In anticipation of the new Dune movie, directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Denis Villeneuve, I decided to read the classic novel by Frank Herbert before seeing the film adaptation. Dune is one of those books that appears on every all-time best of list for science fiction. Sometimes you read a book like that and it feels dated or over-hyped (such as Ringworld by Larry Niven, which I also read this past year), but not in this case. Dune not only met but exceeded my expectations.
As a writer myself, I was amazed by what Frank Herbert accomplished. The depth of the world-building was incredible, including entire cultures, religions, languages, political and economic systems. The quality of the prose is of high literary caliber, and the text is full of philosophical wisdom and psychological insight, evident from memorable quotes such as:
“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
The story of Dune is set 10,000 years in the future, and you can sense that a rich history has taken place in the story’s world between now and then. A pet peeve of mine is science fiction stories set in the future with no consideration of artificial intelligence. There is no AI in Dune, but Herbert explains why: all robots and computers were destroyed in a previous war.
Dune was clearly influential on so much of the science fiction and fantasy that came after, most notably Star Wars and Game of Thrones. Dune is sort of like a cross between those two series. George Lucas took the idea of a sand planet, evil empire, space princess, swords instead of guns, the Force, the Jedi, and other elements—though Star Wars was a more simplified action-oriented and less cerebral version of Dune that was more accessible to mass audiences and children. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is more similar to Dune in its scope, tone, violence, and rich world-building. The Starks are basically the Atriedes, and the Lannisters are the Harkonnens, while the sandworms were replaced with dragons. Part of the reason I loved GoT so much was that it felt like a fresh and original take on fantasy, making the world more gritty, dark, complex, and sophisticated. But then I realized Frank Herbert had already done that decades earlier.
I saw first David Lynch’s film adaptation of Dune around fifteen years ago but barely remembered any details except for the fact that I did not particularly like it. But I loved the book upon reading it this year, so I re-watched the Lynch movie afterward. I appreciate and understand the movie more now after having read the book. I can see how Lynch’s adaptation would be confusing to someone who never read the book, though some parts were still confusing to me even after having read it. I wouldn’t call the 1984 version a “good” movie, but it is an interesting failure. As a David Lynch fan, I can’t help but wonder what could have been if he hadn’t received so much studio interference. (He was so displeased with the final version that he had his name removed from the credits.)
It was an impossible task for Lynch to condense Dune into a two hour movie. It would have worked better as a big-budget TV series with one season for each book of the Dune series, just like Game of Thrones on HBO. (Dune was adapted into a miniseries in 2000, but I have not seen it yet.) Or they should have at least split the book into two movies as they have done now…
After becoming a massive fan of the novel Dune, my already high expectations for Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation became even higher. I am relieved to say that Villeneuve (like Herbert) met them. His movie was a faithful adaptation of the first half of the first book of Dune, and I am excited to see part two. Villeneuve is one of if not the best film directors working today, so there was no one better to bring Frank Herbert’s vision to life. The visuals and soundtrack were both amazing and the acting was top notch. The novel is much more rich with detail and world-building, but the movie did about as well as could be expected to capture as much as possible.
Having read the book, it’s difficult to judge how a non-reader may respond to the movie—will they be able to understand and follow all the complex aspects that are just hinted or shown in the background, including the different worlds, cultures, characters, religions, and technologies? I suppose if you are confused you can always read the book. Which you should anyway. It is a great book.
The many adaptations of Dune elucidates the power books hold over movies. David Lynch’s film is already dated, even though it’s two decades newer than the book (hence why it was remade twice since). And though Villeneuve’s film seems great now, it may age as well in the future as technology advances. But Frank Herbert’s novel itself remains timeless—it can and will be read forever.