

This is not about physical size. It is about charisma, aura, and presence. In a book, this is a point that can be hammered down again and again, page after page, until the reader has long forgotten that Paul is supposed to be small for his age, because Paul never lets that become for him a handicap. In a film, on the other hand, the characters' physicality is constantly in front of our eyes and Timothée Chalamet not only does not possess the necessary charisma and presence, but is also not given the chance by the script to demonstrate any.

Instead, what we are dealt by the script are quips from Jason Momoa about how he lacks muscles. But how on earth does he lack them, after all of his combat training?


In some cases, the only problem with the casting is that the film's script required from the part more than what the actor can bring. An example of this is Rebecca Ferguson. Ferguson is mainly known these days for playing opposite Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible franchise, where the two initially were part of a cat-and-mouse dynamic, later she settled into more of a "Felix Leiter" role, and eventually, predictably, she became for Cruise a romantic foil. Elsewhere, her main roles have been those of an antagonist. Such roles work wonderfully with her physicality: she is a beautiful actress with a slightly unconventional beauty, and casting her in these villainous roles works on the audience's innate distrust of her appearance; they are not roles that demand that the audience empathize and personify with her. By contrast, in Dune Ferguson plays the Lady Jessica, Paul's mother, one of the more complex and intriguing characters in the entire novel, and one that demands our trust against our better judgement.

Consider, for example, the gom jabbar scene. This is one of the earliest scenes in the book, and appears in the first act of the film as well. In it, Jessica brings Paul to meet the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, for what turns out to be a deadly test. In the book, Paul learns that his mother has willingly put him in this mortal danger, but must nevertheless accept the madness of what she is doing and continue to completely trust her – and even use her teachings in doing so.

Paul is our avatar in this world. Can Rebecca Ferguson master from us the level of blind trust required for us to follow suit after Paul?

In the book, Jessica is the one who taught Paul his mental training, which is to be his tool for surviving the test. She is better at it than he is. Going into the gom jabbar test, Jessica is afraid, and Paul senses it by the pressure she exerts on his arm, but other than this subtle tell, she maintains her composure. In the film, we see Ferguson outside the door. She supposely has the very important task of guarding the room, but she does not look like someone who at that moment can actually guard against anyone who might try to break in. She is shaking, keeling over, completely out of control with fear and desperation. Aside from the fact that this is a very different characterisation than the novel's Jessica, and aside from the fact that this undermines the very gom jabbar test and what we have been told about it, the script does not give the audience enough information to understand that she is afraid and desperate, let alone why. Instead, the film relies on Ferguson's acting to convey all these notions that contradict what we have been told and shown, simply by use of her body language. It would have taken a very fine actor indeed to convey so much with so little, and while Ferguson is by no means bad, she's not at that calibre.

I was watching the film with my children, who did not read the book. One of them turned to me to ask what Ferguson's shakes were about. Another guessed that the Lady Jessica had been poisoned. The film repeats this same mistake again at a later point during the Reverend Mother's visit to Caladan, to the exact same effect, making viewers unfamiliar with the novel puzzled, and those familiar with it – incredulous.


Arguably the most significant character in the story of Dune is the planet Arrakis itself. It was not brought to life by an actor, but rather by a design team. Now, Denis Villeneuve is a well-known visual master, and he has spared here no expense to create the sandy planet. Actors had sand blasted into their faces to create the effects of desert winds, digital set extensions provided visual backdrops, and sand-coloured screens replaced blue screens in order to provide characters with a rich ambient light palette. And yet, none of that carried for me the effect it was meant to.

I often explain the problem with John Harrison's TV adaptation of Dune in 2000 by comparing it with Steven Spielberg's made-for-TV movie Duel. Duel is a film about a truck trying to run a small car off the road. The studio wanted Spielberg to film it on a soundstage using a green screen. Spielberg, back then still a nobody, insisted to do it on location and finally managed to convince the studio. This one decision may well be credited with launching Spielberg's entire cinematic career. By contrast, Harrison was making a film about a desert planet without ever leaving the studio – and it shows. No Spielberg he.

In 2003, the sequel Children of Dune was also adapted for TV by Harrison, but then directed by Greg Yaitanes. Yaitanes, in turn, also didn't venture out of the soundstage, but supplemented the narrative with establishing shots that were pure CGI. This made no difference to the viewer in terms of conveying the scale and scope of the proceedings. The CGI looked flat and unconvincing.

Now, you might say that that these are only problems with 2003-era CGI. That as of 2021 such problems should be a thing of the past and directors have every right to rely on any amount of CGI. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The CGI looks beautiful in the Caladan scenes, the space scenes, etc., but the main character of Dune, Arrakis, is made of sand. Sand is a substance the dynamics of which we don't really understand properly, and consequently CGI of it looks very fake even in 2021. Denis Villeneuve didn't film all of Dune on a soundstage – Some of it was filmed in Jordan and Abu Dhabi – however, as far as I can tell, the only parts of the desert that were filmed on location were some backgrounds in character shots, and perhaps some reference photography. All of the aerial photography of sweeping desert vistas was done in software.

Compare this with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, which was shot entirely in New Zealand and where sets were either built practically, in miniature if needed, or at the very least created by superimposing computer artifacts over existing photography.

So, to all would-be-directors of future Dune adaptations, hear this: Dune is an epic tale centring around life on a desert planet. One can no more adapt it on a soundstage than Lawrence of Arabia.

What reason could there be for the sand dunes in a 2021 production with $165,000,000 budget to look small and pitiful compared with those of, say, The English Patient?


To round out this discussion of surface issues, I want to describe what I will call "A tale of two gasps". We've already discussed two scenes in which Rebecca Ferguson's character gasps and the audience is at a complete loss to understand why. Here, I want to discuss two other examples of gasps that exemplify a different but quite common problem in the script. In the Ferguson examples, the script diverged from the book and undermined by this the characterisation of Ferguson's Lady Jessica. In the following examples, by contrast, a verbatim translation to the screen is the problem.

While such a direct translation may not sound like a bad idea, Dune is built on complex internal monologues. The unfolding events are by design ambiguous and lacking any clear meaning. We see each exchange through the eyes of all involved, and see how each picks up different nuances, interprets signals differently, strategizes to further their personal goals, etc..

By just putting on the screen the surface level appearances, the audience loses the core of major scenes.

Example 1: Kynes

Consider Paul's first outing into the desert. He is travelling by ornithopter (a kind of helicopter) with his father and his father's entourage, as well as with the imperial ecologist Kynes, in order to see spice being harvested. While there, they see an approaching worm and have to rescue the crew of the harvester.

