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Book vs. Flick: Dune

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Jul 24, 2018, 1:00 PM EDT

Dune is renowned for being the best-selling science-fiction novel of all time, as well as a 1984 David Lynch movie that bombed at the box office but has risen to its status as a cult film in the ensuing decades. Author Frank Herbert got the idea for this, his best-known work, while researching an article about sand dunes. He became fascinated by the idea of dunes that could swallow up whole cities.

While the article was never to see the light of day, his notes remained, and the concept grew into Dune. Known as one of the strange success stories of literature, it was rejected by twenty publishers, and then eventually printed by a publisher of automotive manuals. It went on to win the Nebula and Hugo Awards for best science fiction novel of the year, and has gone on to be one of the most famous books ever to see print outside of genre.


The story behind Dune is complicated, and more about the intersections of humanity and how our politics affect us on a personal level than anything else. The setting through which these observations are made, however, is pure, classic science fiction. The story follows the family Atreides, who are given control over the desert planet Arrakis by Emperor Shaddam. Shaddam dislikes the patriarch of the Atreides family, Leto, and plans to offer him a most coveted and dangerous planet in order to ensure the destruction of Leto's family and their popularity. Leto's mistress Jessica gives birth to a boy named Paul despite being instructed by a mysterious sisterhood known as the Bene Gesserit to produce a girl child instead.

Arrakis is the planet on which the drug known as “spice” is found, which is highly coveted as it induces an enhanced mental state. The book mostly foregoes the futuristic technology common in sci-fi, imagining a future in which people are more interested in becoming more aware and developing their minds than depending on computers. On Arrakis, the Fremen, a loosely-veiled analog for Arabs, hold a messianic prophecy that someday a lone man will come to help them rise up and overcome their oppression. This leads to a lot of pretty questionable “white savior” tropes for Paul, who turns out to be that messiah.

Ultimately, Paul ingests the “Life Water,” which is said to kill men and be drinkable only for women. He falls unconscious for weeks, but, when he awakens, he discovers that he now exists in a permanently heightened awareness. His sister Alia murders a persistent villain known as the Baron, and Paul arrives at the Emperor's base with the Fremen army, riding the giant sandworms native to Arrakis. He threatens to destroy spice if the Emperor will not relinquish his power, and ends up in a knife fight with the Baron's nephew Feyd, who he bests. The Emperor reluctantly gives up his position. This supposed victory is not the happy ending one would assume it to be, however, as he realizes that the Fremen are now too strong in their belief of him as their messiah. The story continues in subsequent books, but that is the end of the serial that was collected as the first book of Dune.

While the book and the film do follow much the same plot, there was one specific character change. The evil Baron of the book is a homophobic caricature; while he's just a jerk in the movie, the book portrays him as a pedophile. In other media of the '60s, implying an intrinsic connection between queerness and pedophilia was but one of many tools used to villainize and criminalize homosexuality. Pedophilia is unquestionably criminal, but the trope of the evil gay lusting after young boys is well in place throughout Dune. Herbert's personal beliefs included the conviction that homosexuality was intrinsically criminal, and that it entailed the destruction or downfall of all great civilizations throughout history. Thus, even for a villain, the Baron is difficult to read.

In the movie, there is more emphasis on his physical repulsiveness. Fatness as an indicator of immorality is also a troubling cliché that plagues both the book and the film. It would be unfair to call Dune out as being wholly responsible for these offensive tropes that were and are widely utilized, but even if Herbert didn't invent these themes they are very much present, and may serve to detract from enjoyment of the book. Likewise, while Paul's mother, the Lady Jessica, is incredibly awesome, there is still the fact that her fifteen-year old son Paul completely shows her up in regard to skill, and the story is dependent on a misunderstood adolescent male character who turns out to be a godlike prophet entering a clan of women and doing things that they themselves could never achieve. While Dune is a fun and fascinating read, and makes many interesting points about the intersections of politics and ecology, many of the more troubling characteristic themes of '60s era sci-fi are very much present throughout.


