Sifting the sands of the Dune universe: Looking beyond the surface of the newest Dune film adaptation

By ELLA FITZPATRICK

Warning: Mild spoilers for the 2021 film ‘Dune’ (PG-13) ahead.

The latest —and highly anticipated — adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction epic Dune (1965) is an extraordinary film. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, a French-Canadian director and writer best known for his work in “Blade Runner 2049” and “Interstellar,” excels in capturing a new perspective of the novel on screen while not altering the plot enough to change the story.

The storyline

The story centers around Paul Atredies, the son of a noble family, taking a precarious and emotionally charged journey from his home planet, Cardan, to the unforgiving desert planet of Arrakis in the year 10,191.

To ensure the safety and security of his people, Duke Leto, Paul’s father, is tasked with cultivating the planet’s well-known resource: spice. Also known as melange, spice is a hallucinogenic drug that promises long life, heightened awareness and other medicinal properties, making it one of the most desired commodities in the galaxy.

However, others such as the Harkonnens, a rival noble family, want this wealth. During the Harkonnens siege against the Attredies house, Paul and his mother Jessica, find themselves stranded in the formidable desert where they must evade the beasts that swim beneath the sand as well as buried secrets about their pasts that will determine their futures.

The artwork depicts a scene from the movie ‘Dune’ where the main protagonist, Paul Atredies, and his mother, Lady Jessica, are escaping a sandworm while stranded in the hot deserts of Arrakis.  (Artwork by Alicia Gullon)

Previous movie adaptations

There have been many attempts to adapt Herbert’s novel, but they came with little success. In 1971, producer Arthur P. Jacobs bought the rights to produce the movie, who then asked Alejandro Jodorowsky to direct the film. Ultimately the movie was never made due to the lack of funding when the project billowed out to a whopping 10-14 hour film.

David Lynch, an American filmmaker and musician, then took the role of directing the first official adaptation of the novel, released in 1984. However, Lynch’s film failed to convey the original story Herbert wrote and upset a large proportion of the intended audience. According to IndieWire, the movie was so hated that Lynch publicly disowned his work as not to let it define his career.

The influence of history on “Dune”

“Dune” is the first novel in a 15 book series, six of which Herbert wrote before he died in 1986,  and the authorship went to his son Brian Herbert. Written in the 1960s, Herbert drew on real-life history to develop his story including the Cold War, Middle Eastern oil politics, Russian Imperialism and environmental movements in the United States.

The conflict between the House Atreides and Harkonnens mirrors the clashes between Imperialist Russia and Middle Eastern territories during the 1900s.

 According to Thomas Chi, in his book “Petroleum Oil on Dune by Frank Herbert,” the character Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is written to be similar to Vladimir Ilch Lenin, a politician who, after the fall of the Romanov Dynasty, became a founder of the Russian Communist Party in 1917.

Their names further link the similarity that they both sought to gain large control of industries. The Baron sought to regain control of  the spice production on Arrakis, so he invaded the Atreides house. And Lenin wanted territory, power, and influence against his English rivals, so his attempts to gain said things involved invading the Middle East to gain a resource that the world depends on — oil.

Significance of culture and religion

Herbert also incorporated Islamic and other Middle Eastern cultures into the “Dune” universe through the religion of the Fremen: a group of Arrakis natives who follow the fictional religion Zensunni—a portmanteau of Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam.

Middle Eastern influence is also seen in the languages Herbert created when he refers to Paul using  words with Arabic undertones including  “Usul,”  “Muad’Dib,” “Lisan al-Gaib”  and “Kwisatz Haderach.”

The Catholic Church is also referenced in the religion of the Bene Gesserit: a religion composed of women who interfere in intergalactic politics to further their own agenda by using genetic experimentation to help direct humanity on a path to enlightenment. The Bene Gesserit have elder leaders known as Reverend Mothers,  which, like in Catholicism, are Mother Superiors among the group of women.  

The ecology in “Dune”

The parallels of real world history within “Dune” are undeniable, especially in Villeneuve’s movie. As a novel heavily influenced by the role humans have over ecology, Villeneuve’s choice to film in Abu Dhabi and Jordan — Middle Eastern territories — gives the audience a true landscape of Arrakis than any green screen could. It also allows for more interpretation of a main point in Herbert’s novel: should humans hold the power to manipulate entire ecosystems for their benefit?

For an inhabitant of Arrakis to survive, they would need a stillsuit — a full body suit worn in the open desert and designed to preserve and reuse the body’s moisture for the wearer to drink. On a planet with no known water resources — excluding dew — water is seen as a form of wealth among the population.

To help monitor these harsh conditions, Dr. Liet Kynes, a planetary ecologist was sent by the Padishah Emperor—the highest governmental power within the Imperium. While Kyne’s initial role was to serve the Imperium as liaison, her allegiance alternated to the Fremen who worked with her to solve the water and environmental crises that they faced. Even after she died, Paul sought to carry on her legacy of altering the ecosystem to benefit the Fremen, a controversial action in the book and in real life.

Representation in cast

Kyne’s character serves as a representation of gender and ethnic roles within the movie. In the book, Kynes was originally a white man and was even portrayed this way by Karel Dobrý  in the 1984 movie. However, in Villeneuve’s “Dune,” Kynes is played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, a Black British actress.

The rest of the cast consists of extraordinary and well-renowned actresses and actors including Zendaya as Chani Kynes, Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atredies, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Oscar Issac as Leto Atreides, Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen, Javier Bardem as Stilgard, David Bautista as Glossu, Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, David Dastmalchian as Piter De Vries and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat.

The cast of ‘Dune’ features representation of genders and ethnicities, but lacks the Middle Eastern representation seen in Herbert’s novel. This potentially feeds the idea that “Dune” is a white savior narrative with cultural appropriation. Considering where the movie took place, it is hard to imagine that Villeneuve was unable to incorporate this. However, these are not the only holes that Villeneuve failed to incorporate. Yet, he will have the opportunity to fill these minor story gaps in “Dune: Part Two,” set to release in 2023.

The film’s immersive score

It is not just the filming locations that bring the audience closer to the story of Dune. Hans Zimmer, a German film score composer best known for his work “No Time to Die,” “Interstellar” and “Inception,” brings a landscape of immersive music to the film. Untraditional sound techniques such as throat singing, non repetitive drum rhythms, war horns, scraping metal, bagpipes, electric instruments and haunting female vocals — which, according to Variety, are to represent the Bene Gesserit order — all play a role in conjuring the disorienting sounds of “Dune.”  

With the unorthodox use of unnatural instruments to create music and sounds, Zimmer’s music transports viewers into an otherworldly experience. It connects the audience with the hallucinogenic effects of spice and other unsettling psychological aspects of the film.

While there have been failed attempts, Villeneuve’s “Dune” is a cinematic masterpiece. By incorporating the ecological, spiritual, political and psychological aspects of the late novel, Villeneuve almost accurately creates the world that readers of “Dune” have envisioned and waited 56 years for.

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