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  • Writer's pictureJustin Watson

Excellence & Anachronistic Modernity in Dune, or, “Bro, do you even Kanly?”

The trailer for Dune Part Two looks pretty great. I think this will be another high quality, reasonably well written, exquisitely well-acted movie just like Part One was. Denny Villeneuve is obviously loaded with talent as well as passion for this project in particular. As we continue the conversation, I’m going to get pretty strident about my problems with Part One, and my trepidation about one bit of the trailer for Part Two, but I want to assure you, I’m rooting for this movie, and if you loved the first one and have high hopes for the second, I am on your side.

I have two minor nitpicks with Dune Part One. The first is something common to all screen adaptations of Dune, the ’84, the ’00 mini-series, and the ’21 movie—they always do my boy, Thufir Hawat, dirty. In the book the tension between Thufir and Jessica as he suspects her of being a Harkonen is an important subplot for Leto, Thufir, Jessica, and Gurney. Even long film adaptations have to make cuts, and this subplot isn’t core to the resolution of the story, so I can say, “I don’t like that it was cut,” I wouldn’t go so far as to say, “Villeneuve was wrong to cut it.”

Both actors are good. The '84 movie probably did the best job of the three, especially if you watch the four hour cut... which I have :)

Another minor complaint is that while Javier Bardem and the rest of the Fremen were convincing enough, I found Zendaya a little too…L’Oréal to believe her as one of the desert nomads. Very minor, but still a bit jarring. I’ve spent… a bit of time… in the desert and no one looks that smooth-skinned and coiffed after living in field conditions amidst all that sand for as much as a few hours.

Of course, Paul is pretty unblemished, too...

By way of moderately troubling; in Part One, I don’t like the pacing once they reach Arrakis, the book and the previous two screen adaptations draw out the tension and dramatic irony of the impending Fall of House Atreides much more effectively. The banquet scene, especially, is an excellent instance of veiled innuendo and status games.

Also, the Gom Jabbar test in Dune '21 with Reverend Mother Gaius Hellen Mohaim is cut shorter than what we got in the trailer, and that conversation is one of my top two or three favorite passages of prose in all of fiction. Also, when Paul, Jessica, and Duncan are escaping with Liet-Kynes, they don’t include another absolutely beautiful conversation between Paul and Liet which includes another philosophical touchstone for me as a man, and as an officer when I served, as well as the thesis of House Atreides as noble family, “the only coin which buys loyalty is loyalty.”

All of those issues are overshadowed by one misstep in Dune Part One, but first, let me digress to the trailer for Part Two for a moment, because I fear they're making a similar mistake.

It’s just one quick line from Lady Jessica, but man, did it yank me right out of my happy place.

“Your father didn’t believe in revenge.”

What the hell?

Duke Leto was all about the Art of Kanly. Vendetta was a fundamental part of his identity. The War of Assassins with the Harkonen dominated his life from his teens until his death. Did Leto love Paul and Jessica more than he wanted Baron Harkonen dead? Yes, but he also, absolutely, one-hundred percent with no doubt whatsoever would’ve wanted Paul to kill the Baron and all his twisted servants. The idea that the good, noble man must eschew vengeance is one rooted in various religions and is now common to our world. As a Christian, it’s an idea I agree with… with the important caveat that the line between vengeance and just retribution can get really hazy—but remains morally vital.

Regardless of whether I agree with it or not, it’s an utter lie about Leto’s character. The text as a whole probably comes down on the side that Vendetta is destructive and breaking the cycle as soon as possible is preferable. Jessica’s lament, “a million deaths are not enough for Yueh,” encapsulates her disagreement with the custom of Kanly, but Jessica would not utter a falsehood about her husband’s values and if she did, the boy Leto raised would recognize the lie for what it was.

This intrusion of anachronistic modernity really troubles me.

Early in the first film, but after Paul has faced the Gom Jabbar, Duke Leto is on a scenic oceanside cliff talking to Paul, his son, the ultimate hero of the story and heir to House Atreides. Paul is expressing his doubts as to his desire and fitness to become Duke someday, Leto tells him that perhaps he will come to the role in his own way, but even if he doesn’t, Paul will, “be all I ever needed you to be—my son.”

It's a lovely sentiment, and one I happen to embrace with my own children. We live in a modern republic with a high value on individual rights, their lives are their own, as their father I merely try to impart values, and help them develop the capabilities that will enable them to successfully pursue the careers and causes they choose as adults. It’s great being a dad in 21st Century America. Yes, it is, and if you don’t realize it is, read a history book.

The fatal flaw of inserting this sort of parenting into Dune is that is a ludicrously modern attitude in a universe that is both explicitly and implicitly Byzantine in its morality, customs, and societal expectations. Paul is the heir to a noble house with actual sovereignty, not a toothless constitutional monarch or a stylized, “noble,” with a title left over from now-defunct aristocracy. There's almost no chance whatsoever that his father the Duke would have such a laissez faire attitude about his son's responsibilities.

Privately, Leto might wish that his son didn't grow up with that heavy a burden upon him. But it’s hardly credible that this noble who is knee deep in the intrigues and politics of the empire, who is the heir to a line extending all the way back to the Agamemnon of the Iliad, if you read later books, would act properly for a 21st Century American dad.

This isn’t a question of whether Paul goes into the family business or not, this is the question of who will hold power over the vassals of Atreides and lead the thousands, perhaps millions of people who are counting on the nobles of House Atreides. It’s that responsibility which drives Leto. Yes, he loves Paul and Jessica, deeply, but he won’t shirk his duty to his people.

And that’s what makes Leto both a good character from a writing perspective and a morally good character. It’s not in his similarity to us, but that within the context of his fictional universe, he acts selflessly and as a sovereign should act in spite of his personal fears and desires. And I think this, perhaps, is Villeneuve’s hang-up, and a hang-up that I think a lot of modern writers would have trying to adapt Dune.

They can’t allow an admirable man who doesn’t conform to modern sentiment to exist on the screen. It’s fine to embrace older modes of behavior if you’re going to present them with the utter nihilism of Game of Thrones, where everyone is either a miserable piece of shit or a hapless, idiotic victim. But a hereditary ruler who is Just, and expects his son to fulfill the same inherited duty that was laid upon Leto? No, we can’t stomach that. Let’s just prechew the audience’s food for them.

And it’s a damn shame, because allowing Leto to be the character he was in the novel isn’t a vote for monarchy, it’s embracing the drama of a good man in a web of moral complexity most of us will never have to face. What does it mean to try to be good when all the choices will mean pain for those who clearly do not deserve it?

The Atreides live in a universe with no easy answers, more than that, they live in a universe with few palatable answers, but Leto, Paul, Jessica, Duncan, even the God Emperor Leto III, are all trying to act in a moral manner, each in their own way, and under terrible burden.

Yeah, Dune got even weirder there for a minute...

To rob them of that complexity, of the strangeness of their context and boil them down to palatable stand-ins with the mores and ideals of Americans in 2023 is to do a disservice to a landmark of Science Fiction literature.

...but I'm still excited for Part Two.


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