There are a handful of books from my youth that were memorable. As a kid I read a lot. A lot. I read in my room, I read in the car, I read on vacation, I read at the dinner table. While we had plenty of money when I was a kid, I didn't get tons of stuff other kids got but my mom never, ever denied me any book I wanted to buy.
In the days before the internet or even cable TV, reading was my escape. I pored endlessly over my Dungeons & Dragons tomes, read science fiction and fantasy books galore and even read through the entire collection of the World Book Encyclopedia. Of the books I read, from the collected works of Piers Anthony to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and Battlefield Earth, Frank Herbert's Dune has stood the test of time perhaps better than them all. In fact, I just re-read Dune last month.
Frank Herbert created a complicated and vast universe without getting too bogged down. He writes of the Great Houses and the Landsraad, the CHOAM (Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles) and the Bene Gesserit, and doesn't spend much time explaining them but you still quickly understand the role they all play and knowing the details isn't critical to the storyline. There are intrigues within intrigues, the fighting between the two houses of Atreides and Harkonnen as the Padishah Emporor Shaddam IV quietly intervenes to destroy Duke Leto Atreides who he sees as a threat. Playing out behind the scenes is the generational quest by the Bene Gesserit to breed a superhuman, a male called the Kwisatz Haderach while the Space Guild seeks to protect their own secret to space travel, the spice melange. In the midst of this vast universe, Herbert focuses all of his attention on a single planet called Arrakis or Dune and the transformation of the Duke's son Paul Atreides from heir to House Atreides into a messianic being. Much of the story takes place off-stage and is only referenced obliquely.
Dune is probably the best selling science fiction book of all time, with well over ten millions copies sold. Plus it carries with it a great deal of nostalgia for older readers who grew up reading Dune (first published in 1965). That makes it very tempting to cash in on the Dune mystique by making it into a movie. Prior efforts have been awful. A 1984 adaptation was corny and confusing, only slightly better than the film adaptation of Battlefield Earth and a later mini-series was not much better. In spite of the failures and the daunting task of trying to capture an extraordinarily complex book into a film, Hollywood is trying again with a new version of Dune set to hit theaters close to Christmas this year. It will apparently be split into two films, and that makes sense, but since this is 2020 and Hollywood long ago abandoned any pretense of film being anything other than subversive propaganda, the casting and early interview already reveals a trainwreck in the making.
First the casting. Director Denis Villeneuve decided to go with the old standby of Hollywood to throw flavor of the day actors into roles just for the sake of star power. The first one that jumped out at me was hulking Jason Momoa as Atreides swordmaster Duncan Idaho. Fighting in the Dune universe is one of those interesting twists that Herbert included. Instead of the typical lasers we see in sci-fi like Star Wars, people in Dune often fight with knives which seems incongruous for a setting tens of thousands of years in the future but Herbert's universe is one where technology is treated with suspicion and the use of personal body shields makes finesse more important than brawn. Using a laser ("lasgun") on someone wearing a shield would result in a small atomic explosion, killing both the target and the shooter. These shields would deflect fast stabbing attacks but slow moving objects could penetrate them. Hacking at someone with a sword or shooting them with a normal projectile (like a bullet) wouldn't work so fighting with shields was more akin to slow motion fencing. So Duncan Idaho has always seemed to me to be a lithe, graceful fighter rather than a Conan the Barbarian type.
Jason Momoa became famous in Game of Thrones for playing Khal Drogo and he was great in this role because he barely spoke. Momoa is 6'4" and generally enormous, but he looks nothing like the subtle swordsman who would train the son of a duke. But hey, he is wildly popular right now and provides some eye candy for the ladies, so let's throw him in the role!
Then there is the concubine of Paul Atreides, a Fremen girl named Chani. She is described as having an elfin face with big eyes and being a young, small girl:
In the moonlight and reflection off gray stone, Paul saw a small figure in Fremen robes, a shadowed face peering out at him from the hood, and the muzzle of one of the projectile weapons aimed at him from a fold of robe. “I am Chani, daughter of Liet.”
Herbert, Frank. Dune (p. 460). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
She is the daughter of Liet Kynes, the Imperial Planetologist (more on his character in a moment). Chani is played by "Zendaya", a young actress who pretentiously goes by only her first name (her birth name is Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman). She is a hot commodity as an actress in large part for playing the role of "MJ", a replacement for Mary Jane Watson, in the recent iteration of Spider-Man. Zendaya is a mixed race young woman with dark brown hair but MJ in the Spider-Man universe was a white girl with red hair. I guess that wasn't hip enough so Spider-Man got a new, more diverse love interest. Anyway, Zendaya is quite tall at 5'8" and 23 years old. She doesn't look anything like a petite, young girl with an elfin face....
But she is a popular actress so who cares what she is supposed to look like. After all this is an era when a Norse god can be played by a black guy.
Stellan Skarsgård was cast as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Stellan is a good actor but Baron Harkonnen is enormously fat and grotesque, and it sounds like he will be in a massive prosthetic suit to simulate this. In the books he is made to seem even more gross because in addition to being cruel and so fat he can't walk under his own power, he was also a homosexual with an eye for young boys. That probably hits a little too close for today's Hollywood so I expect that to be completely erased from the movie.
