Saturday, March 09, 2024

Dune Part Two

Dune 2 just works. 

It's immersive in the way that the book is immersive; but it's a piece of cinematography, not a crib-sheet for the book or a gallop through the major plot points. We engage with Stilgar and Irulan and the Emperor as characters in this movie; not as more or less successful translations of literary figures. Huge machines lumber across a desert landscape without making us wonder about models or see gee eye. We flash away from the main action to breathtaking vistas of alien otherness but there is never any sense that we are being shown spectacle for the sake of spectacle. I couldn't say if Timothée Chalamet embodies the Paul Atriedes of the book; because the Paul Atriedes of the book is either a held-at-arms-length construct; or else a printed-in-italics stream of consciousness. No-one in the movie thinks in italics. Kyle MacLachlan was absurd, and I have already forgotten Alec Newman. Chalamet is older than I recall the character in the novel being; but he has an androgynous youthfulness, so that even in the final scenes he feels like a child thrust into a role he is terrifyingly good at but at the same time far too small for. When the spice runs out, perhaps he could go into the confectionary business, though ideally not in Glasgow.

We are very definitely watching Dune Part Two; not Dune II or Dune - the Sequel. Like Les Trois Mousquetaires it's a long adaptation of a very long book split into two more or less manageable chunks. (Cinema Buddy said she could follow it perfectly well having so far avoided part one.)

Denis Villeneuve has taken five hours to adapt a 500 page novel; where Peter Jackson spent about nine on a book which runs to around 1300. Put another way, Jackson spent two and a half minutes on each of Tolkien's pages, where Villeneuve spent a minute and a half on each of Herbert's. But Jackson's ring trilogy always felt rushed, breathless, frenetic. Villeneuves Dune feels leisurely, even slow. Granted, more happens on any one of Tolkien's pages than on any three of Herbert's. Dune, is, in the end, a contemporary novel with a contemporary novel's pacing, where the Lord of the Rings is (the Professor always insisted) a "prose romance". But there is more to it than that. Villeneuve omits; Jackson condenses. Tolkien himself in his lifetime said that omission was the way to go. Jackson looks at a crowded house and feverishly tries to stuff everything into the van, along with some new things that he thinks might come in useful later on. Villeneuve steps back and tries to see which pieces of furniture to keep and which to discard: retaining only what is essential to allow the room to continue to look like itself. Jackson tried to translate the Lord of the Rings into the language of a Hollywood blockbuster, which was always going to be a poor fit for his source. Legolas became a swashbuckler and Aragorn became a romantic lead because movies require swashbuckling heroes and romantic leads. But that meant that Jackson had to create completely new material which isn't in the book to provide a pretext for swashbuckling and heroism, which meant in turn that he had to rush through the stuff which is in the book even faster.

Dune is no a Hollywood blockbuster. It is quite clear from the opening seconds that it is the kind of historical epic that they don't make any more. It has more in common with Spartacus or the Greatest Story Ever Told than with Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom. Since Dune was always a pseudo-historical novel, the translation to cinema far less painful. It may not be a coincidence that Dune Part Two hits the cinemas in the same month that the gore-soaked Shogun remake finds its way onto Disney Plus. The two books occupy not entirely dissimilar ballparks. James Clavell spent the 1970s on the same spinner racks as Frank Herbert.

People returning to Dune after a long absence -- and people coming to the film without prior knowledge of the book -- are likely to look at the deserts and the great big machines and think "Gee, this is awfully like Star Wars." And in one way, it is. It's hard not to look at desert dwelling nomads and not think of Tusken Raiders; it's hard not to wonder if Uncle Owen's moisture 'vaporator is preserving the precious water of the tribe; and it's hard not to suspect that the spice that Han was smuggling for Jabba the Hutt had something to do with the psychotropic melange that the galactic empire depends on. Tatooine isn't Arrakis -- it clearly owes a very great deal to the desert kingdom of Mongo -- but Dune was clearly one of the many streams which fed George Lucas's imagination. 

In the first film, Luke mentions in passing that he hunts local fauna from his T16 spaceship; and examples of the creature were spliced into the "special" edition of the movie. They look quite a lot like the kangaroo mice that Muad'dib takes his name from. Maybe there are only so many way you can CGI a desert dwelling rodent. If Luke Skywalker had needed a "battle name", Womp Rat would have done the job very well. In World War 2, the Seventh Armoured Division called themselves the Desert Rats. The Gerbils wouldn't have sounded nearly so macho.

But Villeneuve never plays up to any of this. Where Peter Jackson seemed to quote Star Wars excessively, one never feels that Villeneuve is particularly pointing outside the film or asking you to smile with recognition or even borrowing shots from older movies. There are big ships; there is an emperor; there is a princess; and (for good and adequate reasons) the heroes of both franchises use blades; but the visual vocabulary never bleeds from one movie to the other.

If there is such a bleed, or inadvertent retrospective quotation, then the film which interposes itself between Dune and the viewer is Life of Brian. It's more or less impossible to look at middle-eastern religious mobs in a desert landscape and not find yourself wondering whether, perhaps, Paul is after all not the mahad but merely a very naughty boy. When Stilgar literally and in so many words says that Paul must be the messiah because he denies that he is, a certain frisson of recognition goes through the audience. (It overshadows a very good plot point. In the previous movie, Paul's father said the same thing: the best leaders are the ones who don't desire it.) I never believed that Cleese and Palin ever had et al had a conscious political motivation, but their film has created a sort of psycho-historical ripple that makes religion, or at any rate cinematic religion, almost impossible to approach with a straight face. I don't recall Herbert himself describing the Fremen of the South as "fundamentalists", but desert dwellers in robes obsessively chanting Muad Dib! Muad Dib! have unfortunate contemporary real world resonances. One or two people online have already described it as irreducibly That Culture Appropriation Movie.

