My Dune-mania is in high gear. Having read, and loved, the script for Denis Villeneueve’s upcoming adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal and defining work of science fiction (or at least one half of an adaptation; the movie coming out next year will only get so far as Paul Atreides coming to Sietch Tabor, becoming Fremen and falling in love with Chani), I dove back into the original books. Herbert’s Dune series, six novels in all, is unlike any other science fiction epic and is, to my thinking, almost unadaptable in a modern landscape. Which, I believe, is why they must be adapted.
Spoilers for Dune to follow, but minor ones – ie, stuff you’d assume happens in a story like this.
At the end of Dune Paul Atreides has become Muad’dib, the messiah of the Fremen, and he has overthrown the Emperor of the galaxy. Dune Messiah opens about 12 years later; Muad’dib’s reign has been a violent one as a jihad has spread forth among the stars, cleansing the universe for a new era of righteousness. But Paul doesn’t love what is happening; as a prescient, a man who can see future paths, he knows that he is trapped in a bad timeline and that all he can do is mitigate the damage in the hopes that one day – tens of thousands of years from now! – all of this will have been in the service of something good.
George RR Martin has said that Game of Thrones is him asking the question, “What would Aragorn’s tax policies be?,” referring to the idea that Lord of the Rings ends with the world seemingly happy but still in a medieval, non-democratic state. What does ‘happily ever after’ really mean? Herbert got there first, and he got there in his own sequels. Each Dune book flips the one before, turning heroes into monsters and monsters into saints. In Herbert’s world there is the zensunni religion – a mash-up of Buddhism and Islam – and Buddhism’s concepts of endless cycles informs how Herbert traces the history of bloodshed that follows the ascension of Muad’dib.
By the end of Chapterhouse: Dune, the final Dune book Herbert wrote, we are thousands of years removed from the events of Dune, and Muad’dib’s actions echo throughout time. Imagine a movie series that, halfway through, jumps thousands of years into the future – that alone is reason enough for Herbert’s story to continue onscreen (and is part of the reason why I feel like the entire six book series would be very hard to adapt in a commercially successful way). But Dune Messiah and its sequel, Children of Dune, take place within a generation of the events of Dune, and what they have to say about the nature of power is something we need to hear right now.
Rereading Dune Messiah I came to one section that filled me with a fire of need. I need to see this on screen, and everybody needs to see it as well, I thought to myself. Picture if you will Timothee Chalamet, the handsome and hearthrobby young man who has been cast as Paul Atreides in the first Dune movie. Imagine him a few years from now, older but still delicate, thicker perhaps but still disarmingly handsome. Imagine him standing in a gorgeous, enormous throne room, holding forth with his men, telling them about history.
Imagine Timothee Chalamet, who we rooted for over the course of two Dune movies, comparing himself to Hitler… and basically saying Hitler got nothing on him.
“There’s another emperor I want you to note in passing – a Hitler. He killed more than six million – pretty good for those days.”
“Statistics: at a conservative estimate I’ve killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely demoralized five hundred others. I’ve wiped out the followers of forty religions…”
This is our hero. This is the guy we’re rooting for. This is the handsome movie star. This is the real nature of power.
Dune itself is the template for much of what followed it; Star Wars lifted heavily from Herbert. But it’s just the beginning of the story; the now-standard tale of the underdogs rising up against the Empire is where it all actually starts, not where it ends. What Herbert explores, and what the movie sequels could explore, is the way that all power and control systems are corrupt and destructive, and that no good leader is actually good.
This is complex and disheartening stuff, but it’s vital in an era of political stanning. Reading Dune Messiah and seeing Paul’s glum acceptance of his followers committing atrocities in his name makes me think of Bernie Sanders’ political revolution being carried out by an army of trolls of whom I am sure he does not approve. Seeing the Fremen begin to doubt and turn against Paul because he doesn’t live up to the image of a god they’ve created for themselves makes me think of all the ways we’re going to destroy whoever our next progressive leader is because they aren’t perfect enough, or have a policy we don’t like.
But more than that, seeing that the grand cycle of human suffering and pain cannot be stopped like placing a hand on a spinning bicycle wheel, seeing that it will take time and effort and thought and real change and maybe even more suffering – that is a sobering realization for this moment in time. We like to think that defeating Trump in 2020 is going to be the end of it, but Herbert knew otherwise.
There’s real complexity at the heart of Dune Messiah, the kind of complexity that refutes the cleanliness of Dune (and the scifi it inspired). We need this now, and we’re going to need this in the coming years. The first Dune movie will be released right after the 2020 election, so I’m very curious how the burgeoning political moment will impact the film’s reception, but either way the warnings that Herbert gives about power and its uses, its limitations and its natural tendency towards abuse, will be timely in the coming years.
Would people accept this? Reading Dune Messiah I think a lot about the reception to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and especially to Luke’s story. Luke’s journey is the most Herbert-ish thing to happen to Star Wars since George Lucas wrote desert planets and spice mines into a script, and people fucking hated it. I also think about the ending of Game of Thrones, a series I am more and more convinced was heavily influenced by Herbert’s books (so many comparison points. The one I’m stuck on lately is Martin’s Faceless Men versus Herbert’s Face Dancers). People hated the turn that Dani made, and while many can convincingly argue they hated how it was accomplished rather than the fact that it happened, I suspect that actually separating those two things is trickier than they think.
Nobody wants a story wherein our righteous queen reveals the bloodthirsty nature of all power. Nobody wants to follow a young rebel hero to the point where he stands up and is like, “I am soooo much worse than Hitler.” We want happy endings, but the truth is that there are no endings, just continued echoes of our actions. And those echoes can be unpredictable, even to someone who can see the future.
This is what Herbert is telling us, and whoever ends up in the White House, wherever our country heads after 2020, whoever our leaders are and wherever our hope lies, it’s something we need to keep in the front of our minds. No revolution is peaceful, no leader is perfect, no change happens overnight. Like Paul Muad’dib we have to be setting our sights not on next week or next election but ten, twenty, one hundred years from now. This is where our aims must be, and we must be prepared for the path to be difficult and strewn with mistakes. The Death Star doesn’t just blow up (a second time) and all is well. That’s not how it works. It’s comforting to imagine, but it isn’t the truth, and more and more we need hard doses of truth in our media diet. I want the uplift and hope that will come at the end of Dune Part Two, but I also want the tough reality that comes in Dune Messiah.
And look, I have to be honest – there’s still enough of the provocateur in me that I am dying to see the reaction from the Chalamet stans when his Muad’dib ages up from being a freedom fighter to a tyrant. Sometimes it’s the small pleasures that are the best.