So I finally watched Dune

So a few weeks ago I finally got around to watching Denis Villeneuve's 2021 adaptation of Dune. I'd been putting it off for some time because I was afraid I would be disappointed. Spoiler alert: I was.

See, last summer I read the original Dune novel for the first time. I'm not a big sci-fi buff, but I'd been watching some YouTube videos from Quinn's Ideas, a channel that's largely focused on the Dune franchise, and it sounded like it might be interesting. Turns out I really loved it - enough that I read the next three books in the original series and the other three are on my list. That's saying something, since I haven't read a novel series since I was in high school.  (I don't have any interest in the ones written by Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert's son. From the reviews, they sound like the standard mediocre sci-fi novel fair, which doesn't interest me.) 

The thing I loved about Dune is not the characters or the world building.  Both of those were great, and are worth the read by themselves if you're into sci-fi, but they weren't the main point.  What I liked were the themes that ran throughout the book and how they were illustrated and developed.

The first was the deep political intrigue - the plans within plans within plans.  Everyone in the noble houses was trying to play a life-or-death version of four-dimensional chess, with varying degrees of success, and I found it fascinating to watch this play out.  There wasn't just a single, grand plan that was being carried out - different factions had different, competing plots going, and the book illustrates these conflicts and interactions well.  And they're not morally simplistic, either - even the "good guys" are manipulators and unrepentant killers.  That's down-played a little, since they're mostly directing that against the "bad guys", but it's definitely present.

The second thing I loved about the book was that the story was compelling, but utterly devoid of surprises.  If you haven't read the book, it's devoid of surprises because Frank Herbert deliberately gives away the ending and all the big plot twists.  He does this with quotes at the beginning of each chapter, which are from historical works in the Dune universe written many years after the events of the novel.  So from fairly early on, you already know how the story ends.  And yet the story is constructed in such a way that you still feel like you need to know the "how" and "why" that get you to that ending.  I routinely found myself hoping that the characters would somehow manage to wriggle out of their fate, even though I already knew for certain what it was.

One of the interesting things about this is that it effectively puts the reader in the position of Paul Atreides.  One of the major themes of the novel (and especially the sequel, Dune Messiah) is Paul's struggle with his prescient visions.  He can see his terrible fate coming from far away, and yet he feels unable to prevent it.  The quotes from Princess Irulan's histories and other works presented before each chapter put the reader in this exact position.  We know the end of the story, and we watch the characters move toward that end.  At various points it looks like they might escape, that they could cheat their fate, only to be pulled back onto that path.  It adds to the sense that the end is inevitable, free will and agency be damned.

But back to the movie.  I said at the top that I was disappointed, but just to be clear, this was not a bad movie.  It's just that it didn't do justice to the book.  However, I think that's less because of problems with the movie and more because of the nature of the book.

As you probably noticed from my comments above, much of what I liked about the book was a little more abstract.  It wasn't the action-driven parts of the plot or other things that lend themselves to being displayed on a screen.  They're also things that take a long time to set up.  Even though the movie was two and a half hours long, and it's only part one.  The novel was over 600 pages long, and it wasn't 600 pages of filler, either - even the chapters that didn't have major plot events served as important motivational and establishing material.  That was one of my main worries - when I thought about the book, it didn't seem like there wasn't that much that you could cut without sacrificing some of the story.

And I think that's where the movie fell down.  As I said, the movie has a lot going for it.  And in fairness to Denis Villeneuve, it really is a very faithful adaptation of the novel.  The problem is that the story is just too deep to compress into a movie - even a five hour one.  Of course, it didn't help that the movie spent a lot of time on scenes that consisted mostly of CGI beauty shots of space ships with nothing really happening.  But even if they hadn't done that, it wouldn't have worked.

The problem is that, in the movie, nothing felt earned.  The novel spends a lot of time building up to the big events.  For example, there are numerous scenes with Doctor Yueh that establish his trusted relationship with the Atreides family, establish the "unbreakable conditioning" of the Suk School that put him beyond suspicion, and discuss his inner turmoil that leads to his betrayal of them.  (No, I'm not doing spoiler alerts for a story that's over 50 years old.  Deal with it.)  The movie has none of that.  Yeah, we see a few scenes with the doctor, but we don't really get Lady Jessica confiding in him, we don't hear about the Suk School, and we certainly don't get any of his inner monolog.  He just tells us that he's betraying the Duke because of his wife.  No foreshadowing or anything.

Yes, this movie is faithful to the book in the sense that it shows what actually happens in the plot.  And I do think they did a pretty good job getting the right aesthetic and mood.  But when you remove all the background information and scenes establishing his motivations and position, it just comes across flat.  In fact, I feel like the movie would have been a little confusing if I hadn't already read the novel.  Too much of the action feels unmotivated based just on what's in the film.  To be fair, much of the establishing material is things like Yueh's internal monolog, which isn't very amenable to film adaptation, so it's not really Villeneuve's fault.  But still, the movie suffers for it.

But maybe I'm just being overly critical.  I mean, it was a decent movie that's worth watching.  It's just that the book was so good that it was almost impossible that a movie could really live up to it.  So if you're so inclined, give the movie a watch.  And if you like it, definitely read the book.  It's way better.

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