The ornithopter's arrival onto the scene is pretty much lifted word for word directly from the book. However, when the duke orders the spice harvester to be evacuated, in the film we hear the ecologist gasp. To a first-time viewer, that gasp has no meaning whatsoever. Casual readers of the book were the demographic for which this gasp was intended. The idea was to demonstrate that Kynes is shocked by how the duke favours the lives of his people over the production of spice, this attitude being in marked contrast with Kynes's history with the Harkonnens.

This does not work, however. The reason why is that we have never been adequately explained how critical spice production is, and how much is riding on it. And to the extent that the tell-don't-show explanations that do exist in the film have sunk in, we have not been exposed to the fact that for eighty years choosing human lives over spice was not the policy. Nor do we see here any other action Duke Leto could have taken that would have given him more spice.

But for true fans of the book, even had all that been explained, it would still be a major miss. Kynes, the ecologist, does not react viscerally in the book to this decision by the duke. In fact, most decisions taken during their arrival are not by Duke Leto at all but by Gurney Halleck. Halleck makes Kynes transmit to the spice harvester a series of communications whose purpose is to further House Atreides's propaganda about how much they care about their people more than about spice and more than about profits. In the book, it is only in retrospect, long after the scene had ended, that Kynes reaches the conclusion that even behind all of the showmanship and façade, the duke's intent is genuine. He really does care more about human life than about profits. Kynes appreciates the genuine nature of his gestures, and begrudgingly decides that he likes him for it. This is a prelude to a much later exchange between Paul and Kynes in which Paul enlists the help of Kynes after his entire house and fallen, at a time in which Kynes has no interest to help him. It is Paul's genuineness that he inherited from his father that ultimately convinces Kynes.

As it is, we are, as viewers, deprived of the reasoning behind everything that occurs and are left with a simple tale in which all of Dune becomes the story of a spoiled rich brat who loses a fortune because his father is too stupid to lead, and is then rescued by a whole slew of benefactors whose actions to favour Paul have no reason. He is first rescued by his mother from the ornithopter to which they are both kidnapped. Then, he survives in the desert because of gifts given to him and his mother by the very traitor who killed his father. Why? As soon as he climbs out of the tent given to him by this traitor, Duncan Idaho comes by to pick them up. Why? How? Duncan then covers their retreat while Kynes sacrifices himself (or, in the movie, herself) in order to provide them with a way out. Why? And finally, the Fremen take them in, despite the basic tenets of Fremen culture requiring them not to. That is the plot of Dune's "Part 1", and it spells disaster for "Part 2" because it makes Paul's later rise just as meaningless and lacking in any stakes.

Example 2: Mapes

The other gasp I want to analyse is in the scene where Jessica picks a local, called Mapes, to be her housemaid. The local presents her with a knife, which Jessica guesses correctly is a gesture of respect rather than aggression. Mapes then asks Jessica about the knife if she knows what it means.

In the film as in the book, Jessica answers that it is a "Maker" and begins to say something else when Mapes gasps and begins to cry loudly. The viewer of the movie has no idea why.

In the book, this relates to one of many plot arcs that are completely absent from the film.

It begins in a conversation between the Reverend Mother and Lady Jessica following the gom jabbar scene. In the film, the Reverend Mother openly tells Jessica in that conversation that "The path has been laid" for them on Arrakis. What should the viewer take away from this? That she should not have any problems on Arrakis? That everything has been prepared for her? Because of this exchange, there are no stakes for Jessica and Paul. This is a place where the script tells what it should only hint at.

By contrast, in the book the corresponding exchange between the Reverend Mother and the Lady Jessica goes like this:

Jessica: "Is it really that terrible, this planet of Arrakis?"

The Reverend Mother: "Bad enough, but not all bad. The Missionaria Protectiva has been in there and softened it up somewhat."

The idea here is that centuries ago missionaries from Jessica's order came to this planet and started spreading superstitions carefully designed in order to give any of that order stranded on the planet a leg up. But she does not know exactly how well these have sunk in, nor what they morphed into over the centuries. Much of Jessica's plot arc in the book is about her trying to feel her way through the tell-tale signs that she is getting from the local population, in order to figure out, treading very carefully, what she can say that might help her family survive. It is one of the more significant and lasting conflicts in the book's entire narrative, and like everything else that we discussed so far, it is completely absent from the film.

Jessica's conversation with Mapes is one example of such careful treading. Seeing the knife, Jessica knows from her training that her best bet is to answer Mapes's question regarding the knife's meaning by calling the knife a "Maker of Death". But when she says the first word, she sees Mapes's reaction and quickly reverses course on saying the rest of the phrase, now understanding that only that first word, "Maker", is what Mapes wanted to hear.

Walking on a razor's edge, Jessica is able in this way to gain Mapes's trust because Mapes now believes that Jessica understands her culture. And just in case Mapes hasn't fully bought into it, when Mapes returns the knife to its sheath, Jessica pounces on the opportunity by asking Mapes why she would do that, why she would re-sheath the knife without it having first drawn blood. In this, Jessica is borderline-guessing, but does it in a way that makes Mapes believe that she is much more knowledgeable than she really is. Jessica is hoping to gain Mapes's trust, and also to propagate the myth that Jessica herself might be a long-prophesied religious leader who has now come to Arrakis (a myth she believes was planted there by the Missionaria Protectiva, long before). All this has its payoff much later, when we hear that Mapes was a Fremen spy, and all of Jessica's careful scheming paid off in Mapes's reports back to home base.

With all due respect to the film's three screenwriters, Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Passengers, The Mummy), Denis Villeneuve (err.. Maelstrom??) and Eric Roth (The Postman – but, to be fair, also some good films), one gasp doesn't do here what needs to be accomplished. And this time, no level of world-class acting can do it for you.

Digging deeper

It was the surface-level details mentioned above that I first thought were the film's problems. Only much later, as I was trying to formulate these feelings into a coherent review, did I realise that the problems were much deeper: they were in the adaptation of the book's plot, themes, world-building and characterisations.


When discussing surface-level reactions to the script, we focused on scenes in Dune (2021) that can be traced back directly to the source material, as most scenes in Dune (2021) can, and discussed how the treatment differs from page to screen. This time around, we will focus on scenes that were written specifically for the screen. The film Dune uses such scenes in introducing almost every one of its characters. This is a powerful tool in the hands of screenwriters, to release themselves from the shackles of the book's narrative and create a brand-new scene especially tailored in order to convey to the audience visually an idea that is important for them, and the three screenwriters of Dune use it extensively in order to tell us who the various characters are.

Unfortunately, as we shall see here, these characterisations have little to do with Frank Herbert's original characters. And unfortunately, as we shall see later on, these choices undermine the entire adaptation. This is true for pretty-much every character. I will focus on some particularly egregious examples.

