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Discovering human dignity in Villeneuve’s Dune

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The much anticipated film adaptation of the Frank Herbert sci-fi masterpiece demonstrates that the best support of a noble ideal is to actually believe it.

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With an opening weekend revenue of $41 million, director Denis Villeneuve’s Part 1 of his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune has succeeded in getting Warner Bros. to greenlight Part 2, set for a 2023 release.

Villeneuve’s Dune feels a bit like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings—visually stunning, perfectly cast, yet hardly the definitive adaptation of the source material. That’s not really a criticism, though. With Herbert’s intricately detailed storytelling, no perfect adaptation is possible. That said, at places it seemed Villeneuve assumed viewers would have some familiarity with the novel, filling in what the film leaves implicit, such as in one of the best scenes in the film, which demonstrates the power of properly valuing human dignity over one’s economic and political interests. (More about that below.)

The universe of Dune contains a plethora of competing interests—“plans within plans,” Herbert tells us—a web of intrigue to rival the Byzantine courts.

Fearing the growing power of two feuding aristocratic houses—Atreides and Harkonnen—the galactic emperor orders administration of the planet Arrakis, or “Dune,” source of the most important resource in the galaxy, the “spice” melange, to pass from the hands of the brutal Harkonnens to the noble House Atreides.

The Harkonnens sabotage equipment needed to harvest this interstellar petroleum from the desert planet; attempt to assassinate Duke Atreides’ son and the story’s protagonist, Paul (Timothée Chalamet); and arrange for a member of House Atreides to betray them under duress.

The Atreidae, for their part, do not expect the transition of power to proceed smoothly. Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) expresses his intention to cultivate “desert power” through an alliance with the native Fremen people of Arrakis, whose power and numbers the Harkonnens drastically underestimated.

One form of defense against Harkonnen plans comes to Paul through his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a devotee of the Bene Gesserit religion. She has passed on to him the gift of a mystical prescience, heightening Paul’s senses, self-control, and influence over others.*

Meanwhile the Bene Gesserit—whose members have been exclusively female until the arrival of Paul—have their own plans. They act as advisers (and sometimes wives and concubines) to the emperor and the leaders of the great aristocratic houses. They have fabricated a messianic religious prophecy through manipulation of sacred texts such as the “Orange Catholic Bible,” which, despite their designs, seems to be coming prematurely true in the person of Paul.

The Fremen, lastly, though Villeneuve labels them “oppressed” through the mouth of Chani (Zendaya), do indeed enjoy “desert power,” having deeply adapted to the harsh conditions of Arrakis to the point of harvesting their own spice in order to bribe the spacing guild satellites to turn a blind eye to their territories.

Despite his participation in these many “plans within plans,” in one pivotal scene the Duke proves to be—at least partially—a man above the corrupting influence of political and economic power due to his genuine appreciation of the surpassing importance of human life and dignity. This point remains in the background of Villeneuve’s vivid visuals, but some added familiarity with the novel brings it to the forefront.

Much of Dune’s reflection on human dignity comes through depictions of its deprivation: People use other people as pawns in their personal plans. The scene in question comes when Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan), an imperial ecologist and supposed impartial judge in the transition of power between Houses Harkonnen and Atreides, guides the Duke on a tour of the desert to see a massive spice harvester and the appearance of one of Dune’s dreaded giant sandworms.

Reading between the lines of Liet-Kynes’ descriptions, Paul, riding along with his father in the ornithopter—a massive, mechanical, dragonfly-like vessel—discerns a connection between the fearful worms and the sought-for spice. Moreover, as Kynes tells them, the worms are attracted to the rhythmic sounds of the harvesters. From the first sighting of “wormsign”—slinking waves in the sand caused by the creature’s approach—a harvester has about 25 minutes to be air-lifted to safety or else be swallowed whole by the monster as it emerges from the sand.

All this plays out before them. Heightening the drama beyond the book’s account, in the film the “carryall,” rather than being suspiciously absent, arrives but malfunctions as it tries lift the harvester into the air. Seeing the imminent danger of the harvester’s crew, Leto flies his ornithopter—and orders the others following him—to race to evacuate the mining crew. With insufficient capacity to carry every crew member, the Duke orders that the ornithopters take an extra person each, going so far in the book as to order them to rip out their back seats and abandon their protective shield generators.

This whole time Kynes only reluctantly has helped the Duke, and Paul senses that on more than one occasion the ecologist has concealed the whole truth from his father out of distrust for the planet’s new ruler. Yet Leto’s response to the disaster at the harvester dispels Kynes’ misgivings.

This Duke, thinks Kynes, a male character in the novel, was concerned more over the men than he was over the spice. He risked his own life and that of his son to save the men. He passed off the loss of a spice crawler with a gesture. The threat to men’s lives had him in a rage. A leader such as that would command fanatic loyalty. He would be difficult to defeat.

To be clear, Leto’s fate before the emperor turns entirely upon House Atreides’ ability to harvest spice, which fuels all starships and makes the emperor’s intergalactic rule possible. But the Duke, in a moment of stress and action, disregards his own life for the sake of each human person under his care.

Thus, Herbert tells us, “Against his own will and all previous judgments, Kynes admitted, I like this Duke.”

The best support of a noble ideal in the service of one’s interests, Dune demonstrates, is to actually believe it. Virtue has a power greater than the best of any human “plans within plans,” and as the story progresses one sees its power—and danger—when combined with faith.

But readers will need to watch the film—and perhaps also read the book—to see what that entails.

*The original post mistakenly described Paul and the Bene Gesserit adherents as “mentats.”

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.