There are small plot changes: it may be that proper serious Dune Geeks are as annoyed by the movie as proper serious Tolkien Geeks were by Lord of the Rings. It seemed to me that on the whole, details were being polished, clarified, and spelled out; and that the less cinematic ideas were gently pushed into the background. We are told that Alia becomes sentient in utero, and that she communicates with Jessica and Paul telepathically; but Villeneuve very sensibly spares us a talking baby. The novel is framed with endless commentaries by Princess Irulan about the life and teaching of Muad'dib, but the princess herself barely registers as a character in the actual narrative. Chani is a similarly passive figure, the book ending with Jessica's assurance that although Paul is going to make a dynastic marriage to the Princess, posterity will regard Chani as a wife, not a concubine. The film (like the old sci-fi channel TV show) gives both women considerably more agency: indeed, the final shot of the movie is a disgruntled Chani turning her back on Muad'dib's jihad and riding back to the desert on one of the sandworms.

The film makes some sensible choices about which plot points to underline: what the story loses in ambiguity it gains in clarity. We are told directly and early on that the prophecies of the mahdi were planted on Arrakis by the Bene Gesserit; and that Paul himself does not believe in them. (David Lynch, weirdly, ended his movie with Paul supernaturally bringing rain to the desert world.) The film presents the Bene Gesserit as directly running the whole show from behind the scenes, where the books leave one thinking that they are merely one powerful faction among many. Herbert as a slight tendency to murmur about Reverend Mothers and the Water of Life and leave the reader to infer what the heck he is going on about. Villeneuve sensibly lets us overhear characters explaining details to one another. We are shown a Fremen drowning a baby spice worm and harvesting the Holy Poison from it, answering the question "Water of excuse-me-what-did-you-say?" without giving us the feel that we are being info dumped. In Part One, Paul says directly that he is going to make a play for the Emperor's job; at the end of film 2, we positively see the old emperor kneel and kiss his hand. The film ends with the Fremen going off to war against the Great Houses and Jessica saying "Begun these Clone Wars have" (or words to that effect). That's pretty much what happens in the book; but there it's presented just that little bit more elliptically.

Are books factual accounts of What Happened, or verbal constructs built in particular ways by particular authors for particular effects? (This question recently became slightly controversial in Another Place.) Frank Herbert completed six volumes of the Mighty Dune Trilogy and due to the sterling work of his literary executors, the Trilogy now runs to a concise twenty two volumes, which possibly makes it a icosikaidology.

Opinion is sharply divided about the merits of the various humous and posthumous volumes. I am one of a minority who thought Children of Dune was a bit all over the place, but really liked God Emperor. It seems to me that if Frank decided to end Dune on the eve of the Big War and begin the sequel when the Big War had long since finished, that was probably because he thought that leaving the big war off stage was the right way to tell the story he wanted to tell. Son Kevin evidently knows better, and has Andersonned no less than three books to plug the "gap" in the original saga. I have not read them. People who have done so say they are by no means the most hateful of the sequels and prequels. I assume that if no-one was reading them, no-one would be publishing them.

Villeneuve is pretty clear that there is going to be a third film, but probably none after that. This makes a good deal of sense. Frank Herbert's own sequel, Dune Messiah, could be read as an extension of the original novel, where Children of Dune and the latter volumes introduce a lot of new, and increasingly whacky, ideas. If Villeneuve was reluctant to show us a talking baby, he would certainly baulk at Paul's son covering himself with leeches and turning into a Sandworm/Human chimera. And the (spoiler alert) death of Paul is as good a place as any to end the trilogy.  (Spoiler alert: he gets better.)

But Kevin Herbert's name appears on the credits as an executive producer, and Kevin J Anderson crops up in the "special thanks" section.

Please Reverend Mother, tell me that Dune Part 3 will be an adaptation of Dune Messiah as opposed to Paul of Dune, Winds of Dune, Princess of Dune or Tasteful Yellow Lampshades of Dune. 


Richard Worth said...

I am very glad that you seemed to have really, really liked it, both as an experience, and a piece of craft. It does help put a lot of the reviews on things you didn't like so much in context. I remember the 1984 version with some fondness, albeit I don't think I would return to it, and even in those days Patrick Stewart didn't have any hair.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Let the record show that of the 24 movies reviews I have written in the last 12 months, 18 have been entirely or mostly positive; 3 have been mixed; and only 3 (Murder in Venice, Harold Frye and Wicked Little Letters) have been completely negative.

g said...

I think your arithmetic has gone slightly astray.

Villeneuve: 5x60 = 300 minutes for 500 pages: 0.6 minutes per page. Jackson: 9x60 = 540 minutes for 1300 pages: 0.4 minutes per page. Even without any difference in action-per-page between the writers, even without any other difference in philosophy of adaptation between the directors, Jackson's would be more rushed.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Oh, don't talk to me about arithmetic. You can prove anything you like with arithmetic.

Harry Payne said...

"One or two people online have already described it as irreducibly That Culture Appropriation Movie."

Good for them. They've understood the film. The Bene Gesserit use the Fremen culture to implant the idea of the Lisan Al-Ghaib, Jessica nudges them to understand it may be Paul, Paul eventually says "The world has made hard choices for us" and goes Full Madhi.