Duncan Idaho and Chani

Consider again Jason Momoa's portrayal of Duncan Idaho and Zendaya's portrayal of Chani. As I wrote, I don't have much to say against the pair's acting in this film, and this is because everything about the film, from its script to its cinematography to its art design, supports the idea that Duncan Idaho is a re-incarnation of Aquaman and that Chani is a kindred spirit to Spiderman's M.J..

The problem, however, is in the old screenwriting adage "Character is destiny". These are not the characters that Frank Herbert wrote, and as a result they veer towards destinies other than what was originally intended for them. Duncan already meets his end in this first movie, so here the extent of the problem is already known: in the movie Duncan dies a hero's death, or, should I say, a superhero's death. In the book, the same death occurs largely off-screen, while more important things are afoot (namely, Paul's conversation with Kynes, which we've already covered). This is not so much a change of the plot as it is a change in the style and the intent of the narrative. Frank Herbert's Dune, as we shall discuss shortly, is a cautionary tale against heroic archetypes. It confronts the heroic narrative with a reality that is unkind to its heroes. In the case of Duncan's death, it does so by severely discounting his sacrifice.

In the case of Zendaya, we will find out the magnitude of the problem only in the second film. In the book, Chani is a fascinating and complex character, needing to juggle multiple worldviews, adapt to changing conditions, and who often leads from the shadows. I have a feeling that Zendaya's portrayal of Chani in the second film will continue the "M.J." trend, reducing her to a meaningless side character. (For a different perspective on this, see my discussion of the characterisation of Paul.)

Having said this, Chani's case is special in that elsewhere in the film we deal with characters who already have substantial arcs within "Part 1". Chani is largely absent from "Part 1", and the script seems unsure what to do with her character. She is shoehorned in at the very start of the film, speaking the very first monologue that is our introduction to the world of Dune – no doubt because the screenwriters wanted to convey to us her importance – but because these very same screenwriters had no idea what they actually wanted from her character, her opening monologue seems to even contradict her character as she is presented to us later on in the film, not to mention how she is in the book.

Concretely, the opening monologue portrays Chani as (a) a poet, and (b) someone who is much more well-versed in imperial politics than any Fremen can possibly be. It makes very little sense.

The Fremen

Chani's opening monologue is presented against visuals of Fremen mounting a frontal assault on a spice harvester. This is our first introduction to the Fremen, and it makes even less sense than Chani's speech itself.

Frank Herbert's smart, brave Fremen people who know how to harness the power of the desert and use it to hide away from the Harkonnen menace (and to annoy the Harkonnens by occasionally sabotaging and crippling their harvesting machinery) have been reduced here to a group of guerrilla fighters employing Kamikaze tactics that would have wiped them out within a week. Brave – yes, but no longer smart. Consider how this change alters the events' meanings, when Paul later on decides to side with them. In the book it is only a very late revelation that the Fremen can be made into a fighting force to be reckoned with, and much of it relies on Paul and Jessica training them in fighting tactics (because, as Paul's later fight with Jamis demonstrates, at 15 years of age Paul himself can already defeat one of their best fighters in hand-to-hand combat).

Consider again the scene where Paul, Duke Leto and Kynes go out to the desert and see a worm attack a spice harvester. In the book, we later discover that two people who were in the spice harvester were Fremen. When the worm attacks, the two leave the harvester, do not go on any ornithopter, but simply walk away through the desert, not feeling threatened by the presence of the worm there, even though this worm had just devoured the spice harvester whole. In the book, this hints at a complex relationship between the Fremen of the desert and the crews who operate spice harvesters. The film leaves no room for such complex relationships. You can't both mount frontal attacks against harvester crews and shoot crap with them.

Duke Leto

Where I first realised that the problem was not with the acting but with the characterisation was when I looked at Duke Leto. As played by Oscar Isaacs, he is a weak character, slow and confused. I think William Hurt did a much better job in the TV miniseries adaptation, portraying the embattled Duke as a strong, savvy, moral leader, adored by his people, the central pillar of his noble house, who is simply outmatched against superior forces and superior manoeuvring. His ultimate demise is a tragic moment, a felling of a tall tree, and not the Chronicle of a Death Foretold that this movie makes it out to be.

But is that really Isaacs's fault? He has successfully portrayed more authoritative roles in the past.

The problem is that everything about the Duke tells us the same story. Cinematography, design and script again all work in tandem to convey the same message. Isaacs merely did his part, faithful to the movie's vision.

If we want to understand the film's true intents regarding the Duke, the clearest indications are, again, those initial introductory scenes where the script puts Leto in the spotlight, which are entirely absent from the book, giving free reign to the film's screenwriters.

Leto gets not one but two introductions, two scenes on Caladan where we can learn about his character.

The first is a ceremonial scene where the emperor, ceremoniously, grants the planet of Arrakis to House Atreides. Why is this scene needed? In the script's own words, put in Lady Jessica's mouth in response to this very question by Paul: "Ceremony". It serves no function but that. So, from the get-go, Duke Leto, from a man of strategy and action and care for his people is transformed into a man focused on empty ceremony. When the emperor's emissary asks during the ceremony whether he accepts Arrakis – which, let us not forget, is the richest planet in the galaxy – his answer is "We are House Atreides! There is no call we do not answer!" What do these words even mean? Who is he speaking to? I cannot imagine the confusion among Leto's own banner holders, when hearing this baffling reaction to the emperor offering Leto the greatest possible gift.

Leto's second scene on Caladan is one where he tells Paul that he never wanted to be Duke and only wanted to be a pilot. Is this our born leader? Or is this a man telling us that his dreams of action turned out to be boyish fantasies, and life led him, against his will, into a desk job?

If anything, this scene sets up one of the major points of both the film and the book, but the points of each are polar opposites. The novel Dune speaks about a world where people have mastered their own minds, and where they are able to plan and to execute their plans with great mastery. They are not leaves blown mindlessly in the winds of fate. If a plan falls apart, as it occasionally does even in the novel, the fault is not in any stars but rather because another person has planned better and executed their own plans better. The battle is always between minds. Paul's entire arc is about how a person armed with the right mind can bring himself up from nothing to become lord and master of an entire galaxy.

But the film Dune has Leto falling into the role of Duke by the relentless hands of fate, and he explains to his son that the same will happen also to him. This undermines Paul's entire storyline, because none of it has any meaning anymore: Paul, in the film, has no agency. (And, as we have seen, the script supports this narrative by having Paul again and again saved by random people who have no incentive to do so.)

These are not isolated, cherry-picked incidents. The script is entirely consistent in this complete subversion of the original narrative. In the film, Leto again and again describes and accepts as inevitabilities things that in the book he is fighting with all his might against, battling them using complex plans and detailed strategies all of which were cut from the movie.