Meanwhile, even as an advocate for panned media, it's difficult to stand by David Lynch's Dune. To begin with, Lynch himself doesn't. He prefers not to discuss the film in interviews, and went so far as to essentially disavow it, even appearing as famous directorial pseudonym Alan Smithee on some cuts. There has been some commentary that Dune is the result of a director that had no interest in science fiction signing up to make a sci-fi movie, but the fact is it unfortunately fails as an art house film as well. Even Lynch's general strengths are completely missing from the film, although the weaknesses are front and center: difficult to understand plot, unnecessarily dark shots, murmuring dialogue. In short, it's a movie that you walk into really wanting to love, even if only as a cultural artifact, but those high hopes are ultimately dashed for many audience members after two hours of very strange editing choices and a film that gets a bit too caught up in the more mundane details of the novel on which its based.

Typically, it's a good sign for a director to adhere to the novel they're adapting, but Lynch tries to take too much of the plot for a two-hour long film. If you haven't read the book, the story will come across as incomprehensible. Even a long explanation at the beginning of the film from Princess Irulan comes across as unnecessarily wordy and vague to the point that it almost entirely derails its own purpose. Although descriptive, there's no context for what she's saying, or who she's saying it about.

One of the positive elements of the Dune film is that the science theory is pretty fascinating, but even that is a double-edged sword. Lynch introduces ray guns that are powered by human voices, but at the cost of the Weirding Way in the book, which was a version of martial arts that relied on precognitive thought. In that Herbert was interested in building a world that forewent technology, so even the kind of nifty sci-fi ideas of Lynch's version rubbed many fans of the book the wrong way.

In the book, there was a focus on shifting between the inner thoughts of several characters, but it was used to good effect, telling us the deeper motivations for multiple people in every meeting. This helped to build the story, and make the points about humanity and politics that Herbert was interested in making. In the film, where this approach could have been used to even greater effect, it ends up falling flat. There is almost no discernible reason for the approach, we learn very little from the inner monologues of the characters, and the scenes are shot exactly as one would shoot a standard dialogue scene, barring the extraordinary visual queues that might have been utilized by a more interested director.

Dune truly has a star-studded cast. It's almost heartbreaking to watch talents like Patrick Stewart, Virginia Madsen, and Sean Young go to waste all in one film. A very young Alicia Witt appears as Paul's younger sister Alia and very nearly steals the whole movie with her genuine creepiness, even though she appears for only a very short time onscreen. The sets are likewise lush and extravagant, but overall wasted. There is a great deal of meticulous detail and thought put into the scenery, only for the film to show very little of the sets it spent a large portion of its budget on in favor of focusing much of the story on Arrakis. Sting, in a role as the Baron's nephew Feyd, is mostly just there hanging out. The ultimate showdown between Paul and Feyd is brief and anticlimactic, which is disappointing. Feyd is an underdeveloped villain, and could have been used to a greater effect, particularly as portrayed by a wild-eyed, spikey-haired Sting, who might not have been a great actor but certainly an enthusiastic one.


The ending is strange, and doesn't particularly represent the ecological detail that goes into the novel. After Paul emerges victorious, he lifts his arms and causes it to rain on Arrakis. While this is a symbolic ending, it doesn't address the fact that such a gesture would cause utter ecological devastation on a desert planet whose population consists mostly of sandworms. Dune is not unique in being a sci-fi movie from the '80s with a bizarre misunderstanding of its final point, but it does leave the audience wondering why another similarly symbolic but more logical tactic could have been used to convey the same message. Bizarrely, Dune is a movie in which the white savior trope really does come full circle in the fact that the savior in question brings cataclysmic disaster upon those he saves.

In an interview with Herbert in 1979, he stated, "The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes.” This is a good point, and it holds up when you read the book or watch the movie. Although Paul is given a stronger status as a hero in the film, his success in either book or movie serves more as a warning than a victory. It is implied that the temporary triumphs of the first book will be the first steps on a longer road to ruin, and that the oppressed people he claims to have saved will ultimately turn against him as well when he becomes that which he once fought against. In its complexity, both movie and book are classics of the science fiction genre, and, although there are a lot of bumps along the way, they do yet still manage to convey the initial intentions of the author. David Lynch's Dune might not be the definition of a good movie, but it is still a strangely important one in its own way.

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