DENIS VILLENEUVE’S ‘DUNE’ IS A WASTED OPPORTUNITY - The Daily Guardian
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DENIS VILLENEUVE’S ‘DUNE’ IS A WASTED OPPORTUNITY

Murtaza Ali Khan

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The biggest question surrounding any adaptation of ‘Dune’ is whether it can match Frank Herbert’s literary genius which makes ‘Dune’ one of the best science-fiction novels of all time. The new Denis Villeneuve adaptation of ‘Dune’ has given rise to the same old question. Can Villeneuve’s showmanship match Herbert’s penmanship? But before we try to address that let’s first look at Dune’s basic storyline. Set in the distant future, the story of ‘Dune’ follows young Paul Atreides, whose family accepts the stewardship of the planet Arrakis, despite knowing that it is an inhospitable and sparsely populated desert wasteland full of dangers. Arrakis, also known as Dune, is the only source of melange or spice—a drug that’s said to extend life and enhance mental abilities and which is also necessary for space travel as it requires a kind of multidimensional awareness and foresight that only the consumption of the drug can provide to the person who consumes. Herbert’s original novel explores the complex interplay of politics, economics, religion, ecology, technology, and human feelings, as the various factions of the empire confront each other in a struggle for the control of Arrakis and its spice.

It wouldn’t really be wrong to describe Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ as an epic saga about futuristic inter-planetary feudalism. It’s such an iconic work of literature that almost everything we see today in science fiction films, starting with ‘Star Wars’, is directly or indirectly inspired by ‘Dune’. Despite the Sci-Fi setup, at its core, it is mostly about family feuds and rivalries triggered by the prestige and fortune associated with the mining and managing spice production is considered a coveted task, but also a difficult one, owing to factors mentioned above. Now, many parallels can be drawn to precious commodities on earth and as resources deplete many similar situations are bound to arise.

All Herbert seemed interested in at first was to write a book about sand dunes and desert ecology but his exhaustive research pushed him to write something with far greater scope. What makes Frank Herbert’s Dune so special is how it explores a futuristic world from the point of view of ecology, religion, human ambition, emotional drives, and the incessant struggle for survival.

‘Dune’ is looked upon as suicide and many legendary filmmakers have faltered in their attempts. So, Villeneuve really had his job cut out. When the film had its premiere in Venice, many critics were raving about it. Some even went to the extent of calling it the biggest epic since the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But one major complaint has been that Villeneuve has only covered half the novel (more precisely 2/3rd) and just as I write this ‘Dune Part II’ has been officially announced.

The way I look at it, Villeneuve should rather have made a 3-hour film and covered the whole novel. Yes, he has tried his best to be loyal to the book taking care of even the minutest of characters and subplots. But there is not much to be read between the lines, especially with a complex novel like Dune.

The covert agenda of the Bene Gesserit’s (an obvious source of inspiration for the Jedis in Star Wars), an all-women pseudo-religious order of spies, nuns, scientists, and theologians, who owing to their supernatural powers are equally hated and desired is at the heart of Herbert’s story but Villeneuve’s Dune fails to explore the sophisticated nature of the Gesserit modus operandi. The novel also explores the idea of ‘Jihad’ at its most intellectual level, completely ripping it apart from its conventional association with religion in particular. Any group of humans that fervently believes in an individual or an ideology is capable of Jihad, a fight against evil, and a struggle for justice against oppression. But Villeneuve’s film wrongly will use the term holy war as associated with ‘Crusades’ instead of ‘Jihad’ which owing to its Arabic roots is widely associated with Islam when in reality it predates Islam. By eschewing from delving into the intellectual dimensions of ‘Jihad,’ Villeneuve, in many ways, has done a grave injustice to Herbert’s grand intellectual vision for ‘Dune’. Clearly, Villeneuve has failed in raising his cinematic canvas to the heights of Herbert’s literary genius. But it doesn’t really come across as a surprise. For, Villeneuve was always bound to fail with an ambitious project like Dune.

The new rendition of ‘Dune’ by Villeneuve can best be described as a wasted opportunity. Those who haven’t seen it yet should consider checking out the highly misunderstood 1984 version of ‘Dune’ by David Lynch instead. For, even a lesser film by a master like Lynch cannot be overlooked. At the risk of sounding a little pessimistic, I can tell you that when the dust finally settles, Lynch’s version will ultimately emerge as the most definitive version of ‘Dune’ unless Villeneuve manages to do some serious course correction with ‘Dune Part II’.

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