This trend in the film starts in this early conversation with Paul, where Leto explains to his son coolly and cerebrally the poisonous politics of the situation they are heading into. (Compared with the book, where Paul learns that almost everyone has warned Leto not to take Arrakis, but Leto chooses not to share these concerns with Paul and, instead, is determined that he has the plans in place to make it all work. Literary Leto faces the danger, but doesn't do it stupidly.)

And it ends on Arrakis, where in the film the Duke tells Jessica – from the perspective of the moviegoer unfamiliar with the book: completely out of the blue – that his one regret is that he didn't marry her, speaking every bit like the man-about-to-die that readers of the book know that he is. Compare this with the novel, where no such conversation takes place, but Leto leaves with Paul a message for Jessica, to be conveyed in the event of his death, to tell her that he only pretended to suspect her to be the traitor they have all been warned of in order to flush out the real traitor. Here, Leto has a full plan in place and being executed, with fallbacks. Not only is that entire plot cut from the film, I can only assume its repercussions, being the main plot arc for Thufir Hawat in the second half of the story, will as a result also be cut. This explains why Hawat is such a non-character in this adaptation. (I didn't include a discussion specifically about Hawat; suffice it to say that our introduction to the character, not from the book, is when Paul breaks ranks to rush over and hug him upon the Atreides party's arrival on Arrakis, which is very odd considering Paul never exchanges a word with Hawat throughout the entire rest of the film. Again: a character the script simply didn't know what to do with.)

In short: this cannot be simply set aside as a failing of the acting or of the script. One of the most fundamental points of the book has been here systematically subverted. From a book about man controlling his destiny, this has become a film about man being helpless in the face of destiny. Why? Which is the better story? Which is the better message? And which is the right message for 2021?


The central question of whether or not man is the master of his own destiny is also where I think the problems with Paul's characterisation stem from.

In the book, Paul is the product of thousands of years of genetic fine-tuning and an entire life of top-notch physical and mental training in a world that has perfected these arts. His ability to control the situation is demonstrated to us directly from the gom jabbar scene, which is our first introduction to him.

In the book this is a masterclass of characterisation, a conflict through which each of its two main characters, Paul Atreides and the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, navigates with the precision of a person playing chess. As Paul arrives, the Reverend Mother is described as feeling petulant and tired. Immediately as Paul enters she observes the caution with which he behaves himself. When Mohiam dismisses Jessica, he remarks on it but explicitly holds his anger in check. He asks a direct but politely worded question: "Does one dismiss the Lady Jessica as though she were a serving wench?" to which the Reverend Mother responds by turning it around with humour, diffusing the tension: "The Lady Jessica was my serving wench, lad, for fourteen years at school. And a good one, too."

When she then uses "the voice" on him, he observes this but does not comment. She resorts to using "the voice" on him again in order to point the gom jabbar needle at his neck, as he is at that point poised to escape her and by this never face the test.

Mohiam treats him with respect, referring to the knowledge he must possess about poisons, and he responds with what becomes a verbal sparring match about the nature of the test and the definition of being human.

While all this is going on, he also tries to assess the tactical situation. He suspects that she is a Harkonnen spy who somehow tricked his mother, and tries to take away Mohiam's threat by suggesting that even with the poison needle at his neck he is still the master the situation, because a single word from him would send the Duke's men into the room to kill her. This is where Mohiam tells him that his mother is complicit in his situation, and is protecting the room from intruders.

And so on and so forth.

But in the film it is entirely the reverse. It is Paul who reacts with petulance when Mohiam dismisses his mother. He rages when she uses the voice on him to get him to her. When she next points the gom jabbar needle at his neck, he is helpless to prevent it. Throughout, he is weak, and she dominates the entire scene.

As Mohiam points out in the book: "Pain's merely the axis of the test. Our test is crisis and observation." It seems without doubt, based on observation of the filmic version of Paul, that even had he somehow managed to avoid succumbing to the pain of the test, he bares none of the marks of his mother's teachings and would have failed the Reverend Mother's test, and most likely in the process also lost his life.

As a final point exemplifying this: in the film, he shouts in pain and the Reverend Mother silences him. In the book she silences him too, twice, but never for losing control. In the first instance it is when he asks "Why are you doing this?" The second time it's when he whispers "It burns." He is never anything other than in full control of the situation – she even compliments him on his courage. Indeed, his control is the very thing he is tested on. In the end, it is the Reverend Mother who is beaten. She says: "No woman's child ever withstood that much. I must have wanted you to fail."

This lowering of Paul from a master of his destiny to a victim of circumstance continues throughout the film. Consider Paul's behaviour during the ornithopter rescue scene. In the film, Paul is taken by surprise by a semi-religious experience, which we are supposed to believe is a side-effect of his exposure to the spice. This brings him to his knees and incapacitates him to the point that he cannot bring himself back into the ornithopter despite the fact that a worm is about to descend upon them.

I initially thought that this was a nod to David Lynch's version and an attempt to one-up it: in Lynch's adaptation, Paul is sitting in the ornithopter and becomes dazed when he smells the spice. (Another nod to David Lynch's original adaptation would be the use of a light blue colour for the eyes of the Fremen. In the book, the Fremen's eyes are repeatedly described as a very dark midnight blue without any trace of white in it.)

Now I think it is simply one more point in which the script shows us how weak Paul is, and how circumstances greater than him control him.

Compare the same scene from the book. There, Paul never exits the ornithopter – as, indeed, there is no reason for him to. (The only mention of any effect from spice in the original is the following single sentence: "Immediately, their nostrils were assailed by the odour of cinnamon – heavy and pungent." Paul isn't singled out in this sentence at all, and for good reason: the effects of spice are meant to be cumulative, not something that has an immediate impact upon breathing it in.)

Instead, here is what Paul actually does do in the book: he uncovers that two other people who were in the spice harvester were Fremen, that Kynes, the ecologist, is in league with them (as an undercover leader, using the Fremen name Liet) and that Kynes and the harvester men are lying to the duke to protect this secret.

So, Paul's complete mastery of the situation in the book has been adapted to utter helplessness in the movie. Why? Because the movie does not believe film-Paul can pull himself up from his own bootstraps as novel-Paul does. According to the philosophy of the film, there are two separate entities, Paul – the weak boy – and the Kwisatz Haderach – the demi-god. Just like we had the gom jabbar scene to introduce Paul, the film uses the ornithopter scene to introduce the Kwisatz Haderach: Paul literally collapses, while voices in his head call out "The Kwisatz Haderach awakens!".

The film tells us that Paul is nothing, and that the external circumstance that is the Kwisatz Haderach easily overpowers him, replacing the weak youth with a divine power, a super-human, that is destined to rule the galaxy – it is a message that flies at the very face of everything Frank Herbert was trying to say. It is Luke Skywalker using The Force. It is the X-Men getting their super-powers. It's not a case of a person who is just very good at his job, having worked his butt off, for years, honing his natural talents.

