CFC: Controlling the Spice, the Universe, And the Dune(s?)

Dune book cover

(Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog from frequent guest of the show, Natalie Sheppard-Baudean. She’s suggested we do a show all about Dune, so read what she has to say and let us know your thoughts in the comments.)

From Natalie: One of the best ways to get to know someone is to read their favorite book. Or, in my husband’s case, books. In the very early days of our relationship we’d bonded over our mutual love of speculative fiction, but I’d never read the entire Dune series before, so when he insisted the story is more than just the first book, more than just the cult-classic David Lynch film, I thought I’d check it out.

Turns out, I’m not a fan! But I’m also very aware that these books are not for me. They’re almost unbearably masculine and more of an epic fantasy than science-fiction, but they definitely have some interesting things to say about imperialism and environmentalism. For a book written in 1965, that is. Unfortunately, adaptors and fans alike often choose to ignore those themes in favor of the acid trip/hero narrative on the surface of Dune. Even reviewers have been quick to (wrongly) point out that the new Dune film is orientalist and falls into the white savior trope, ignoring the fact that the entire point of the book is to subvert that narrative. The Atreides aren’t heroes, swooping in to save the Fremen from the evil Harkonnens, they’re a tsunami of well-intentioned oppression swooping in to save the day, blissfully ignorant to the fact that they, too, are a colonizing force. And as much as I’m loath to use a word-of-god appeal, Frank Herbert himself said the one thing he wanted people to take away from Dune was to “be careful of surrendering your decision making power to a charismatic leader.” 

Poster for David Lynch's Dune

Of course, that’s not to say that Dune is completely unproblematic. One of my main problems with the text is that Frank Herbert, though I can tell he’s trying, absolutely cannot write women. It’s a shame, since there is so much potential in so many of the female characters. There’s an entire shadow-catholic-witch organization attempting to rule the world through genetic mutation and experimentation, for cryin’ out loud! That should be right up my alley! But, alas, the entire goal of the Bene Gesserit appears to be just waiting for a man to come along and save them, which kind of detracts from the girlboss feminism of the whole thing. Herbert himself also had some, shall we say, “archaic” views towards queerness, which is evident both in the books and in his estranged relationship with his gay son, Bruce. To Frank’s credit, he did try to correct this in later books as an attempt to understand and accept Bruce, but he apparently didn’t succeed and the two were never able to reconcile. He gets a few points for trying, I think, but it doesn’t quite redeem him as far as I’m concerned.

Visual adaptations of Dune have struggled to overcome the textual density of Herbert’s books and while I would never say a text is “unadaptable,” that has been the impression over the years. In addition to complex political machinations, invented words in several invented languages, and in-world histories the audience is never made fully privy to, Herbert is also just a bad writer. Almost every complex motivation or development a character has is portrayed through inner monologue, painfully removing any ambiguity the reader might have about whether a character is a good guy or a bad guy. David Lynch’s Dune famously came with a glossary of terms and was so reviled that it was literally disowned by its director, and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s fiasco attempt got so out of hand that in 2013 there was an award-winning documentary made about the Dune that never was. That’s not to say that every adaptation of Dune is a failure, of course. Despite its comparatively low budget, the 2000 Sci-Fi channel original miniseries adapting the novel remains one of the highest rated programs to ever be aired on the channel and Bill Sienkiewicz’s adaptation of the Lynch film is stunning. But the Dune fanboys have been waiting years for a truly epic film adaptation of Herbert’s work, and for the most part appear to have gotten it with Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Part One.

Poster for Denis Villeneuve's Dune

Villeneuve’s adaptation was clearly made with all of this in mind. He works to set up the white savior subversion early, and in even more obvious and contemporary ways than Herbert’s novel. This film is only half of the first book, and Villeneuve intends to go all the way through the second, Dune Messiah, which should make the deconstruction painfully clear. Throughout the film there are winks to Lynch, which despite its notoriety among hardcore fans has achieved a sort of cult status. But these winks are usually made to emphasize a creative decision Villeneuve is making, and the different direction he chose to go. For example, both Lynch and Villeneuve open with a female voiceover telling the audience about the planet Arrakis, but where Lynch chose to superimpose Princess Irulan’s face over a black, starlit sky, Villeneuve chose to focus on Chani, a Fremen telling the audience about her home planet as she and her tribe launch a raid against a Harkonnen spice harvester. The contrast is clear and immediately tells the audience that Lynch’s film was an interstellar story of planetary politics from the perspective of great leaders, while Villeneuve’s is about the indigenous people and their struggle against oppressors.

Overall, I really enjoyed the film. It was epic and well-acted and Villeneuve made some really good choices as far as what to keep and what to toss. But both my husband and I have consumed nearly every piece of Dune media ever created, so I do wonder what someone less familiar with the source material has to say about it. I’ve seen internet folks lamenting the lack of “weirdness” that they loved in Lynch, others confused about any number of esoteric terms or images brought up with little to no explanation in the movie, new fans who loved what they saw and are excited to jump headfirst into a new franchise, and plenty who were underwhelmed by the whole experience. Maybe a glossary would’ve helped? 

1 Comment and 5 Webmentions for “CFC: Controlling the Spice, the Universe, And the Dune(s?)”

  1. (I plan to do a vid about this buuut) I understand that it’s in the books, but the spitting scene felt like a racist caricature like the monkey brains scene in Temple of Doom. like “oh look, the different culture whose traditions are gross or offensive to us!” Are there *desert* cultures who have ever had a similar practice? Cause felt very off.

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