Charlotte Rampling is the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. Rampling is quite thin, almost gaunt. The Reverend Mother is described a bulky and thick in the book, although I guess it doesn't really matter to the story.
That brings me to Liet Kynes. He is a mysterious but critical figure in Dune, the Imperial Planetologist/Ecologist. He is also the father of Chani, the concubine of Paul Atreides and is described as:
The man’s hood was thrown back, its veil hanging to one side, revealing long sandy hair, a sparse beard. The eyes were that fathomless blue-within-blue under thick brows.
Herbert, Frank. Dune (p. 174). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
So obviously the thing to do is cast him as...
....a black woman! No seriously, that is the way they went with it. From the Vanity Fair article I read this morning, they are pulling out all of the stops to rewrite the greatest science fiction masterpiece ever written and pervert it into a SJW nightmare. On changing the father of Chani from a white guy into a black woman,
In an intriguing change to the source material, Villeneuve has also updated Dr. Liet Kynes, the leading ecologist on Arrakis and an independent power broker amid the various warring factions. Although always depicted as a white man, the character is now played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Rogue One), a black woman. “What Denis had stated to me was there was a lack of female characters in his cast, and he had always been very feminist, pro-women, and wanted to write the role for a woman,” Duncan-Brewster says. “This human being manages to basically keep the peace amongst many people. Women are very good at that, so why can’t Kynes be a woman? Why shouldn’t Kynes be a woman?”
Well because in the Dune universe, Liet Kynes was a man and the father of a significant character. Not only that but he was the leader of the Fremen and those leaders are always male. I wonder why non-white and female writers don't create compelling characters of their own instead of appropriating the work and characters of white men?
Paul's mother Lady Jessica in the book is a prototypical Bene Gesserit. She works within the religious order, doing their bidding and working behind the scenes to influence the world. She helps to teach her son and she is dangerous in her own right but it is hidden and subtle in most of the book. Not in the movie!
In the script, which Villeneuve wrote with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, she is even more fearsome than before. The studio’s plot synopsis describes her as a “warrior priestess.” As Villeneuve jokes, “It’s better than ‘space nun.’ ”
Lady Jessica’s duty is to deliver a savior to the universe—and now she has a greater role in defending and training Paul too. “She’s a mother, she’s a concubine, she’s a soldier,” says Ferguson. “Denis was very respectful of Frank’s work in the book, [but] the quality of the arcs for much of the women have been brought up to a new level. There were some shifts he did, and they are beautifully portrayed now.”
In other words, unless a woman is a "warrior priestess", she is worthless. Jessica is a complex, conflicted character in the books, her love of her Duke led her to bear him a son instead of only daughters as she was ordered to. Apparently in the movie she is going to be kicking ass, something that in Dune she can do but only does when it is absolutely necessary. The whole strength of the Bene Gesserit is in being subtle and working the long game so that no one suspects their true strength but that is too nuanced for modern audiences.
The article I mentioned describes Paul Atreides as "Think Greta Thunberg, only she’s a Jedi with a diploma from Hogwarts." and that should be enough to warn off any fan of Dune, science fiction or decent storytelling. How dare you!
But the loudest warning bell came in this quote:
Villeneuve intends to create a Dune that has so far only existed in the imagination of readers....For Villeneuve, this 55-year-old story about a planet being mined to death was not merely a space adventure, but a prophecy. “No matter what you believe, Earth is changing, and we will have to adapt,” he says. “That’s why I think that Dune, this book, was written in the 20th century. It was a distant portrait of the reality of the oil and the capitalism and the exploitation—the overexploitation—of Earth. Today, things are just worse. It’s a coming-of-age story, but also a call for action for the youth.”
What he is describing doesn't exist in the minds of any actual fan of Dune. Ecology is an important theme in Dune but not hippy-dippy, Greta Thunberg/Al Gore "climate change" nonsense. The ecology of Dune wasn't created by the "exploitation" of Arrakis. The theme is the tradeoff between the harsh environment of Arrakis and the production of the spice melange that enables interstellar travel. Oil? That has no relationship to the spice. Capitalism? Herbert makes little mention of it. This was a book published in 1965 and Herbert himself was highly suspicious of government, as he is quoted on Wikipedia as saying:
All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.
He also wrote in Dune:
A world is supported by four things….” She held up four big-knuckled fingers. “…the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the righteous and the valor of the brave. But all of these are as nothing….” She closed her fingers into a fist. “…without a ruler who knows the art of ruling. Make that the science of your tradition!”
Herbert, Frank. Dune (p. 48). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Dune exists in a quasi-feudal world. Duke Leto Atreides is a sort of noble/tragic figure, someone I think probably influenced George R.R. Martin's GoT character Eddard Stark. His political philosophy seemed to be a blend of libertarian distrust of government, deep suspicion of technology and an appreciation for hierarchy and tradition. Not exactly a proto-social democrat.
Maybe it is possible to faithfully adapt Dune to the big screen but not in this environment. As is so often the case, it is better to simply leave beloved books as books