By “pornographic”, incidentally, I don’t mean sexually pornographic. I mean in the sense of distilling an artistic entity into it’s most obvious, banal, and debasing parts. I mean it in the same way that I would tell you that Disney is mostly pornographic: it is film that caters to banal fantasies and fetishes about heroism and suffering.
I have never read “Dune”. I tried but it bored me, very quickly. I generally despise banal fantasies. I might try again some day– certain people keep telling me it’s great– , but for now I’m going to build a personal synopsis using online resources. Yes, I know: that is inadequate. But before I commit to reading 900 pages of dreck, I want to know if there is anything worthwhile in there. I’m getting old. I don’t have that much time left to waste.
Synopsis of Dune:
First of all, we have an Emperor. Are science fiction writers congenitally incapable of imagining a universe without a royal family? (Well, P. K. Dick did, in “Blade Runner”). And if we have a royal family, we have a princess, in this case, Timothee Chalamet, (because I guess Leonardo Di Caprio and Andrew McCarthy and the princesses are getting too big now).
So we have House Atreides headed by Leto and the emperor Padishah. Emperor Shaddam IV orders Leto to rule the planet Arrakis (which is the putative Dune of the title). Arrakis is where you get LSD.
Leto has a concubine, a witch, with magical powers, like Peter Pan, Lady Jessica, who is an “acolyte” of the Bene Gesserit, a very, very mysterious group. So mysterious, we can’t tell you anything about it. Just wallow in the mystery, okay?
Oh, there’s too many characters, none of whom sound interesting yet. Lady Jessica bears Leto a son, Paul, who is so obviously a Christ figure that Frank Herbert can count on most reviewers not mentioning it for fear of appearing crass. Paul passes a test with higher marks than anyone else ever– he’s just so special. After all, he’s a princess. That’s why we have Timothy Chalamet. And less interesting now, because we know that this sequence is merely a device to keep us from thinking Paul wants to be the chosen one. The chosen one never wants to be the chosen one. He is always dragged, reluctantly, kicking and screaming, to his DESTINY. The same way princesses are always compelled to wear glorious dresses and jewelry and accept the worship of the masses of people who think that princesses should be worshipped.
So they move to Arrakeen– Leto, Jessica, Paul, and the indentured servants. Arrakeen is a “stronghold”– nice — on Arrakis.
And we have the bad guys, the Harkonnens. And the perfidious Suk doctor Wellington, who has mixed motives, and thus becomes more interesting than he was, but still, he BETRAYS our hero, Leto, and brings suffering to the real hero, the Christ figure, Paul.
The name… Paul? Seriously?
And what makes Paul utterly dull and lifeless: he acquires magical powers of by drinking the “Waters of Life” which are supposed to poison males (here we get all the suffering again, to prove that Paul is no greedy little parvenu, but a suffering, selfless, honest-to-god hero. Here the reader feels good about himself. He goes to sleep fantasizing he is Paul, and everyone loves him because he suffered for his power– he didn’t take it because he was a fucking, greedy little arrogant twerp, which is probably the truth. It is almost always the truth. Show me a ruler who actually sat back and waited for authority and power to be thrust upon him?
If you believe Hollywood movies, heroism is bestowed upon humble reluctant protagonists by accident or fate or whatever– anything except personal ego and ambition. Just the opposite, in fact, of Shakespeare.
So Paul is now dull: he prevails, when he prevails, not because he tries harder or is witty or clever or well-educated or has learned to lead– no, no, no– he has magic. It’s way easier and saves the novelist years of work. And now he really is the “messiah”, the Kwisatz Haderach, the fruit of the long-term Bene Gesserit breeding program.
Doesn’t that all just sound fascinating to you? No, not me either. We already have a bible, and Greek myths, and Star Wars (God spare us the ultimate mediocrity in sci-fi). We already have a film version of “Dune” by David Lynch that was so bad that he disowned it. And I suspect he disowned it not because the studio destroyed his film, as he insisted, but because he couldn’t believe how bad his own work was. The studio didn’t invent Sting’s costume, or Kyle MacLachlan’s incomprehensibly British accent or the voice-over of every character.
Why Dune? What is supposedly so original or powerful about it? Villeneuve made “Blade Runner 2049″ and “Arrival” both of which were, frankly, dumb. What can he do with the “Dune” franchise? (“Incendies“, on the other hand, was fine.)
Helen MacDonald interviewed director Villeneuve for the Times. I generally want to trust my sources here but she says this, as she is about to interview Villeneuve by Zoom:
When I held up my “Star Wars” mug to demonstrate my sci-fi credentials, his eyebrows rose high over his half-rim glasses, and he grinned.
You are trying to tell me that “Dune” is profound and complex and smart and original and brilliant, and yet you are a fan of the dumbest science fiction franchise in the known universe?
And you tell me Villeneuve “grinned” when you said that?
Let’s see if she can rebuild her credibility. No, she can’t. “Star Wars” was purposely conceived of as a “B” franchise, a dumb, childish, unsophisticated story of princesses and cute robots and lasers and space ships and rogues and almost nothing genuinely interesting about man or science or space. It is worse than uninteresting: it actually saps genuine curiosity and wonder from the viewer’s brain.
Helen MacDonald, author of the wonderful “H is for Hawk”, is clearly a fan-girl or maybe she’s hoping Villeneuve will take on one of her own books in the future: she is a major suck-up. She writes, “Timothée Chalamet described him as ‘one of the most beautiful souls.’ ” She blathers about how nice he was to her on the Zoom call.
Give it a rest, mom.