The spice must flow, but only to a certain point.
Despite being the most nuanced and patient blockbuster in recent memory, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One probably won’t elicit a nuanced or patient response from the general moviegoing public. For all the Dune hot takes and deep-dives into the sand, the one prevailing, inescapable truth of this version of Dune is that it is fundamentally incomplete.
Some might say the runtime of Dune feels long, but when you consider how abruptly it ends, the story is actually cut short. Until the existence of Dune: Part Two becomes clear, the prevailing feeling about the new film is that leaves us hanging. While this is pretty frustrating, it’s also, oddly perfect. The entire history of all things Dune is the history of loose ends. The truest Dune is the unfinished Dune. Here’s why.
Mild spoilers ahead for Dune: Part One.
It’s no secret that Dune: Part One ends roughly 500 pages into the 794 pages (excluding the appendices) that comprise the bulk of the storyline of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune. It’s also not a spoiler to reveal that right toward the end of the film Chani (Zendaya) says to Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), “This is just the beginning.”
More accurately, Chani could have said, “This is about two-thirds of the way through the beginning, but it also depends on how far in the series we’re going to go.”
Villeneuve has made it clear he wants to make a trilogy of films from two novels — Dune and Dune Messiah — and the ending of Dune: Part One is the set-up for the events of the rest of the proposed trilogy. If you only watch Dune: Part One on HBO Max, this might make the film feel like an overly long pilot episode to a TV series that may or may not get picked up.
To say Dune: Part One is a masterpiece isn’t wrong, but it’s also kind of like one of those incomplete Van Gogh paintings. It’s not that it’s not great — it is — but its basic incompleteness, the missing pieces of the narrative puzzle are, bizarrely, its defining feature.
Other than the fact that Dune: Part One stops before the third part of the book begins, there are also a plethora of other details from the novel that the movie omits. Non-book people probably have no idea the motivations of Dr. Yueh (Chang Chen), nor is it made clear that Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is a “Mentat” (a kind of walking computer who has served in House Atreides for generations). The relationship between Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his “concubine” Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) isn’t made clear in the film, nor do we learn why the Duke is giving Lady Jessica the cold shoulder in this part of the story. (In the book there’s an entire subplot about Leto needing to publicly pretend like he’s mad at Jessica to fool his political rivals.)
In short, the novel Dune, despite its reputation for epicness, is focused on the interior lives of its characters. This is why the ceaseless voiceover in the David Lynch 1984 Dune is both a curse, but oddly, closer to the feeling of reading the book.
Villeneuve’s version gets closer to depicting the events of the book correctly but seems strangely distant from its characters. True, we get a lot of Paul Atreides in this film, but do we truly understand his journey? Throughout most of the film, he’s bewildered and reluctant to take the mantle of leadership. Then, when he’s offered no choice, we have to simply accept that he’s changed.
This works in the novel in a way that barely works in the movie. By the time Paul is ranting to Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) about how he’ll make Arrakis a “paradise” with a “wave of my had” when he becomes Emperor, it’s as though we’ve got an entire Anakin Skywalker arc in about 20 minutes.
In Dune: Part One, Paul’s journey should be central, but because the film so slavishly has to depict every step of the Harkonnen invasion, we don’t really see Paul change. Leto gets murdered, and Paul is suddenly a bigger jerk.
These shortcomings exist in the novel, too. The difference is, the book is designed to make you uncomfortable about all these themes in a way that the movie doesn’t really do. Instead, the film makes you confused as to how to feel about Paul and his messianic ascendence. He doesn’t have one of those over-the-top Anakin Skywalker “uh-oh” moments, but you sort of wish he would.
The only things Dune: Part One leaves up to interpretation are Paul’s future visions, while the rest of the film is relentlessly literal. But oddly, some of these counterintuitive dream sequences are actually where we feel closest to Paul. In those moments, the plot matters less, which is when the story of Dune is actually at its best.
Frank Herbert wrote six novels in the Dune saga, and in the last book, Chapterhouse: Dune (1985), the events of the story also ends on a cliffhanger. To be clear, Chapterhouse is set roughly 17,000 years after the events of Dune and Dune: Messiah, meaning that other than a cloned version of Duncan Idaho, you’re not really dealing with any of the original characters by that point.
Herbert passed away before writing the seventh book, but his son Brian Herbert and novelist Kevin J. Anderson “completed” the saga with Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. The reactions to these books were decidedly mixed, with many fans calling the latter “one of the worst books” ever. Whether claims are objectively true isn’t really the point. The point is, in all mediums, Dune is always unfinished, and nobody is ever entirely happy.
Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to make Dune in the 1970s is perhaps the best example of this. Pundits liked to call it “the greatest science fiction movie never made.” The sci-fi channel managed to adapt all of the first book into an early 2000s miniseries, but was only able to cover Dune Messiah and Children of Dune by combining them into a single follow-up miniseries.
In terms of film and TV, there haven’t been any attempts to adapt the series beyond the third book. When you considered how many successful sci-fi/fantasy book series have been adapted into TV shows and movie franchises this is kind of shocking. Harry Potter got eight movies for seven books. Foundation is adapting seven books at the same time. Even The Vampire Diaries adapted several novels. Why is adapting Dune so hard?
Despite all the praise Dune receives for its impressive world-building, its reputation is mostly reliant on its ideas and themes, not its story. This might sound hyperbolic, but try to find someone who says Heretics of Dune (1984) or Chapterhouse: Dune (1985) are their favorite in the series. You won’t. Maybe, you’ll find those who claim Dune Messiah or Children of Dune are just as good as the original, but even that is a minority opinion.
At least one review of Dune: Part One claims “the next Lord of the Rings and Star Wars is here.” This is false. All three books of Lord of the Rings are equally beloved, and the story told in those three books is cohesive and satisfying.
This is simply not true of the Dune books beyond the first one. Now, I’m not saying Lord of the Rings is better than Dune, in fact, in some ways, it’s not. Because the plotting of Dune is so unwieldy, it actually might be better art than Lord of the Rings. There isn’t a clear hero. The bad guys are bad, but the good guys are sometimes worse. Major characters come and go. With these novels, Frank Herbert did something that wasn’t populist: Paul doesn’t have a Hero’s Journey, because Herbert’s message was to “beware of heroes.” As literature, this is bold and fascinating.
However, this kind of thinking doesn’t necessarily work for huge blockbusters. Subtlety is hard. Although Villeneuve says Dune is the “opposite” of a white savior movie and rejects the “traditional” hero’s narratives, his film doesn’t always make that clear. Instead, Dune: Part One tries to have it both ways. It wants to be the start of a big, epic, exciting franchise, but it also wants to stay true to the murky, less definable, and ruminative aspects of the books.
Dune: Part One does the blockbuster franchise-building thing better than the meandering sci-fi novel vibe. But, because the movie feels unfinished — and very well may stay that way — it ends up being true to the vision of the Dune books after all.
It may not be satisfying to experience the non-ending of this movie. But the experience of reading all the books isn’t satisfying either. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe the metatextual message of Dune isn’t about the geopolitics of sandworms, but instead about what we expect from our stories. In a world in which books, TV shows, and films follow a formula of climaxes, finales, and resolutions, Dune dares to leave all its threads dangling.
Chani’s right, after all. This is just the beginning, because, in life, it always is.
Dune: Part One is streaming on HBO Max and out in theaters on October 22, 2021.