No film version of Dune could live up to my hopes based on the book.
Frank Herbert’s book is big—really big, but it is not a sprawl. It is tightly crafted—a complex, nuanced masterpiece with superb character development and many profound ambiguities and subtleties. Many people don’t realize, when they see a film, that a film script, in contrast, is barely longer than a long short story. Even many of the best films depend upon visual clues and stereotypes and suggestion to make up for this paucity of space for in-depth character development. That said, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is probably just about as close as anyone could get to rendering the book on screen. It is visually stunning and conveys the Dune landscape magnificently. The director has seen to it that enormous care was taken in the rendering of everything, from the box into which Paul Atreides places his hand to the stillsuits worn by the Fremen to the details of sandworm morphology. The film is worth watching for the ornithopters alone.
Being a film that must compress, Villeneuve’s Dune turns many of its characters into types without the complexity of the corresponding figures in the book—Leto Atreides, Liet-Kynes, Duncan Idaho, Thufir Hawat, Dr. Yueh. There is too much else to attend to and not space and time to do anything else, but to a person, the actors in these lesser roles do credible or even brilliant work with the pathetic dialogue they are given (that placed in the mouth of Duke Leto is particularly annoying and anachronistic; he sounds like a guy angling for the Rotary Club Dad of the Year Award in Nowhere, Ohio).
Timothée Chalamet as Paul gives a credible performance, for the most part, though there are a few times when his delivery is as awkward and counterfeit as that of a first-time actor in a high-school musical, and there are times when he overacts abominably—both are excruciatingly evident in the scene with his father in which he asks to join Duncan on his trip to Arrakis, the latter in the scene in which he literally screams like a toddler at his mother for making of him a chess piece in a Bene Gesserit scheme. One day, Mr. Chalamet will develop into a fine actor, I suspect. Certainly, overall, the good outweighs the bad in his performance in this film, and his youth begs patience from a reviewer. Chalamet and Villeneuve are both dealing, alas, with a script that doesn’t even begin to capture the subtleties of the character development and interior life of the novel’s central character. After the ludicrous Baron Harrkonen of the David Lynch film, Stellan Skarsgard and Villeneuve’s subtly menacing Baron is a welcome relief. To my mind, though, the MVP performance of this film—the standout stellar delivery—is that of Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, who sounds and balances all the stops with consummate skill–Bene Gesserit witch, convincingly regal consort, conflicted and loving mother. Hers is an exquisitely nuanced and believable performance.
The soundtrack is sometimes subtle and electrifying and often extraordinarily creative, but equally often, alas, it is simply overwhelming—like the too-loud bass of House music in a club full of kids on Molly. Villeneuve is a master of the brilliant, symbolism-laden cut, and the film abounds in these. The borrowings, in the sets, from early Near Eastern monumental architecture and design (Assyrian, Babylonian) are brilliant and beautiful and in keeping with Herbert’s book.
One failure of the film is that it drops, as it perhaps must in our current cultural circumstance, much of Herbert’s borrowings from Islamic theology, history, culture, and mysticism. The biggest failure is one that any film based on this book would have—it doesn’t develop over time with the subtlety and complexity that Herbert does (probably drawing upon his own psychedelic/mystical experiences) the gradual emergence within Paul’s subjective consciousness of his awareness of the various powers that mark him as indeed the Kwisatz Haderach.
Perhaps the most important biographical detail to know about Herbert with regard to his masterwork–discussed in Daniel Immerwahr’s essay “Heresies of ‘Dune,'” in the LA Review of Books–is that at a young age, Herbert came under the tutelage of Henry Martin of the Hoh people of Washington State. Thereafter, for much of his life, Herbert was deeply involved with American Indian friends and acquaintances and their culture, people whom he respected for their integrity and honor, their ability to live off the land, their disdain for excess and luxury, and their fierce self-reliance—the traits with which, in the novel, he invests his indigenous Fremen (free men who are so much better than we are. Herbert seems to be saying–we who who fall so short of their many virtues). In Dune Part 1, all this gets short shrift. The Freemen there are little more than stock noble savages, but their role will be larger in Part 2, should it be made, as will that of Zendaya, an actor of much subtlety and sheer presence capable of conveying conflicted emotion brilliantly despite her youth.
All in all, Dune Part 1 is an impressive effort. Villeneuve says of the film that he fell in love with the book at 14, and that he made it for his 14-year-old self, that his goal was to make a film worthy of the object of that boy’s adoration. He also says of the film that he would wish, if Herbert were alive to see it, that his (Villeneuve’s) love of the material would be abundantly evident. The director was successful on both counts. No mean feat, that.
NB: Art is difficult; criticism, in contrast, is relatively easy.
I listened to an interview with Frank Herbert, circa 1970. He said, “My Arab friends say, ‘This is not a science fiction book. It’s a book about philosophy.’ In particular, it’s a book in philosophy of religion.” And then he went on to say, using the Freudian terminology that was having a long afterlife in the late 20th century, that it was, in particular, a book about the “Messiah Complex.” Herbert was extremely worried about the damage to be done by Messiahs. “My book is not about the Christian Messiah,” he said, “though the same principles apply. Look what was done in His name.”
Doubtless, this is one of the appeals to me of the book. Messiahs ARE dangerous. The otherwise beautiful teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth (“Whatever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you have done unto me”) nonetheless contained a seed of world-rejection, of world-hating (Contemptus Mundi) that consolidated the power of the keepers of the keys to the kingdom–to the better place, and the all-too-human misuse of that enormous, concentrated power left RIVERS of blood throughout history. Ideas matter, don’t they? An addition to this line of thought: in making Paul Atreides so appealing, Herbert is using the same technique that Milton used in Paradise Lost when he made Satan, in the opening chapters, so appealing (See Stanley Fish’s critical study Surprised by Sin). Milton ropes the reader in and gets the reader to identify with the one who will ultimately prove the source of so much calamity, thus causing the reader to fall with Adam. This is the major thing that the Lynch Dune got so terribly wrong. It will be interesting to see if Villaneuve gets it right in Dune Part 2.