The Dark Herald Recommends Dune II

The Dark Herald Recommends Dune II

“Unadaptable” is the word that was most frequently used to describe Frank Herbert’s Dune and not without good reason.  People who have had no trouble at all with Tolkien’s Silmarillion have struggled mightily to plow their way through Dune.  Herbert stood the convention of “show don’t tell” on its head and mostly just told. He took a 900-page exposition dump on his readers and somehow made it all work. 

Making a movie version of this is all but impossible but there have been plenty of attempts to scale that mountain.  The most influential was the one that was never made Jodorwosky’s Dune.  All three adaptations have carried its mark.  

The ambition of Lynch’s Dune was quite simply impossible to achieve with 1980s technology.  Plus there was way too much Lynchian weirdness that just didn’t mesh with the material.  It was a good attempt but the flaws are all too evident. Kyle MacLachlan was a well-meaning Paul but it just didn’t work. He was too old, Sean Young was too old.  The accents were just shotgunned all over the place. German, British, American, Swedish, and some I could not identify.  And then there were Lynch’s additions that were silly like the sonic weaponry that made no sense in the story.

Sci-Fi Channel’s Dune doesn’t get the respect it deserves.  They did the level best they could with the tiny budget they had. It’s honestly still worth a watch but you are either going to have to buy the Blu-ray or Yo-Ho-Ho it.  If you think it’s better than the Lynch version, I get where you’re coming from.

However, Denis Villeneuve has finally delivered on what Dune could be on the screen.  He has shot the unshootable story. 

I was very much a fan of the first half of this duology.

In fairness to you, this is NOT a spoiler-free review. 


The book was published nearly sixty years ago and has been filmed twice.  I really don’t care if you’re a normie who is about to have the story spoiled.

The movie starts with Irulan narrating a quick recap of the last movie. We see Shaddam for the first time.  One of my few complaints about this movie is that Christopher Walken was seriously underused. Irulan claimed that the Shaddam loved Leto like a son but destroyed his house and line for the good of the realm.  It wasn’t a very convincing case but in the book, Shaddam does appear to regret the necessity of it.

We see mountains of Atreides corpses being incinerated. Then we get caught up with Paul and Jessica.  Their entrance to Fremen society is a rocky one.  Their water is worth more than their lives.  Stilgar is an early believer in Paul being the prophesied one… Because he is from the South and they are all fundamentalists in the southern hemisphere. They are repeatedly referred to as that. Some people feel it’s slight against the American southern states and it probably is but the truth is that believers don’t mind being looked down on for our beliefs because we look down on non-believers as lost fools. The comparison works in this instance. 

Now this is a fairly big difference in the interpretations of Dune.  In Lynch’s version, Paul was much closer to an actual messiah, albeit a reluctant one. In Villeneuve’s Paul knows he is a false prophet who only has the abilities he has because of a ruthless generations-long eugenics program.

Jessica is the stone-cold calculator, playing Fremen beliefs to her favor and playing her part as the Lisan Al-Giab’s mother. Paul is trying to avoid that but Southerners like Stilgar need to believe in him and so they do, interpreting his every action as further proof that he is their promised one.

I’ll definitely give credit to Villeneuve for this next alteration.  Jessica needs to become a Reverend Mother to support the prophecy, but in this version, the rite varies from planet to planet, she has no idea at all what the Water of Life is let alone what it will do to the unborn Alia.  A character as defined by motherhood as Jessica is rather unlikely to take a swig of magic juice knowing what it does and then go, “Oops, I forgot I’m preggers.  This might not have been the best idea.”

Alia begins communicating with her mother and eventually Paul.  In fact, the first scene is Paul speaking to her.  And, yes they hired Anya Taylor-Joy for the part but no, they didn’t put her face on a baby they just used her voice and had one vision. The story took three years in the novel, but in this version, it was compressed down to the duration of Jessica’s pregnancy.  Some people are having a lot of heartburn with this but I believe it works. 

That isn’t to say that this film is short.  It’s nearly three hours long.

Modern attention deficit critics, while admitting that it’s good, are also calling it “ponderous.” This is a generational problem for people who would have said exactly the same thing about Lawrence of Arabia. This was a movie that took its time building a story with imagery.  Villeneuve was painting on a vast canvas. He was bringing a universe to life. 

Would Frank Herbert approve? Probably not. Herbert’s talent was in words, he was never a scenarist and his own script for Dune proved that. The foundational issue here is that while Dune was a grand work of science fiction it was also a flawed work in many ways. There was a lot of it that was narratively unsatisfying.  Having Raban killed off while no one was looking smells to me like Herbert forgot all about him and one of the editors caught it after submission. “Uh, oh yeah, the emperor killed him.” Having Alia kill the Barron was frankly a little odd and also unsatisfying. 

