In my youth, I read few novels, typically preferring non-fiction, most often history. What little fiction I recall reading was Sci-Fi: The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park both by Michael Crichton (being adopted to film in 1971 and 1993 respectively), and of course most famously, Dune by Frank Herbert.

Aside from the thrill of imagining flying ornithropters that resembled dragonflies and enormous sandworms with lengths of 1300 feet in dunes with surface temperatures that reached 138ºF, the political intrigues hovering around a valuable commodity indigenous to a single barren world, while great hereditary interests competed for economic control, is what kept me enthralled. Once I noticed that the novel contained appendices – something only found in serious texts, I was hooked. Subsequently, I read the next two sequels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, but the storylines beyond that seemed too remote for me to continue thereafter.

Herbert is thought to have presented an allegory with his world building similar to Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz being a stand-in for returning to a bi-metallic standard for American currency – with a hallucinatory spice denoting petroleum, the Fremen as the Arab world, and so forth. Inspiration might derive from such settings, but these associations appear too tenuous to provide much analog from which to base policies, so that aspect can be reasonably discounted in order to appreciate an epic tale set more than eight millennia in the future.

David Lynch directed an eponymous movie released in 1984, disappointing expectations, including Lynch’s. While the dialog and setting tried to echo the background of events, its visual adaptation didn’t resonate with me as had Herbert’s novel. Denis Villenouve presents the story’s first half as Dune, released by Warner Brothers in 2021, opening with the Harkonnen departure from Arrakis and closing with Jessica and Paul’s escape from the imperially sanctioned invasion into Fremen territory. The cast selection demonstrates careful deliberation with Timothée Chalamet as Paul Maud’Dib, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Óscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Josh Brolin as Gurney Hallack, Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen and Zendaya (Coleman) as Chani deliver excellent performances, supported by Hans Zimmer’s musical score.

Villenouve, who also directed Arrival (2016), captured the bleak undertones of the story’s first part from the unforgiving external and claustrophobic internal environments in visual effects that brought credulity. One example presents a reconnaissance flight turned rescue mission. The second half – to be released on March 1st, presumes to show Paul transform from an awkward teen to a warrior commander to defeat both the Harkonnans and the emperor, thereby becoming imperial successor and liberating the Fremen. The trailer suggests that many of the events and themes in the novel will be faithfully presented, expanding Paul’s induction into the Fremen to ultimately lead their Fedaykin commandos against battle hardened imperial Sardaukar.

Villenouve does present some deviations, mostly minor and accountable to change in format from literary to visual. For example, the novel begins with the Bene Gesserit testing Paul’s human quality to invest the reader in his character, whereas the movie’s first installment presents an exposition into the cosmo-political circumstances in which the participants will revolve. Dr Yueh’s treachery seems subdued in the film as compared to its prominence in the book.

The second half presents Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV as a wizened elderly man, while the book describes him as having red hair so seemingly middle aged, while his daughter Irulan is statuesque (not quite how Florence Pugh might be imagined). Modern audiences presume gender swapping somewhere, so that tribute has been assigned to the imperial planetologist Dr Liet-Kynes, killed towards the end of the first film. In the novel, he is the father of Chani, whereas the movie replaces this resident climate expert with a woman. This does not detract from the presentation, whereas such a transposition with warrior-scout Duncan Idaho or military tactician Gurney Hallack would likely rankle many readers.

The story features sentient humans settled on various planets orbiting particular stars ruled by feudal factions and overseen by an interstellar emperor. Traversing the vast reaches of space requires the navigational spacing guild, which employs mélange – a spice mined only from the desert planet Arrakis (aka Dune). Consuming this substance enables interstellar navigation, and facilitates trances with which to perceive future events with fatal effects under concentrated exposure.

Meanwhile, an enigmatic eugenic religious sisterhood called the Bene Gesserit operates behind the scenes to combine genetic inheritances from the great governing houses to bring forth an anointed one – the Kwisatz Haderach. The Bene Gesserit operate a vast network of eugenic breeding women, including Jessica, partner of Duke Leto and mother of Paul. Their plans interact and often interfere with the planetary fiefdoms along with competing associations, such as the Navigation Guild who control space travel and the calculating Mentat who serve as advisors to the nobility.

After decades of spice mining, the emperor reassigns Arrakeen management to House Atreides, after the Harkonnens have stockpiled spice to exploit an anticipated shortage from the deteriorated state of equipment left behind. The emperor intends to surreptitiously neutralize the respected Atreides and bargain with the Harkonnen fief. After joining the Fremen, Paul Maud’Dib comes to realize this through a trance, and discovers how to unravel their scheme – by preparing the Fremen for war, and threatening the supply of spice through killing all the sandworms that create its harvest.

During this time, Jessica succeeds the planet’s previous Reverend Mother and bears a prophetic daughter named Alia who later dispatches the Baron with a gom jabbar. Great battles ensue and Paul becomes the hero to dictate terms, including marriage to Irulan with the emperor’s corporate holdings as dowry. But then the Baron’s nephew Feyd-Rautha demands a vendetta against Paul via a climactic knife duel. The sinewy and savvy Paul prevails over the young muscular and gladiator-blooded Harkonnen.

At the end of the novel, Chani – still mourning over their lost infant son – offers to step aside in favor of Irulan, but Paul refuses and explains that this arrangement is merely a political necessity. Chani remains unconvinced, so Jessica reassures her “…that princess will have the name, yet she’ll… never 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 ought to spike the bloodsugar of gender studies graduates – if they could actually read.

Villenouve plans a third segment adapted from the first sequel Dune Messiah. Approval for such an ambitious project will depend on the commercial success of this second installment.  The audience’s assessment will arrive soon.

Photo Credit- Budapest Reporter