I don't want to use this review to analyse David Lynch's earlier adaptation of Dune, but just as a point of comparison, consider how the choice of Kyle MacLachlan to portray Paul Atreides makes for a different movie.

People who defend Timothée Chalamet's casting as Paul Atreides often ridicule the casting of Kyle MacLachlan for the same role in David Lynch's adaptation, where MacLachlan did not look boyish at all. But to show how this casting choice was actually quite inspired, consider this.

Kyle MacLachlan is not an actor who is likely to get an Oscar nomination anytime soon: his acting is wooden, forced, unemotive and often borderline robotic. However, he's made a name for himself by portraying a series of characters for whom that kind of acting is pitch-perfect. These range from the manic and somewhat ridiculous Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks to Charlotte's emotionally stunted husband with mother issues in Sex and the City. By casting MacLachlan in the role of Paul Atreides, David Lynch made the point that Paul, for all his incredible potential, is still an empty vessel, and this vessel is being filled by the ambitions of all around him: his father grooms him to be Duke, his mother wants him to become the Kwisatz Haderach, the people of Arrakis view him as the Lisan al-Gaib, and the Fremen want him to become a sietch leader. Each sees in him what they want to see in him. In this, MacLachlan's portrayal of Paul is far more accurate to the spirit of the novel, one of whose main points is to warn us against believing in the myths we tell ourselves.

(I also don't want to use this review to preview Dune's "Part 2", but I'll mention that the take in this adaptation regarding Paul's general attitude towards the world gives some hints as to the writers' intentions. Paul's young age of 15 in the novel matters because he still harbours a pre-teen attitude towards the world: he looks up to his father, he looks up to his mother, and he happily gobbles up everything that anybody is willing to teach him. By contrast, this film adaptation shows Paul as an emo kid: he doesn't want to take on the mantle of Duke, he openly criticises his mother's Bene Gesserit order for planting superstitions, and when the Reverend Mother tells Jessica that "The path has been laid" for them on Arrakis, her only reservation is that Paul might squander it. In all this, the writers seem to be laying the groundwork for a teenage coming-of-age story, where Paul's encounter with Chani leads him to reject his former life and instead follow her lead and her moral compass. Would this make "Part 2" into a bad film? Probably not. It can make for a great film. But it's a film that we've seen before, many times. It's Luke Skywalker again, and it's the Luke-Leia dynamic, circa The Empire Strikes Back (1980). General audiences may love it, and probably will, and the film may end up being another commercial and critical success like this one. But it won't be Frank Herbert's Dune, and that is a shame.)

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen

To all who still commend Timothée Chalamet's choice as the 15 year old Paul Atreides because it portrays the physicality of the character exactly as it was in the book, I want to point out that the film didn't do this with any other character – and that is probably exactly as it should be: Gurney Halleck is neither ugly nor scarred; Thufir Hawat does not have crimson lips tainted from Sapho juice but only a small red line on his bottom lip; etc..

No one has enjoyed, however, as much of a rehabilitating make-over in this adaptation as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. In the original, the battle between House Atreides and House Harkonnen was painted in clear blacks and whites. We were led to believe that Duke Leto, leading House Atreides, is the moral, loving, brave, handsome, and virile one (so much so that the Lady Jessica abandons the breeding plans of the Bene Gesserit, thousands of years in the making, just to grant him the male son that he wants) while Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, leading House Harkonnen, is continuously painted as morbidly obese (to the point that he cannot even lift himself), as cowardly, hateful, hated, deceitful, and of course, as a molester of boys.

It was clear to me that this last, at least, was not going to make it into the movie. Baron Harkonnen had to be rehabilitated because in 2021 depicting a homosexual – or, for that matter, an obese person – as an antagonist would have been politically incorrect, while depicting him as a child molester would have lost the movie its PG rating. The problem is not in the fact that these very distinctive, very famous features of Baron Harkonnen were taken away but the fact that nothing was put in to replace them. As it is, the first time we see Beast Raban coming to meet the Baron, the Baron is undergoing steam treatment, making him a ghostly, barely seen but overly-large figure, towering behind the already large Raban. The problem isn't that the scene is bad, but that it had been done so many times before: this is Darth Vader speaking with Emperor Palpatine; this is Kylo Ren speaking with Supreme Leader Snoke. From one of the most distinctive and immediately recognizable villains of science fiction, Baron Harkonnen was turned into a generic evil-doer.


There is a message being sent by the script by making Baron Harkonnen into an "Emperor Palpatine" or a "Supreme Leader Snoke" character, namely that the main conflict of the narrative is between House Atreides (the good guys) and House Harkonnen (the bad guys). I take issue with this narrative on multiple grounds, the most serious of which is that it is, in my opinion, a complete misreading of the book. The main conflict of the book is not between two houses, but rather between Paul and the planet Arrakis. It is a story about a man who gets lemons and needs to figure out how to make lemonade.

You see, there is a reason why Darth Vader speaking with Emperor Palpatine is the way Palpatine was introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, and there's a reason why an equivalent scene never appeared in the book Dune between Beast Raban and Baron Harkonnen: Darth Vader was already presented as a formidable, almost unbeatable adversary in A New Hope, which preceded The Empire Strikes Back. So, showing Vader cowering before Palpatine creates a hierarchy of scales that paints the emperor as an even more formidable enemy.

But in the book, the Baron's size is not about him being a formidable adversary; it's about him being a disgusting one. The Duke does not so much fear him for any mighty army that he might possess but rather believes that Baron Harkonnen does not have the moral right to Arrakis and that his time there only corrupted him further.

What actually is the formidable power in the book is the planet Arrakis itself: the Duke speaks about them needing "desert power" to survive on Arrakis; it is Arrakis's adversity to shield technology that makes the Atreides army vulnerable to attack; and, of course, in the end, when Paul rises from nothing and is able to overturn the Harkonnen forces and win back Arrakis, he does so by mastering this "desert force". The entire book is about recognizing the enormous power of the planet, and turning it from an adversary to an ally.

And it is indeed here that Frank Herbert uses a hierarchy of scales in order to impress upon us the enormity and power of the planet. Let us consider, again, Paul's first visit to the desert, as an example. It begins by an introduction to ornithopters and we are made aware of their size. Then we see a spice harvester and the spice harvester dwarfs the ornithopters, leading us to believe that it is as large as an oil tanker. Then, the worm arrives and even when it only just begins opening its mouth the aperture is already twice as wide as the entire length of the spice harvester. And finally, to top it off, Paul, sitting in one of the ornithopters, asks the imperial ecologist who is with them how large a territory each worm occupies and we learn that these are territorial beasts that may control three or four hundred square kilometres each. (By contrast, when Paul exits the ornithopter in the film, we see him directly against the spice harvester, and the harvester's fairly modest size is apparent.)