The Spacing Guild was an interesting concept that did almost nothing that affected the outcome of the story. There was a huge war even after the Guild came down on Paul’s side. Consequently, Lynch felt compelled to make them more active in his version. Villeneuve chose to discard the Guild entirely as a subplot point for a movie that was already pushing the boundaries of ‘too long.’

Another character that needed significant alteration was Feyd-Rautha.  Herbert repeatedly told his readers that Feyd was a mortal threat to Paul but film is a visual medium. You must show the audience how he is a threat.  The fight between Feyd and Paul is the freaking climax of the story.  He needs a build-up in order to create tension. Lynch’s Dune failed at this miserably in no small part to his ridiculous casting choice of Sting. SyFy Channel’s attempt was even worse. 

However, Villeneuve has succeeded in making Feyd-Rautha the monster he needs to be.  He kills his slave girls just to test the sharpness of his Kinjals. He fights savagely in the Harko Arena and was delighted when he discovered the Atreides fighter was undrugged. Villeneuve made him an alternate version of Paul, if he had won the duel he would likely have taken Irulan and the throne. Austin Butler absolutely killed it as the youngest but most evil member of an incredibly evil family. Everyone around him shakes in terror at his presence. If there is an ounce of integrity left in the Oscars (there isn’t) he’d be a shoo-in for best supporting actor. He comes across as being the pinnacle of the Dark Triad, to include taking and passing the Gom Jabbar Test of Humanity.  That was a brilliant touch, Feyd is now the only other male to have passed it. Yes, it’s Countess Fenring that does that but Villeneuve doesn’t bother with her husband.

Gehdi Prime was this truly nightmarish world.  The color palette was exclusively done in black and white because of the Black Sun they lived under. This lack of color was a great choice because it made red blood much more vibrant.  My favorite shots were of the “fireworks.”  They were about as analog as you can get. Villeneuve filmed ink blots being dropped on water and then put that into the skies of Geidi Prime.  It’s the kind of filmmaking craftsmanship you don’t see much anymore.

Like the Sardukar, the Harkonens have their own language (which appears to be a Slavic derivation but it’s hard to tell).  All of the Harkonnen family share a gravelly voice.

In the book Vladimir Harkonen was originally a homosexual because in 1965 that was the worst perversion you could get away with in publishing.  That really doesn’t work anymore, so the stakes have been upped.  Now the baron only achieves gratification from acts that result in the death of his playthings. 

When Paul has to head South because of the Harkonnens he decides that the only path to survival is to risk taking the Water of Life.  At this point, Timothy Chalamet really comes into his own as an actor. I had had my doubts but he carried the film at this point.  The kid delivered, I can not deny it. He became Paul Atreides, leader of the Freman. 

Rebeca Fergusson was just as good as Jessica in this one as she was in Dune I.  Although here, she builds on her previous performance. Jessica has become more determined, more resolute, and a lot more ruthless.  She becomes much colder.  Her conversations with Alia make her appear to be a very functional mad woman. 

Zendaya delivered an acceptable performance. I think this was the best Villeneuve could get out of a former Disney child actress.  She tried, but her innate lack of talent is a fundamental limiter. I just didn’t care about her Chani, I suspect Villeneuve was stuck with her due to studio demands. Florence Pugh didn’t get a quarter of her screen time and did a better job as Irulan.

The duel between Paul and Feyd was the climax it needed it to be.  There was an intriguing choice of having a genuine affection between these two warriors. Each saw something of himself in the other. They were glad for his final fight between their houses.

The end is quite different from the book. Chani’s last scene is her walking away from Paul when he demands the hand of Irulan.  I don’t agree with Andre from Midnight’s Edge.  It didn’t seem to me that she was storming off in girl-boss rage. She left because she had lost Paul.  Lost him to the Imperium. Lost him to the Jihad. Lost him to Kwisatz Haderach. Losing him to Irulan was the final step. The scene where Jessica says, “Think on it, Chani: that princess will have the name, yet she’ll live as less than a concubine—never to know a moment of tenderness from the man to whom she’s bound. While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine—history will call us wives.”

That scene absolutely would not have fit with the rest of the movie Villeneuve had made.  Also, there remains the baseline problem of having to work with what his lead actress had given him.  Given her limits, having her leave Paul was about the only thing he could do with Chani.

Since the director proved he was willing to alter Herbert’s narrative somewhat, I am curious if he’s going to do so in a big way. Paul had twins with Chani. Will Villeneuve break that up and give one to Irulan and one to Chani?  It seems unlikely but he’ll have to do something now. 

A screen adaptation was always going to require significant changes. I have a friend who is absolutely enraged that Villeneuve deviated in any way from the book but at the end of the day Dune is not Lord of the Rings and it had some flaws that I always found narratively unsatisfying.  

I mean come on, we ALL wanted Gurney to kill the Beast Raban.  Villeneuve delivered on that and a lot more.

And so…

The Dark Herald Recommends with Enthusiasm

Discuss on Social Galactic

Share this post