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  • Writer's pictureH.B. Nuttall

Dune Part One: Hitting Emotional Pressure Points

Updated: Nov 7, 2021

Spoiler warning--read at your own discretion.

The photo posted with this article is one I took near Yuma, along the Arizonian and Californian border. As I snapped the photos I leaned over to my husband--graciously driving our family--and I whispered to him: “Fear is the mind-killer.”

I’ve oftentimes sympathized with Paul Atreides from the epic sci-fi novel Dune, by Frank Herbert. Certainly not in every way, but I can still draw connections. Forced from his homeworld Caladan, rich in water, he is sent to the dry world Arrakis and banished to the desert.

My home in central New York has many names. The Finger Lakes, what many locals have deemed “the land of many waters” is thus nicknamed for its nature. Local Native American teachings tell of the sacred beauty of the land. After God created the Earth, he blessed the land by placing his hand on it, leaving behind the Finger Lakes.

These are the stories and teachings I grew up with at home, school, and church. The Finger Lakes are rich in freshwater provided from ancient glacial lakes and contain a myriad of water systems. I was always surrounded by water, literally lived and breathed it with the dense humidity.

As I write this I remember my life there--my childhood--and I cannot help but think of the first time I attempted to read the lengthy novel Dune, a challenge for my sixteen-year-old self.

For an independent book report project, I watched my peers grab cutsie slice-of-life novellas. I wanted to be different, find something challenging. I went home and grabbed what looked like the longest book on the bookshelf. I brought Dune to school the next day and began a reading journey.

Never did I think I would live in any place as alien to me as the deserts of Arrakis. That my path lay in the desert, just as Paul’s did. This is what inspired me to recommend the novel to my husband, right after we moved into our home in one of the hottest deserts in the western world: The Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona.

Just as Paul develops inner strength, and finds his true potential in the desert, I feel somehow moving across the country to southern Arizona has done the same for me. Although the inner strength and potential I experience are far from the supernatural. And the science--Herbert outdid himself with the environmental science concerning deserts. Living and seeing firsthand how a desert functions makes me appreciate his research all the more.

Why have I rambled on about the connections I’ve drawn in my life to the novel? To emphasize the absolute adoration I have for this story, and why it means so much to me.

And why the previous adaptations of this great novel hurt when they fell short.

And why Denis Villeneuve's 2021 adaptation was a breath of fresh air.

The novel Dune is primarily told in the third-person-omniscient point-of-view, a very common style of storytelling for the decade it was written. It’s even more so in expansive worldbuilding fantasy and science fiction novels. As the reader, you are watching from a distance, observing all the details that create the dramatic irony audiences love in these genres. The way I like to explain this style to my students is that the reader is a god, looking down on all characters and their lives, knowing everything they are thinking and doing, even if certain characters are not present in the same setting. You see all as the great observer.

This style of storytelling does not translate well to the big screen.

Where the previous adaptations of the beloved book have failed is by one of two ways: 1) They work too hard to stay true to the omniscient point-of-view, or 2) Focus so much on one aspect something becomes lost in translation.

Movies are different than novels. What works in a book doesn’t always work in a screenplay. Therefore, to adapt to a screenplay and visual experience, the director and screenwriters have to take a different approach.

What makes this 2021 adaptation of the first half of Dune (yes, this is only half the story) is it takes the time to zoom in on aspects of the story without changing essential plot points.

One scene, in particular, that does this well is when Paul (portrayed by Timothe Chalamet) observes the kangaroo mouse in the desert. The camera zooms in to the mouse, focusing on the moisture droplets on the mouse’s oversized ears. The mouse grabs the droplets to drink; a prime example of showing not telling--a principle rule in storytelling.

This is juxtaposed to a scene earlier when Paul observes date trees being watered. It's explained the trees are not native to Arrakis and they each daily take the amount of water for five men (clearly a symbol of the Empire taking the Spice from the native Fremen). If not watered every day, they die. They cannot survive on their own.

Without words, the audience now knows the preconceived notions of life being impossible in the desert are false; those who perish are the foreigners who do not understand it. Those who call the desert planet their home can adapt--just as they did with their water-saving stillsuits. Thus hinting Paul will have to adapt to become one with the inhabitants of the planet. If he continues to side with the foreign invaders and be “watered” by others, he will not make it.

This brings in another positive point of the movie. The movie does not assume the audience is completely inept at figuring things out. Nothing annoys me more than movies that avoid "showing" because of all the "telling" they think the audience needs. True, some may not get it the first time around. But initially, most people will. This movie adaptation knows the audience is made of intelligent beings capable of drawing inferences from subtle nuances

The one criticism I have involves the mentats, AKA the human computers. Thufir Hawat (portrayed by Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Piter de Vries (portrayed by David Dastmalchian) were easily recognizable with the red marking on the bottom lip. Although, if one is unfamiliar with the novel, their roles are confusing. I appreciated the “showing” when Thufir rolls his eyes back to calculate or presses his ear to communicate, but it wasn’t clear why he had these abilities. I overheard audience members talk about what a strange alien he was. He isn’t. He’s a living computer. Essential to the story plot? Maybe not, but the mentats are a good plot device for worldbuilding that was underutilized in this film.

Overall, as Dr. Stone would say, I recommend this movie 10 billion percent. In this mammoth movie comparable to the largeness of Lord of the Rings, it isn’t the colossal that makes it special; it is the smaller things the creators brought attention to. It's the moments of zooming into beauty and emotion to draw the viewer in and makes this story more relatable. Instead of feeling distanced like an overseeing god, the audience is part of the story.

Thanks for reading. As always--enjoy life!

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