The Complete Book of Spices: a Review of Dune and its Film Adaptations


Art by Morgan Eun

When I sleep at night, I am haunted by a black and orange paperback book that sits on my bedside table. I’ve owned it for about a year, and it slowly moved from its place on my bookshelf to my long to-be-read pile, and then from there to its place on my bedside table, where the next book on my TBR usually resides. Dreading beginning a book with 412 pages of exceedingly confusing language, different planets, and a boy named Paul, I left it sitting there for too long. With the release of its 2021 film adaptation, and my obsessive need to read the book before seeing the movie, I decided it was my time to attempt it.


Dune by Frank Herbert is a novel whose main plot is based on the life of Paul Atreides, a fifteen-year-old boy born into a prophecy that surpasses his teenage understanding. The side plots, however, snake into different worlds and families, all too complex to follow during one’s first read. A world of spices, destinies, and 1,000 foot sandworms, reading Dune is not as simple as reading a book; it’s the uncovering of 10,000 years of fictional world building.


Credited by some as the world’s best selling science fiction novel, Dune has been followed by five sequels, three movies, tons of unofficial guides, and most notably, Denis Villenueve’s newest adaptation; starring Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Stellen Skarsgård, and many more. It’s cult following is undeniable, as well as its consumers’ polarizing opinions. It seems like people either love Dune, or hate it, with no in-between.


{SPOILERS AHEAD}


Collage by Estella Burque

The Novel:

Dune begins inside Paul Atreides’s bedroom, where he is awoken by his mother and Reverend, Mother Mohiam, who believes he could be the next Kwisatz Haderach, which translates to ‘The Shortening of the Way’, and describes a boy who the Bene Gesserit (a powerful and ancient order of women whose objectives and actions formed a critical element in the evolution of humanity) spent 10,000 years breeding. Right off the bat, the assortment of fictional languages used throughout the book make understanding the plot very complicated. Some words are able to be deciphered using common sense, especially if you’ve read fiction before and are used to the similar types of fictional language development. Still, when it comes to a large percentage of the words, it would be helpful to any reader to use the multitude of appendices at the back of the book which holds an intensive glossary. Removed from its made-up language, Dune’s prose is academic and stuffy. There are paragraphs after paragraphs written solely for their intellectual and aesthetic value, with no true relation to the plot. There are pages that can be skipped, but miniscule sentences that cannot be missed and this miss-match of content is what gives it such a bad wrap.


Princess Irulan, Paul Atreides’ wife (in title only), was a prolific author and historian, recording the universal conflict of the plot in her private diaries. Excerpts from these reports are used as the epigraphs that preface each of Dune’s chapters. If you pay attention though, it is very disappointing to realize that after deciphering her language, each epigraph has subsequently spoiled each chapter.


My favorite part of the novel, however, was Paul Atreides’ relationship with his messianism. Unlike a traditional ‘Chosen One’ archetype, it is obvious that Atreides can see past this mythologized destiny. He understands early on that his role as the savior is tainted with the religious fanaticism of his followers, their blind devotion stripping them of all common sense and allowing them to follow Atreides into the predicted war.


Overall, I’d give Dune a solid 3.5 stars. I felt underwhelmed with the content of the book after being told time and time again that it was ‘the best science fiction novel to exist,’ because to me, it felt like Frank Herbert filled his book with every sci-fi trope and archetype to ever exist. To give him credit, this sometimes works, and it can make specific parts of the novel very fun to read, but it also allows for the unnecessary packing in of information.


Collage by Estella Burque

David Lynch’s Dune:

Immediately as the movie begins, scoring by Toto (famous for their song Africa) begins, which for me, transformed the movie from something serious into a thing of camp. Within the first three minutes of the movie, the word “dune” is said thus meaning that automatically it loses a star (this is my biggest pet peeve. ever).


Throughout the movie, very similar to the novel, Princess Irulan’s narration is used as an expositional tactic, and while it assists anyone watching the movie that hasn’t read the book, for a Dune fan, it becomes very repetitive very fast. Paired with this, Paul Atreides’ inner-monologue leaves nothing to imagine, nor does it add any exposition to the story. I do applaud the movie for giving an explanation of the spice (a fictional psychedelic drug that supports the entire galaxy by heightening the senses and lengthening the lives of its users) long before the book does, which presents the main conflict of the plot long before the book does. The plot, however, moves significantly slower in the movie; the events that occur in the first chapter don’t appear in the movie until the thirty minute mark.


Kyle MacLachlan’s acting is, sad to say, quite dull. He is granted a few scenes where his talent really shows through, but even while understanding that this was his first movie, he still fell flat for too much of the performance. The film also neglected to display the tragedy felt throughout the novel, making the film genuinely bland. David Lynch’s Dune offers a good surface level layout of the plot, but it sells the original story short, and shouldnt be used as a substitute for the novel. This film gets a 2.5 out of 5 stars.


Collage by Estella Burque

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune

Right away, the quality and framing of Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation comes off more serious than Lynch’s, which can be credited to both the times in which they were created, along with the style of both directors. While the earlier Dune feels similar to a theatrical performance, with comedicly designed characters and flamboyantly framed sets, Villeneuve’s Dune doesn’t do this, which gives it a more serious aura, the dark colors and dystopic sets throughout the film allow for the original somber narrative of the novel to shine through.


That being said, the characters in Dune (2021) lack the level of emotional depth that is needed to truly connect with the story. While Paul Atreides’ inner monologue in Dune (1984) is overused, the absence of it in the newer version leaves too much to the imagination. In the novel, Atreides is a neurotic teenage boy dealing with the pressure of being the world’s savior, in the movie, Atreides comes across as cold, unfeeling. While Timothee Chalamet’s performance was impressive, there is no doubt about that, I don't believe that he truly represented the innermost characteristics that resonate within Paul Atreides.


The film itself has potential. While it’s slow paced and offers no assistance to those who haven’t read the book, visually and conceptually it works very cohesively. I wouldn’t be surprised if this new Dune franchise becomes the modern Star Wars, it already seems to have the cult following that it needs to do so. Overall, I give Denis Villenvueve’s Dune adaptation three stars.



At the end of this journey, I am no longer haunted by the black and orange paperback on my bedside table. I am no longer haunted by Kyle Maclachlan’s TikToks, or Timothee Chalamet’s Statistics rap. Instead I am left strangely disappointed.The culture surrounding Dune had me excited to experience it for myself, but I was not convinced. I don’t know if Dune is the world's best science fiction novel of all time, but I do know that it has some enjoyable parts, and to read it is to understand a crucial part of American Sci-Fi culture.

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