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Dune: the book versus the film

Arrakis. Dune. Desert planet. A harsh world with more emphasis on religion than technology, it’s a strange setting for an influential sci-fi story.

But influential it is. Influential enough for one of the lead characters to appear as a recurring pop icon in Hellsing, and influential enough for the Final Fantasy games to feature the sandworms as recurring enemies. It’s a strange story, one that mixes the fantasy staples of prophecy and destiny with political court intrigue reminiscent of Tudor England. It almost completely foregoes technology and science, replacing them instead with strategy and mind games, and mysticism. Even spaceships (which you would expect to be fairly techno-heavy) are flown by means of a prescient altered-consciousness brought on by a mystical drug called Spice.

Spice rules the Dune universe. Every political act, every strategy undertaken in this galaxy, revolves around Spice. For as it says in the book,

‘He who controls the Spice, controls the Universe.’

But I believe that the universe of the book and that of the film are controlled very differently. If you have both seen the film and read the book you will understand what I mean. If you haven’t, I highly recommend experiencing both forms of media on this – it creates an epic overall picture.

Curious to know more? Read on.

The book was written in 1965 by Frank Herbert, and is a thick and complex affair.

 

Sting as the Baron's nephew
image © listing.free.fr

Luckily the film, made by David Lynch in 1984, is a bit more accessible. Not to mention relevant to its time period. It was fashionable in the Eighties to get pop stars appearing in movies, so I probably should have expected to see Sting strutting his stuff as the nephew of the evil Baron Harkonnen. The film is easier to watch, and has more comedy than the book, as well as omitting some of the creepier scenes involving the Baron.

I don’t think the film explains things half as well, but to be fair, if it did it would really need to be a series instead of a film.

I always feel a little bit sad about the lack of elaboration on the ecology, though. There were some fantastic passages in the book the seemed to connect to an overarching environmental plot – figuring out the true nature of the desert ecosystem, a deep sense of connection, an excitement about the possibility of terra-forming. Not quite as far-gone as Gaia Theory, but it was essentially Earth System Science thirty one years early.

These aspects are completely glossed over in the film. There does not seem to be enough time to both build up intrigue about the prophecy and about the secret terra-forming project at the same time.

Disappointing as that is, it is even more disappointing that the true nature of the Spice is not elaborated on in the film. I’m not going to reveal anything here, but it was one of the most pivotal moments of the book for me, and I was looking forward to an equal revelation in the film.

 

Women from the Bene Gesserit order
The mystical Bene Gesserits, © wikipedia.org

Having said all this, though, I think the film holds some artistic merit over the book. The entire film, barring some of the scenes with Baron Harkonnen, of course, has a sort of haze over it, using sound and repetitive imagery at points until it feels like you yourself are imbibing the Spice. You get a real feudal atmosphere that seems to stem from somewhere in our own history between the time of the Crusades and the time of the Conquistadors. So it’s familiar, and the desert setting puts me in mind of older films that portray the West’s ancient obsession with the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East – a place both attractive and hostile. A real trope if ever there was one, and the film plays on this to maximum effect.

One thing that did confuse me was that for all the Islamic-inspired names and traditions, almost all the characters are white. It makes sense for some characters like those from Planet Caladan, which sounds awfully Celtic. But for desert inhabitants with Islamic sensibilities? Not so.

This was however played to hilarious effect with some characters. One in particular, a desert woman named Mapes, sounded to me like she should be Egyptian, with a stress on the end, to rhyme with ‘Ketesh’. But the film’s pronunciation shattered my ideas, pronouncing her name with a cockneyed lilt, like ‘Oi, Maypes.’ And now when I watch it, I can practically hear Monty Python in the background shouting ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’

The film also copies the book’s technique of switching between trains-of-thought of various characters in the same scene. This is a controversial technique in the novel world, because it can create scenes that are jarring and overly-informative. Normally I’d believe this technique would work better on film. But the book, with its emphasis on mind games, almost necessitates this technique. And the film used train-of-thought quotes at very random points, which actually made it more confusing and out of context than in the book!

 

Baron Harkonnen
(via www.duneinfo.com)

The evolution of the Baron’s character is perhaps what is most noticeable between film and book. In the book, Baron Harkonnen is sinister, creepy, and has a voracious appetite for sodomy, which is made all the creepier by the fact that a.) nothing is referred to directly and b.) nothing is done to stop his behaviour. The film adopted a more comedic approach, emphasising his enormous weight and making him over-the-top disease-ridden and pustule covered, to boot. It’s very hard to take the film version of the Baron seriously (which is probably why he is also used as a comic relief character in Hellsing…)

Also, probably in line with the whole ‘Red hair is Evil’ trope, the director gave the Baron and all his Harkonnen family bright red hair, whereas the only redhead in the book was the slightly more benign Emperor.

What I really like about both the book and the film is that the stories are the same. Barring a few things that had to be omitted for brevity, the film follows the same storyline, does not reorder anything and finishes at the same point – abruptly. In this aspect, the story of Dune is remarkably simple – People go to a planet, a prophecy is revealed, a messiah rises, and does a thing, then it ends. Many filmmakers would be tempted to structure it less like a folk tale and more like a mesmerising, action-packed blockbuster, but David Lynch kept this, and although the film got bad reviews, I believe this folklorish structure is one of its saving graces. It makes it seem more like a cultural artefact.

All in all, the film holds many similarities to the book, and it has the advantage of being made in a world before Islamic terrorism was so prominent in our minds, so it’s a bit more faithful to the book in its portrayal of the desert peoples’ holy jihad. But there are enough differences to make some things seem more comedic, and other things (the true nature of planetary ecology, the origins of the Spice) less important than they really are.

A sandworm from Dune
A sandworm, © fantastique-arts.com

Can’t get enough of Dune? There are many follow-up books in the Dune universe, and there’s also a couple of miniseries dated from 2000 (these were made for Frank Herbert’s 80th anniversary, by John Harrison, also a prominent composer for various horror movies such as Dawn of the Dead, so I cannot wait to watch these!). What are you waiting for – go out and taste the Spice!

 

main image © andsoitbeginsfilms.com

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