Science Fiction’s Very Special Boys

Luke Skywalker, Paul Atreides, and what the new Dune finally got right.

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in "Dune"
Chiabella James / Warner Bros. Entertainment / Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

A desert planet. An empire spanning the galaxy. A young boy burdened to be its savior. The 1965 novel Dune’s influence on Star Wars is obvious, but Frank Herbert’s work has echoed throughout all of modern science-fiction storytelling.

With the director Denis Villenueve’s big-budget, star-studded epic now giving it a proper film adaptation, how does 2021’s Dune play more than a half century after the novel was first published? With so many hero’s-journey imitations since, does its “chosen one” narrative feel stale? Or does the novel’s own skepticism about messianic belief shine through?

Past attempts to adapt Dune have fallen short. David Lynch’s infamous 1984 flop was so poorly received that the director successfully asked to have his name removed from extended versions. Does Villeneueve succeed where others haven’t? Does his choice to adapt only the first half of the book help or hinder the final product?

Staff writers David Sims, Shirley Li, and Spencer Kornhaber discuss the movie on The Atlantic’s culture podcast, The Review. Listen here:

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for the Dune book series and movie.

David Sims: Dune is an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s legendary, best-selling 1965 science-fiction novel, though only an adaptation of the first half of that book, really, rather than David Lynch's famed 1984 flop—which is a movie I sort of defend and like but I can’t really say is a coherent piece of storytelling.

What’s everyone’s Dune background? Who’s read the book? Who’s seen the Lynch movie? Maybe seen Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary about a famed failed attempt to make Dune into a movie?

Spencer Kornhaber: I was a good nerdy teenager and read a lot of science fiction and fantasy as a kid. I definitely read Dune, and I think I read all six Dune books, but I really have no memory of what happens in them.

Sims: You read all six and you have no memory? Someone turns into a worm at one point! Spoilers for a much-later Dune.

Shirley Li: I read Dune as a teenager—just the first one. I stopped partly because of what you just mentioned, David. I remember taking the first one out at the library and then looking at the covers of the other ones. And then there was a sequel that had this man-worm. It had his face and then the rest of his body was a worm. And I was like, Oh, I’m not into that.

Sims: That’s God Emperor of Dune. But now there’s this massive Warner Bros. $165-million-dollar production with a star-studded cast. Pretty much every role in this movie is played by a familiar face. It’s directed by Denis Villeneuve, who made Arrival, Sicario, and Prisoners. His last film was Blade Runner 2049. The man’s ambitious. He’s one of those guys who really knows what to do with scale, in my opinion. Obviously, a lot of Hollywood movies have scale and huge budgets, but sometimes it feels a little empty. And I think Denis usually strives to avoid that. He has triple the budget he had on Arrival to play around with here. And like this film or not, it’s obviously sparing no detail. It’s a lot of ships taking off and landing. Massive amounts of people marching in formation … To be clear, I am such a sucker for all of this stuff.

Li: (Laughs.)

Sims: This is just, like, my favorite kind of sort of sci-fi storytelling. Did it work for you guys?

Kornhaber: It did technically work for me in that I sat in that theater and I felt like the screen was crushing me into a fine powder over two hours. And that is a compliment. When you go to movies, you want to feel like something has happened to you, and I absolutely felt that way over the course of the movie.

But it’s … kind of not a movie. It’s half of a story. It’s very true to the book, and the way in which it's true to the book kind of zaps it of some of the potential it has. I think this movie is a missed opportunity and could have been, like, the greatest thing ever, and it’s just instead, like, kind of awesome.

Sims: Hmm. Can’t agree! Dune rules! Ten out of 10!

Li: Podcast over! (Laughs.) I do see where Spencer is coming from, because when the film ends halfway into the novel, it threw me off. But I’m also on the side of: Overall, this film is sublime and spectacular and immersive.

Sims: It does have that kind of first Lord of the Rings problem. The movie ends with everyone kind of looking off into the distance being like, “More to come! Our journey has only begun!” I remember people slamming Fellowship of the Ring at the time for the same thing, but the Lynch movie just stands as a perfect representation of why this is the only way to do this. That movie—which I really recommend because I do think it’s so funny and so cool … No, Denis thinks it’s funny. I think it’s cool. It’s so visually splendid and so weird.