A similar hierarchy of scales, also completely missed in Denis Villeneuve's adaptation, impresses on us how dry Arrakis is and how desperate the population is for water. In the book we first see a row of twenty palm trees and Paul has a platonic discussion around the merits of having them. Later on, we are shown a secret hidden greenhouse and experience the visceral reaction by Mapes, the local, when she sees this excess. And finally, at the dinner party scene that is my favourite scene in the book (and, unsurprisingly, was cut wholesale), the Lady Jessica spots that the guests' wastewater is being collected in a bowl and hurried off, and when she inquires what is being done with it she learns that it is being sold off. She gives the staff fresh water instead and instructs them that from this point on fresh water will be given at the palace for free to anyone who swears allegiance to House Atreides. Not only does that exchange cement in the reader's mind the harsh conditions of the planet and the level of excess which the local population attributes to the behaviour of the ruling class, but we are directly shown how the family tries to turn this to their advantage in trying to convert the local population to their side. In the film this hierarchy is all but gone. We see the twenty palm trees, we hear the academic discussion around them, and that's that.


Just like it was clear to me that Baron Harkonnen will lose many of his distinctive traits, so it was clear that at least one character from the book will have their gender changed from male to female and their race from white to black. This is simply a Hollywood must, as of 2021.

Don't get me wrong; I am not opposed to it on any principle. Quite the contrary: I think diverse representation is important, and, just as importantly, I believe that a diverse range of actors should be able to make a living in Hollywood, and that any actor should be able to compete for any role and get or not get it based on merit.

My problem is that making Kynes a black woman is a misreading of the book on two separate levels, again changing Frank Herbert's original intentions.

First, because Fremen culture requires leaders to acquire their leadership status by battling to the death with their predecessors, Fremen leaders are predominantly male (with females holding high positions as priestesses, instead). It is a culture very hung up on tradition, so gender stereotypes would not be atypical for them. This does not exclude females from becoming leaders, but it would have made it very difficult for a female Kynes to become a widely-recognised spiritual Fremen leader (with or without killing anybody).

(Fun fact: In Dune it is not just the Fremen who have fixed gender roles. The imperial house is even more gender rigid. As an example, the plan that Paul lays out before Kynes in the book involves Paul becoming emperor himself by virtue of marrying the present emperor's daughter. This is a plan that would have been impossible in a culture that simply accepts empresses. Apparently, in Dune, cutting the royal bloodline by placing a relative-by-marriage on the throne is still preferable to having a woman monarch.)

Second, regarding making Kynes from white to black, the issue I have is with the treatment of the Fremen people as a whole.

As a people, the Fremen are not many. They live in small sietches and have without a doubt much inter-breeding. They are meant to have a specific, distinctive appearance, and Kynes, who, in the book, has gone "native", living as a Fremen and secretly even considered to be a Fremen leader is supposed, according to the book, to look like one of them.

Instead of showing the Fremen as genetic relatives, the movie decided to go whole hog with Fremen diversification: the Fremen cast includes not just both black and white, but a Spaniard, a Nigerian and a Guyanese along with the British and American actors.

Other than the plain question of where all this genetic diversity comes from, this is not a good look for House Atreides: both House Harkonnen and House Atreides are predominantly white men (once we exclude Lady Jessica as a Bene Gesserit, all of whom seem to be white women). Here, too, the preference for men is explicit: Duke Leto asks Lady Jessica to bear for him a son, so he can have an heir to the throne.

This leads to a problem at a deeper level: yet another thing Dune is a critique of is the narrative of the White Saviour. The book deconstructs ideas such as those of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), a film released only three years prior to the publication of Dune, where an indigenous people rely on an outsider, who happens to be a white male, to solve their problems for them. Though we are yet to see whether "Part 2" will somehow, miraculously, rise to the challenge and, like the book, reject the idea that Paul is a saviour for the Fremen, the groundwork laid in "Part 1" isn't promising: the very fact that Paul is repeatedly rescued by people who have no reason to rescue him (because the original reasons have all been left out of the script) reinforces the idea that he has a right to expect such rescue, often done at the cost of the lives of his rescuers, because his life is somehow more important. The viewer is therefore, at least so far, spoon-fed the idea that a white male's life is the more important one. This is precisely the idea that the novel rails against.


There's not much to be said about the film's plot, because it doesn't seem to have any.

A plot is not just a series of events. It is a causally connected series of events. In the film, unfortunately, we are witnessing the Atreides/Harkonnen conflict as perhaps soldiers might experience it from the trenches: "long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror." Because we are given none of the necessary background to understand what is going on, during the Harkonnen attack all meaningful actions by the novel's protagonists have been replaced by a CGI-fest of meaningless explosions.

It was inevitable that some plot will be removed in the adaptation from page to screen. After all, the book's plot-heaviness is one of the main factors because of which this adaptation was always considered difficult. But was there really a need to erase each and every plot strand from the original book? Here are but a few of the examples of interesting plot-lines from the book that carry the weight of the first half of the narrative, while telling us much about the world of Dune, the characters inhabiting it, and the main points of Frank Herbert's story.

In short, Frank Herbert's extremely rich tapestry of ideas was simply thrown out, and we, as viewers, end up experiencing events unfolding (sometimes as they happened in the book, sometimes not) without any of the context that gives them meaning, reason, and causal relationship. We are left with a typical, Hollywood-brainless script, where any "Why?" question regarding events or the actions of characters ends up being "Because!" or "So the movie can happen!"

What a fall this is, from a book replete with reasons within reasons, with "plans within plans", and populated by characters that stretch the human limits of the ability to strategize! The film's protagonists, instead, are all clueless, bumbling of fools, so when their ultimate demise comes we are forced to conclude that, inevitably, they had it coming.


Another classic trademark of the novel Dune is its top-notch world-building, which is generally agreed to be comparable with nothing other than Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The novel includes rich descriptions of the world's politics, social structure, religions, languages, customs, history, and, when it comes to Arrakis, also geography, geology, biology and climate.

Again, however, virtually none of it survived to the film adaptation.

Out of the thousand possible things I could have pointed out regarding this, I will mention two that stand out to me in particular because of how easy it would have been to integrate them into the natural flow of the film. The movie seems to go out of its way to omit them.

I will also mention two examples – in this case, basically the only two examples I can think of – of places where the film tries to introduce its own world-building, where there was no groundwork for it in the novel, and we'll examine how those pan out.

Suspensors and artificial intelligence

They say there is a point in each film where the viewer either buys into the world of the film or their suspense of disbelief shatters completely. For me, this was the very first scene of the film right after its prelude (which also happens to correspond to the very first page of the book).

In the film, a suspensor lamp is shown hovering towards Paul, waking him up.

