Dune retro review – a look at Frank Herbert’s masterpiece

Dune-2020-movie-poster

During the last week I reread Frank Herbert’s Dune, a masterpiece of Science Fiction from 1965. Which is hands down my favorite novel. I have been a fan of the franchise for over 20 years. I played Dune 2000 and Emperor Battle for Dune, watched the series from 2000, and its successor Children of Dune from 2003. On top of that I even read all of Brian Herbert’s books (sigh). And yet, I realized I haven’t read the original Dune since 2001. It was something I was meaning to do for years, so during the last week I did so. And here is a short retro review.

Timeless

The first thing that struck me was that Dune is timeless. For a story that is now 54 years old it betrays almost no sense of being dated. Frank Herbert of course chose his setting wisely. Set in a future universe 10.000 years from now the use of computers are forbidden. Instead, this space opera is set in universe in which humans use their own abilities to compensate. As such from a technological point of view little of Dune would feel dated.

Often older novels betray their age by sub-conscious references societal norms. Dune is at risk of feeling dated as it was written in a time before the second-feminist wave concluded. Yet, like George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire this story also has a feudal society setting. And despite that it does not glance over women. In fact, I felt surprised of just how much of the story revolves around the Lady Jessica, mother to protagonist Paul Atreides. The latter does not become absolutely important until the very end.

The mystique of Dune

So what is so attractive to Dune? I suppose it is the mystique of the Fremen. Their beliefs, their society and their relation to the harshness of the desert planet. It forms a powerful backdrop for protagonists Paul and his mother Jessica to grow in character. Both do so to become something more than just a human. Jessica becomes the new religious authority of the Fremen – a Sayyadina. Paul becomes the Kwisatz Haderach, but we read more details about her journey then we do of his.

Great exposition

Dune is generally regarded as the best Sci-Fi novel ever. It concludes a time period in which fiction focused too much on technological advancement over story-telling. As the world of Dune is devoid of computers is focusses on other sciences: arcology and climatology. The planet Dune with its deserts, sandworms and spice mélange is described in great detail, but never is the exposition gratuitous.

While rereading the novel I did notice a large number of potential plot holes. Issue that if pressed could undo some plot lines. However, Dune is a very complex narrative and the author cannot be expected to cover every counter argument.

If you have never read Dune I can highly recommend it. It is considered Sci-Fi, but it could easily also be considered Fantasy.

Dune 2020

I also read this novel again with the idea to get an impression of what to expect of the Dune movie set for release next year. Dune 2020, by director Denis Villeneuve, is the first of two movies. The story essentially being cut in half. Considering the 1984 adaptation tries to cover the entire story in one film, and failed, I think this is the better approach.

For a while I have been in agreement with the decision to make two movies. One movie obviously cannot do justice to the intricate storyline, and three movies risks audiences turning away. Two movies appears optimal if they can be made just short of 3 hours in length each.

The novel by Frank Herbert might permit director Denis Villeneuve from getting away with such a structure. But not without risk. The middle part of the novel deals with protagonist’s Lady Jessica and her son Paul with their journey to safety. Their house, Atreides, has just been wiped out after taking the over the fiefdom of planet Arrakis (Dune).

Where to end the first movie?

It is not well into the second half that they meet with the planet’s indigenous people, the Fremen. So where should the first movie end? For many years I believed it should be just after Paul and his mother meet with the Fremen. Paul’s duel with the Jamis feels like a good time to end the movie. Paul kills Jamis and he is accepted by the Fremen as one of their own. Yet, this risks making the first movie needlessly long and the second movie too short. The fact that Zendaya has been cast as Chani may also offer a clue. The movie could end when Stilgar and his Fremen confront Paul and his mother. That is just before the duel with Jamis.

Sure, a script writer could change the order a bit but I also fear that the mystique of the Fremen would be somewhat ruined. Throughout the first half of the novel the Fremen are seen, spoken of, spoken to but we never get to know them in-depth. That mystique they bring should be kept until the second movie.

So I will say that the best point to end the movie is during Paul and his mother’s flight into the desert. After they flee from the Harkonnen and Sardaukar attack on Liet Kynes’s botanical station. They flee with an ornithopter into a sandstorm and the Harkonnen consider them dead. It may be too much of a cliffhanger and an audience may feel cheated, so perhaps a scene showing them survive would be a good addition.

Two pivotal scenes in Dune

However, for the overall story it does really matter where the movie ends. The middle part of the novel is a long journey of character discovery as Paul and his mother are set against the hardship of Arrakis. However, two scenes important to the overall story are of interest. The first is near the middle. It is a conversation between the Baron Harkonnen and his nephew Rabban. A lot of what has happened in the story thus far is discussed. We understand the Baron’s deeper motivation on striking against the Atreides – a move on the Imperial house. It is a good moment to introduce the larger world that makes the backdrop of Dune.

The second scene is near the two-thirds mark of the book. It is Feyd’s birthday celebration on Giede Prime. The Baron intends to announce his nephew as his successor. Count Fenring and his wife are in attendance. The count is the emperor’s man and warns the Baron of his scheming. It is an interesting scene to introduce a larger cast to the audience so I think it should be near the beginning of the second movie.

More characters

A number of characters are not shown in the first half of the book, but only spoken of. The aforementioned Fenring and his wife, as well as emperor Shaddam and his daughter Irulan. As such it makes sense they have not yet been cast. They will in all likelihood not be part of the first movie. To know for certain we will have to wait until December 2020, Dune has bene delayed for a month to provide more time to work on post-production.

The first Dune movie is set for release on December 18th, 2020. The movie stars Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica. The cast also includes Oscar Isaacs, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard and Dave Bautista.