The Realism of Dune

An introduction to the book and the film

It’s impossible to accurately and completely capture the essence of Dune in any form of writing shorter than the book itself. There’s a reason why the recent movie adaptation, which covers only half of the first book in a whole universe stretches out over 14 books and 10 millennia, lasts a whopping 2 hours and 35 minutes.
Dune takes place on multiple planets throughout the universe in the year 10,191. If you don’t want to do the math, that’s 8,169 years in the future. Or, if we’re talking about when Dune was first released in 1965, it would be 8,226 years in the future. Don’t let the faraway setting of the book and film deter you though— the classic plot and the overall effect created by both the book and the film evoke an-almost medieval epoch rather than a futuristic one.

In this era, the planets in the universe have been colonized by Houses (families) and are ruled by the emperor of the Imperium (the name of the entity that encompasses the planets and Houses). Our protagonist, Paul Atreides, comes from the planet Caladan, known for its abundance of water. That’s why it’s immediately a challenge for him and his family to adjust to Arrakis, nicknamed Dune, the desert planet they have just been placed in charge of. Arrakis has a fraught history due to the subjugation of its indigenous people, the sand-dwelling Fremen, by the vicious House Harkonnen. What’s so special about this planet is that it is the only place in the universe where “spice”, or “melange”, a substance that creates heightened vision, hallucinogenic effects, and enables space travel, can be found. And since the universe that Dune takes place in is, well, a universe, it cannot function without space travel, and hence, spice. Over a short 60 years, House Harkonnen amassed giant amounts of wealth from their brutal monopoly on spice, which is why control over Arrakis was quickly taken away from them and given to House Atreides. However, the Emperor has also begun to fear House Atreides, whose power rivals that of his own. Therefore, House Atreides is forced to accept the fiefdom of Arrakis and thereby, reigniting the centuries-old feud that has simmered between them and House Harkonnen. Conveniently, this feud would also help the Emperor to weaken House Atreides as a threat to him.
What makes Dune so timeless is its almost complete lack of technology. After all, all robots and so-called “thinking machines” (aka, computers) were destroyed in the “Butlerian Jihad”. What we’re left with after the technological blight is a universe that isn’t cluttered with outlandish lasers and metal— in some ways, it is more ancient than the world we live in today despite being more than 8 millennia in the future.
The Imperium is instantly recognizable in every way; its languages, religions, cultures, vices, problems, and politics echo our own. While the language in the book is dense at times, it only builds toward the ancient and infinitely complex setting that is the Imperium. Dune’s vocabulary, built from the languages of today’s world, evokes a history that is even more complex than the world itself. It leaves the reader wanting not just more about the story, but how it came to be. Dune’s language gives a tentative answer to all those questions. Unlike other contemporary science fiction novels, the possibility of the premise of this book being realized is very real, as the issues underpinning it have plagued humankind throughout all of history.
For example, Dune takes exploitation, a concept as old as time itself, and weaves it into the book’s story and history. After all, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Arrakis and its oppression of its Fremen for natural resources are based on the colonial history of our modern world. Furthermore, its religious references to messiahs and “chosen ones”, coupled with the mysterious and mystic Bene Gesserit (a secret order for women aimed at political manipulation), evoke a world that is eerily real. Paul’s internal conflict is complex and nuanced— he struggles to balance his interest and appreciation for Fremen culture with the fact that his family is instrumental in their oppression. Moreover, he struggles with his role as the Muad’dib, or Chosen One, as he is not sure whether he would be able to shoulder the responsibility of the Fremen dying for his cause or invoking his image in their fanaticism. Paul’s struggle with his responsibility avoids the cliché of the entirely virtuous hero; Paul is aware of the fact that even as he rises to a position of power that is supported by the Fremen, in the end, he still cannot detach himself from his directly imperialist foundations. Dune raises the present-day question of whether systems of oppression can be effectively changed through the very structures that cause the oppression in the first place or if long-term change can only occur from radical revolution.
Dune’s commentary on exploitative systems such as capitalism steps away from the vices that are typically addressed in the sci-fi genre— gaudy consumerism and pollution— and examines the deeper human nature that influences these systems. For example, the portrayals of the Harkonnens’ heavily industrialized home planet, Giedi Prime, and their brutally efficient (ultra-capitalist, even) system for obtaining spice on Arrakis speak to the dehumanizing— or alienating— effect of greed, the root of another issue that has pervaded our world throughout history.