Dune is a world where thinking machines have been outlawed following a bloody war. It is probably its most defining feature. And yet, in the film, the lamp is clearly autonomous, first navigating to Paul to wake him up and later on illuminating a procession when the Bene Gesserit appear.

That's when the film lost me. It was, for me, no longer Dune.

Ironically, the film does not hesitate, later, to include sub-plots that require this prior knowledge. For example, before the Atreides family moves into the palace on Arrakis, they scan it thoroughly, to make sure the Harkonnens didn't leave poisons, traps, etc.. But they miss the poisonous "hunter-seeker" drone that later attacks Paul in his bedroom. Why? Because in the world of Dune no drone can exist without an operator nearby. Had that not been the case, it would have been very easy for the Harkonnens to plant any number of such traps within the very walls of the palace. But when Paul's drone is discovered (both in the film and in the book) no one even suspects it to be autonomous. Clearly, an operator must be there, and promptly they seek out and find him, locked away in a hidden cairn, built into a cellar of the house.

This entire sub-plot, though it was copied into the movie, makes no sense in a world that contains autonomous suspensor lamps, unless – as the film continuously tries to impress upon us – it is entirely populated by incompetent imbeciles.

Suspensors, incidentally, appear in the book again in the device that allows Baron Harkonnen to move about, and even hover, despite his weight. This is a trademark of science fiction, differentiating it from general fantasy: technology, once it exists, can be replicated and used in multiple contexts, by different people, for different purposes.

And yet in the film, the connection is never made. the devices used by Baron Harkonnen seem to have no connection with the suspensor technology we see in the hovering lamps. In fact, when they are shown (initially, in the steam room scene) not only do they not resemble anything else visually, they also give no clue as to their purpose.

This is a major faux pas by the film's design team, because later on, when Baron Harkonnen gives a long speech about the worms of Arrakis and then floats directly upwards into the air, the viewer has no clue how he does this. The clothing design makes it even more confusing: the back side of the Baron's clothing turns out to be a very long tapering cape and it remains draped all the way back to the floor even after the Baron has lifted up, giving him a snakelike appearance – not the appearance of someone who is using suspensor technology to prop himself up. (And, indeed, why would he even need such technology, given that he is not the morbidly obese wretch that his literary counterpart is?)

I assume Denis Villeneuve wanted this look, specifically: by use of yet another cliché moment, Villeneuve wanted the audience to associate the film's villain with a snake. But the actual effect of the scene? My eldest daughter, when she saw this scene, turned to me and asked: "So, is he actually the worm of Arrakis?"

Fremen culture

In the book, Fremen culture is advanced at almost every turn, and always in ways that integrate directly with the themes, characterisations and plot. It's a shame how little of that survived into the film. In the very few places where it exists (most notably, in Stilgar's spitting on Duke Leto's desk), I think it works beautifully.

Here are a few places where I think a small added detail in the film would have gone a long way:

Details added for the film

Dune's rich tapestry of detail is a large part of what makes the book what it is. The script, instead, wanting the film to ape this "epic feel", does so by relying on sweeping CGI wide shots of open panoramas that carry neither meaning nor emotional weight. What they do, instead, is slow the film down. "Part 1" is 2.5 hours long. Let us assume that the total film length is 5 hours. The entire TV mini-series adaptation of Dune in 2000 was less than 4.5 hours in length, and it was much more faithful to the book, encompassing many of the scenes whose absence from Denis Villeneuve's version I am now decrying.

This begs the question: what did Villeneuve's version actually add, in order to fill up all of this extra run-time?

Well, most of it is just wide shots, slow push-ins, and other Second Unit insert shots that could have easily stayed on the editing room floor. They are meant to wow and mesmerise the audience, and to some extent that even works, but other times they simply appear like self-indulgent attempts to fill up run-time in lieu of having a story to tell – which makes sense, given that all the original story was sapped out.

But I did note two places where the film actually tried to make meaningful additions to the narrative. (I've skipped over a few places, like Baron Harkonnen's pet, where the script did add to the narrative, but not in ways that appear particularly meaningful to me.)


Beside being an excellent tale, the novel Dune is a serious discussion of multiple important themes that resonate to this day. We have already mentioned a few:

And there are many more.

As we have seen, the plot, characterisations and world-building of the novel all support these ideas, and as we have seen, the plot, characterisations and world-building of the film all undermine them.

I don't want to belabour this point, extending this already overlong analysis, but at least the hero's journey merits its own mention.

One of Dune's many important aspects is that it was written as a reaction to Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which is the book that first popularised that idea of "The Hero's Journey". At the time that Dune was published, in 1965, "The Hero's Journey" was still a novel idea, a toy to be played with. Remember: this was long before George Lucas took its formula to make the first Star Wars movie (1977), which ultimately made "The Hero's Journey" into the A-B-C of screenwriters everywhere. Today, any film that is not a paint-by-numbers realization of Campbell's Hero's Journey feels like an art-house film, never intended for wide consumption.

Frank Herbert's critique of "The Hero's Journey" is of course largely in Paul Atreides's journey, and its payoff is mainly in the latter half of the novel, but the groundwork for it is laid out much earlier. For example, we mentioned already Duncan's death. In the film, this was made into a comic-book-style heroic sacrifice, while in the book almost all of it happens offscreen, because the book goes against the glorification of death.

The film, showing that its treatment was no accident, repeats the same also with the death of Kynes, the ecologist, making it into a big, showy, "last stand" scene. In this particular case, not only was this "last stand" not in the book, the book does describe, in painstaking detail, Kynes's death, and it is an antithesis of the film's treatment.

This scene in the book, which was erased and replaced by a generic "good-guy death" scene in the adaptation, was, in fact, said by Frank Herbert himself to be his favourite in the entire book. In it, Kynes is left for dead in the desert of Arrakis. This ecologist in the desert, in the place he understands best, knows exactly how and when the desert is about to kill him. He has plenty of time to contemplate it, but is completely helpless to prevent it.

Not only does this scene tie well together with the ecology theme, with man pitted against fate, with man pitted against nature, and with the novel's deconstruction of heroism, it even discusses heroism explicitly – among Kynes's last thoughts are words by his father: "No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero."

And yet, somehow, in adapting the novel to the screen this very essence of it was missed and misread at every turn.


So, ultimately, I had no choice but to lay the blame on the shoulders of the film's director, Denis Villeneuve. The failures were not pointwise, such as the kind that can happen due to bad acting or casting or a bad script. They can hardly be called failures because they are consistent and always pull the narrative in one particular direction. Nor can this be a case of simplification, modernisation, or streamlining, because every one of the book's themes succumbs to the same bad treatment, which is reflected in all the world-building choices, all the plot choices, and every characterisation.

I really wanted to say about this film that its direction is confused and confusing, but it is not: it is systematically and consistently a tearing down of the construct that Frank Herbert built in his novel, and its replacement by the cookie-cutter blockbuster formula.

