Call Me By Muad’Dib

I’m a huge fan of DuneI think Frank Herbert’s book is the greatest scifi novel ever written, and every time I dive back in I am transported to a wholly alien yet wholly understandable world. It has a depth of emotion and politics and spirituality that is unmatched in any other work of the fantastic. Even though it has been adapted into a bad movie and a mediocre TV series, even though there are a zillion bad sequels written by Herbert’s son, even though Dune was strip-mined for Star Warseach reading of the book opens new avenues of understanding for me. This story never gets old.

Hell, I have a Dune tattoo, a huge one, featuring the Litany Against Fear (that’s a little hack, but the design is really extraordinary, incorporating a hand doing the karana mudra (a Hindu and Buddhist hand gesture intended to dispel negative emotions), surrounded by Tibetan-style flames, representing the trial of the Gom Jabbar.

So for me any Dune news is so exciting that I will break my usual ‘this isn’t a news blog’ rule to write about it. Maybe you’re gonna see a bunch of Dune shit on this blog going forward.

Today it was revealed that Timothee Chalamet is in talks to play the lead in Denis Villeneuve’s (possibly two part) adaptation of DuneChalamet, who won over the world as Ellio in Call Me By Your Name, is an extraordinary actor, but what’s more he’s an extraordinary choice for Paul Atreides, aka Usul, aka Muad’Dib. Paul begins the story as the son of a good baron, but whose family is betrayed when they take possession of the planet Arrakis, the only place in the universe where the spice Melange is found. Melange is important because it has special properties that allow Guild Navigators to plot courses through hyperspace, allowing faster-than-light travel across the great Galactic Empire. All trade and politics rely on the spice.

But Arrakis itself is a hostile desert world, one occupied by Imperial forces. The natives, the Fremen, don’t love their colonizers. When the Atreides family is betrayed by the vile Harkonnens, Paul, his mother and his sister flee into the desert. There they take up with the native Fremen who see in Paul the messiah they have been waiting for, and he rises from child to warrior king.

Chalamet has, I think, the range to take on this role. He can portray Paul as both softer and young and also Paul as the worm-riding jihadist. Kyle McLachlan famously played Paul in the David Lynch adaptation, but I don’t think he quite had the range. I never bought McLachlan as either Paul OR Muad’Dib, to be honest.

The potential casting of Chalamet is interesting because it signals that Villeneuve will be going with white leads. There’s no reason for the Atreides family to be white (except that Atreides is a name with Greek origins) – ethnicity is not so cut and dried in Herbert’s world of tens of thousands of years in the future – but making Paul white does open the movie to white savior complaints.

The world of the Fremen was inspired by Herbert reading The Sabers of Paradisea history book about the Islamic warlords of the Caucasus region in Central Asia. The language and martial culture of these people were lifted almost whole for Arrakis and the Fremen (terms like kanly (a blood feud) and kindjal (a knife) come from the languages of these Islamic warlords); the people of the steppes became, in Herbert’s hands, people of the desert. And when you have people of the desert using Islamic words like jihad… well, we think Arabic right away.

Will Villeneuve cast his Fremen Arabic? Will he make them a multi-ethnic group? It seems to me that they should be fairly uniform in look, as they have been living on Arrakis for millenia. They don’t tend to mix with outsiders, so they would have a homogenous look.

While Herbert’s main source wasn’t about Arabic Islamic peoples, the novel and its language is so identified with Arabic culture that it seems wrong to NOT cast Arabic actors as Fremen. This could be a moment of excited diversification for Hollywood, allowing Middle Eastern actors to play roles that are not terrorists or IT guys. Also, by casting the Fremen as largely Middle Eastern (I think we can fudge a little and include non-Arabic Middle Easterners), the outsider status of Paul, his mother and his sister is reinforced.

But that also opens the white savior door. I don’t think Dune is a white savior story, although there is plenty of that hanging over the plot. It’s less that Paul shows up and somehow civilizes the Fremen and more that Paul becomes a Fremen. By the end of the novel Paul is of the Fremen; it’s not the Lawrence of Arabia thing where he’s kind of gone native but is perhaps still at a distance from the people he leads. Paul is an immigrant who is assimilated into the Fremen society. Most importantly, Dune doesn’t present the Fremen as less-than or savage, even though the Galactic Empire sees them that way.

Still, having a white lead in this story creates optics that will play poorly to those less familiar with the actual plot and characters. I’m curious how that all plays out in the coming days and months. It would have been pretty incredible to cast a non-white lead, but at the same time Timothee Chalamet is such a good actor it’s hard to complain too much. He didn’t just get the role based on skin color – he has the nominations to prove he’s the goods.

At any rate, I could not be more excited for this movie. That Villeneueve is in talks with an actor of this quality only confirms this will be a prestige take on Dune

Now who will be Chani? It’s hard to come up with Arabic actresses who are names in the United States, but if we’re stretching the definitions of ‘Middle Eastern’ mentioned above, I think Quantico‘s Priyanka Chopra – who is Indian – could really kill this role.