But it also has whole sequences where someone will just flash on screen and be like, “And then this happened.” You need to slow down. But in 1984, Hollywood was certainly not about to greenlight a giant-budget movie that tells half a story, whereas now, obviously, Hollywood is very happy to greenlight anything that has the word franchise attached to it.

Li: Have you seen the marketing around this film that’s touted it as the “next Star Wars?”

Sims: Star Wars is so incredibly indebted to Dune. And George Lucas would be the first to admit it. It’s a very totemic piece of sci-fi storytelling. It’s very old at this point. It’s about this “chosen one” on a strange desert planet. Bits and pieces of it have been scattered throughout genre storytelling for years. So it’s kind of tough then to hit audiences with the OG and have it not feel overly familiar. That is another part of the challenge.

Li: Right, to have it not feel generic. It makes me think about a show that just got canceled, Y: The Last Man.

Sims: Oh, that’s a good example.

Li: That’s a property that Hollywood tried to make for more than a decade, and is the basis for a lot of storytelling around apocalypses and post-apocalypses. But because we have seen things like The Walking Dead, by the time we see something like that show, we consider it generic, even though it got there first. And that’s frustrating. I do think that Dune could have easily fallen into this trap, but I think the decision to split the book up is the correct one. You can’t do what Lynch did and put Virginia Madsen on camera to have her narrate the backstory with words that a general audience has never heard before.

Kornhaber: It could have been way too familiar, and it’s not that way at all because Denis Villeneuve is just a visual and sonic genius. Everything looks and feels and sounds fresh. But ending where they did gave this movie a kind of lumpy and bizarre shape because it’s following the books. [They’re] adapting a book that’s famously unadaptable. And so one thing that you do is rewrite the story.

You have to find a way to give this a satisfying sense of a self-contained journey. And I’m not just picking at this. What ends up happening in the movie is that there’s all this buildup to this incredibly moving and tragic turn with the betrayal of House Atreides. And then for the rest of the movie, it’s just Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson running away from stuff, hiding, and wandering the desert. You can easily imagine a version of this that speeds ahead.

Sims: (Laughs.) You’re just describing the Lynch movie! That’s actually what it does! And the problem with what you’re describing is that Paul’s journey, if it’s sped up, feels utterly anodyne. He is the chosen one. He’s the very special boy. This little princeling who has been told or hinted at since birth that he’s going to be important and he’s got these prophetic dreams or whatever.

And the problem the Lynch movie has is that Paul’s triumph feels completely unearned, because it has to bum-rush him into messiah territory within two hours. So you feel like you’re just watching a movie about a really boring person who turns out to be just as special as he always thought he was. Paul Atreides is a tough role because we don’t really root for the special little boy—especially the special little boy who is the heir to an empire. Like, it’s one thing when you’re Luke Skywalker …

Li: You weren’t spoiled from the beginning.

Sims: Right. He lives on a moisture farm and he wants to escape and be free. He’s got very relatable problems, whereas Paul’s problems are like, Oh no, my sorceress mother and my aristocratic father have a lot of expectations for me. (Laughs.)

I love lots of things about this movie, but the thing I think it drills down to the best is it understands how dreadful Paul’s situation is. To be told that you’re special and to have the weight of leadership is this weird blessing/curse situation. But beyond that, what the movie underlines is: This boy actually does sort of have prophetic powers. He does see the future. And he sees a future that is terrible. And I love how much Villeneuve is investing in that, versus trying to manage it into a compelling one-movie arc.

Read: Dune is epic, but that’s not why it’s great

Li: And I do think that what we have of Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in the desert is important to this. The film read to me as Denis concentrating on this mother-son dynamic over everything else. That’s the emotional thread. It’s pure Herbert. And that’s why it felt climactic to me. He’s not fully buying what she’s selling, and she’s also afraid of him to a degree. I like that tension.

Kornhaber: She is so stressful to watch. She really needs that mantra of “Fear is the mind-killer,” because she has tried to really do something here, which is save the entire universe by breaking the rules and having a son.