While the story is complex, the characters do, at times, remain flat. Paul undergoes minimal changes in attitude or outlook, and even when he does, they are framed through the idea that he was always meant to fulfill a certain destiny. Therefore, any development that Paul underwent was only ‘natural’ and didn’t imply any evolution is his character. Even more flat are the female characters in Dune; Lady Jessica (Paul’s mother) is ever the nurturing maternal figure and Chani, Paul’s eventual love interest, is so simple and adds so little to the plot that she may as well be taken out altogether, if not for the alluring and exotic view she provides to Paul of the desert. In my opinion, the only thing Chani adds to Dune (the film) is the fact that she is played by Zendaya. All in all, the fact that the characters are flat doesn’t detract much from the book; its appeal comes from the masterful world Frank Herbert creates. And what are characters if not to serve as engines for the book’s message?
Perhaps what sets Dune apart the most from the sci-fi genre is the fact that the entire novel revolves around spice, which again, can only be found on Arrakis. Describing it as ‘allowing for space travel’ earlier on diminishes its actual use; spice is the very thing that propels the Imperium forward by serving as the medium for which people ‘find their way’ physically, but also metaphorically through spice-induced hallucinations. In this way, everything in the universe is either tied to – or stems from – Dune. Even those who may not be interested in the subject matter of the book itself may find it a fascinating commentary on how interconnected everything truly is, and perhaps how everything that exists can arise from one entity, being, or concept.
It comes as no surprise that Denis Villeneuve, Dune’s director, has been a lifetime fan of the books; the movie seamlessly captures all the complexities the book has to offer, and like the book, leaves the audience wanting more.
Although there have been criticisms of Dune’s length (2 hours and 35 minutes) combined with its slow pacing, as a fan of the book, I watched the film on the edge of my seat. While leaning heavily on special effects, Villeneuve made a point of filming in natural landscapes (Jordan, the UAE, and Norway) and lighting so the movie could retain the tangibility of the book. Furthermore, the film’s set designers took inspiration from ancient architecture and monuments rather than coming up with entirely new and futuristic designs. Earth’s stunning natural scenery and our historic architecture translate wonderfully to the film; the realistic settings only add to the realism of Dune as a plausible future for the world we live in now. Finally, Hans Zimmer creates a soundtrack that veers away from the typical Western orchestra that backs science fiction movies. Instead, Dune’s score draws on different cultures and the instruments they use, such as bagpipes and variations of flutes and drums. Moreover, Zimmer emphasizes the one instrument that will never change or cease to be used: the human voice.
What sets the movie apart the most is its dreamlike aura and avoidance of clichés about human nature that are so prevalent in typical sci-fi movies. All in all, this has to do with the fact that the movie draws almost entirely on the book.
Harmony is perhaps the underlying theme of the movie and the book. Remember spice, the essential and deathly addictive drug that allows for heightened vision? Without revealing too much about both the book and the movie, it is essential to understand that spice, the one thing that gives Arrakis value, depends on the existence of sand worms: the creatures that are one of things that make the planet so inhospitable in the first place. Not only are sand worms integral to spice, but while they threaten the lives of the Fremen who live in the desert beyond the protection of Arrakeen’s (Arrakis’s capital city) shield walls, sand worms are used as transportation, even revered. The Fremen name for this species is Shai-Hulud, roughly translated to ‘The Thing of Immortality’. Furthermore, the Imperium, and on a smaller scale, the coexistence between the Fremen and their occupiers, depend on the fragile balance supported by this precarious harmony between people and nature, life and death. In the film, harmony is furthered as a theme by the meticulous editing; not only are shots cut on rhythm with the music, but form a rhythm themselves. Joe Walker, Dune’s editor, describes the film as “a massive work of rhythm” that seeks to “pay its dues to the imagination of the book”. The rhythm formed by the harmony between sandworm and spice, life and death, dreams and reality, are captured by the rhythm formed by each successive shot. Perhaps Dune’s editing alludes to the main commentary of both the film and the book; life is about harmony and a lack thereof.
Yes, the movie is extremely long and seemingly doesn’t build up to anything (unless you have already read the book and know what’s coming next). While criticism of its slow pacing is valid, this allows for the creation of a visually stunning, narratively complex, and accurate adaptation of a complex book. Furthermore, it is important to remember that this movie is only Dune: Part 1. Not to be an apologist, but the reason why the movie is so long and so apparently anti-climactic— some even calling it a two-hour-long trailer— is because the half of the book it is adapted from is only the first arc of the final storyline. If anything, the high standard that Dune: Part 1 has set only heightens the anticipation for Part 2, which is set to be in theaters in 2023. I, for one, am eager for its release. (The fact that Timothée Chalamet plays Paul definitely doesn’t hurt either).