So, let's talk about Denis Villeneuve.

Villeneuve is an established science fiction director. His past films include Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. Both deal with material that is, just as in this adaptation, quite close to my heart. The former is a sequel to what is considered one of the best science fiction films ever made, and is in turn an adaptation of one of the definitive works of my personal-favourite science fiction author. The second is an adaptation of Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", which is one of my favourite science fiction novellas of recent years. In both cases, just as in Dune, the source material is heavily philosophical and heavily introspective. Ridley Scott's original adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep did not even attempt to tackle the breadth, scope, complexity and philosophical depth of its source material. It chose – in retrospect, wisely – to focus instead on just one or two philosophical questions from the original, on just one or two events from the original, and to explore these in depth and give them an appropriate treatment that respects the source material. Even so, the studio producing Ridley Scott's original Blade Runner was spooked by the film's ambiguity, by how it targeted mature audiences that needed to think for themselves in order to work through the questions presented, and by how it never offered any easy, definitive answers. The studio forced on Ridley Scott a Film Noir-style voice-over, where Harrison Ford narrated the film, explaining it and dumbing it down for popcorn-eating moviegoers. They even added a slapdash "happy ending" that undoes much of the premise of the film, not to mention cheapens its world and takes away the story's emotional stakes. It was only years later, when by accident an earlier work-print that did not include the marks of the studio's meddling was uncovered that the film became widely recognized as a masterpiece (and, simultaneously, also turned into a late-blooming commercial success).

I have written here in the past already about Blade Runner 2049. In it, Denis Villeneuve created a visual feast – so much so, that I personally went ahead and bought the film's 4K disc. He also made an honest attempt to create a worthy successor to the original by having it introduce deep questions about humanity and the nature of being human. Unfortunately, the end result fell short of these grand ambitions. Once one peels away the awe of the film's visuals, and once one begins to examine the questions actually raised and how they are tackled, one discovers a muddled, contrived, and self-defeating presentation. It neither introduces the topics nor debates them but rather throws ideas against the silver screen to see what sticks.

The story of Arrival is similar. Here, what Villeneuve aimed for, for his film, is a mundane look, like something that might occur "on a typical Tuesday". The movie features massive space ships that hover above the ground all around the earth, but they are purposefully presented through such matter-of-fact cinematography that we are forced to focus on the journeys and the dilemmas of the individual human characters involved, rather than the mechanics of space travel.

Again, an honest and well-meaning attempt. Again, amazing visual mastery, and again a failure in that the heart of the story, the philosophical ideas and dilemmas that make it unique and interesting, have been ignored, muddled up, flattened, hollowed out, and mostly simply replaced by clichés.

Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune unfortunately follows exactly the same path. Here, the visual idea was to convey scale, grandeur and the epic quality of the tale, while at the same time treating these in matter-of-fact terms so as to tell the viewer not to focus on these details. They do not impress the people inside this world, and should therefore also not impressed a viewer. It is only on the Atreides's arrival on the desert planet of Arrakis that our protagonists begin to be overwhelmed by emotion, and this is the audience's clue that it is the desert's elemental qualities that are more powerful than any man-made technology. Again, visual mastery at a level largely unequalled in the present generation of film directors, and a true and honest attempt to convey the nature of the source material. But just like both previous attempts, this one, too, fails on exactly the same grounds.

(I will mention with some irony that Ridley Scott's original Blade Runner, in the studio-mandated form that originally hit theatres, is in my opinion more visually stunning than the various director's cuts. The added "happy ending" scene features gorgous landscape shots that were originally filmed by one of Stanely Kubrick's cinematographers for use in The Shining. And yet, when Villeneuve made his sequel 35 years later, the point that impressive visuals do not equate with emotional or philosophical depth still hasn't sunk in. In the case of Villeneuve's films, it seems he is 100% on board with the idea of form over content, so I wouldn't hold my breath for a redeeming "director's cut" of any of them.)

During the ornithopter rescue scene in the book, Kynes, the ecologist, thinks to himself that Paul keeps asking adult question. Perhaps this is where the direction of the movie went awry. It took a book that asks adult questions and made it into a movie for kids.

A frustratingly good failure

So, we spent many words on figuring out why I deem Dune (2021) a failure.

Why a "good" failure then? And why "frustratingly good"?

Some of this we already covered: Dune (2021) is a good failure because it was well meant, because it didn't skimp on the screen time, the budget, the set decoration or the acting talent. It is a good failure because it stayed true to the Book's surface-level main plotline (disarming the fans from standing against it). The film is a good failure because it tries for that epic feel, which it does by long lingering shots, by wide establishing panoramas, by portraying its events on a grand scale. This, I believe, are the reasons why so many professional critics were quick to hail this Dune as a masterpiece.

It tries very hard not to look like Star Wars. It tries very hard not to look like Marvel. It tries very hard not to look like Disney. This gives it a unique look and feel, a unique texture, and a self-projected aura of importance that it has capitalized on well, enough to become a critical and commercial success, and to allow for a surely equally lavish production of the sequel to close off the story.

But does this matter, if the meaning behind the events has all been eradicated? It all seems to be a missed opportunity because compared to Frank Herbert's original characters, these sure do look like Disney characters, they sure do behave like Marvel characters, and the story as told has all the mindlessness and consequence-freedom of the latest Star Wars movies. Like everything about Villeneuve's direction, it does everything possible, and beautifully, to look the part, but because Villeneuve seems wilfully ignorant of the underlying meanings, nothing acts the part, nothing gels, nothing carries any weight. In his hands, this story rejecting the Hero's Journey became yet another paint-by-numbers hero's journey, indistinguishable save for its visual style from the seasonal plethora of summer blockbusters, a popcorn seller to be forgotten as soon as one leaves the theatre, telling the story of unlikable protagonists carrying undeserved titles, living a life of pampering, confident in the assurance of their own privilege.

Not only is this not the timeless tale that Frank Herbert weaved, it is, in my opinion, not even the right tale for 2021.

So why "frustratingly good"?

Because its critical and commercial success, the fact that it works – if only barely – as a movie once one ignores its source material and forgives the many clichés and the film's deplorable commitment to regurgitating the tried-and-true (but tired) Star Wars formula, as well as, of course, the fact that it will surely be completed in a sequel of similar sentiments – these all but ensure that for a generation to come this will be the definitive take on Frank Herbert's story. No one will attempt to adapt Dune again for a very long time. It is a shame, that such a well meaning attempt will have the ultimate effect of pushing an entire generation away from Frank Herbert's masterpiece because they will have been led to believe that it is something that it is not, that it is something far smaller, less relevant, and less important.

The sequel may come out next year, but the seeds of destruction have all been already planted here.