Sims: One of the most crucial scenes in this film is the gom jabbar scene, where Paul puts his hand in a pain box and one of the elder Bene Gesserit witches tests him to see how much he can resist. In the Lynch film, Paul holds his hand in the box and you see his hand burning. It’s an intense scene, but he just stays in the room with them.

In this movie, Villeneuve constantly cuts to the door with Jessica on the other side, near hysterics. He’s trying his best to invest not just in Paul as the special chosen one who could lead the universe but also in Jessica as the person who made the choice to have him and set the universe on this path. She has that possibly fanatical faith in him, and also possibly a total fear she’s made a mistake. That’s so much of the tension of Dune. Is he the Messiah? And if he is, is that a good thing?

Li: Is he going to rally everybody on this planet? Is he going to destroy the entire universe because people will follow him blindly? Right, that’s the tension, and you can’t really portray that without portraying Paul and Jessica’s tension. And the scene you’re describing—the gom jabbar scene—in the book, Frank Herbert does not write what happens to Jessica outside that door.

Sims: Yes. I love Frank Herbert, but he does not write women, I would say, with absolute dimensionality. And they’ve made some wise choices to deepen Jessica’s characterization in particular. The Bene Gesserit, Frank Herbert’s idea of these sort of like …

Li: Space witches!

Sims: Yeah! (Laughs.) What if nuns held unfathomable political power behind the scenes? And were also psychic? And were also carrying out genetic experiments? It’s all so inventive and crazy and cool. But Villenueve’s getting to the humanity of it.

Li: Yes. Yes.

Kornhaber: The other problem people talk about with this movie is its social implications in the way that it kind of chimes on these white-savior themes and the Orientalist themes. And by leaving the Fremen on the margins as this kind of shadowy, mysterious people without delving a little more into them, I think that you do end up with a movie that has a little bit of a problem with that stuff.

Li: It certainly invites that criticism, and I understand it. You’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place here. If you’re going to cut the book in two, which you have to do in order to adapt it, then you’re not going to have much Fremen.

Sims: And if you compress the story, you have less time to deepen anything, so the Fremen come off as exoticized, mysterious … indigenous warriors who understand the planet in ways you can’t … tropes that Hollywood adores and one would hope Dune: Part 2 can maybe skate by a little.

Li: When we talk about issues like the white-savior tropes, Villeneuve has taken out a lot of the mysticism. I think Frank Herbert was really trying to say that religion is now just, 10,000 years in the future, an amalgamation of all things ever. And Villeneuve decided not to go too much into that, and to emphasize the humanity of this one question.

Sims: I wonder how this will go over to people who don’t know who the Kwisatz Haderach is or whatever, you know? Is it lobbing too much jargon at you, or is it sort of the right amount? It does seem like he’s threaded that needle. Like it’s like both the fall of the Roman Empire and like post–World War II. It’s unfeeling aristocrats carving up the universe. “Atreides, go over there and run Arrakis for a while. You can mine it for space. Everyone needs that. You’ll make lots of money.”

There’s obviously political gamesmanship in what’s going on within the movie. Yes, they’re being set up to fail. This is an impossible challenge, them being given this planet to run. But then there’s also the wider sort of political hubris of, like, all of these empires thinking they can just sort of like swan into unfamiliar territory and run it.

And there’s Paul as this sort of white-savior figure. Yes, like, he has this familiar arc of the outlander who comes in and understands the indigenous people’s way like …

Li: Dances with Wolves … Lawrence of Arabia

Sims: The Last Samurai. Avatar, obviously—in which a white guy literally puppets the body of an alien! Crazy movie. But here, Villeneuve underlines that so much of Paul’s mystique has been generated politically by the Bene Gesserit. His arc is seeded in this sort of scripted way.

Kornhaber: Yeah, in this universe’s chosen one, it’s not Luke Skywalker and the Force deciding that this family has this line. Here, human beings conspired to create chosen ones.

Li: And the main question the film is asking is whether this figure is good for humanity, right? A lesser film would have just gone down the white-savior route and this one challenges that trope.

Sims: Right, and even if Paul’s path is a noble one, it will still leave people dead and cities on fire. Even if it’s better to have a Messiah than to have a civil war, that doesn’t mean it’s good.