There’s no question that Dune by Frank Herbert is a landmark in science fiction literature. It has been on my to-read list for years, and now that I’ve read it I can say that I’m glad to have done so, but I personally have no strong feelings about it one way or the other.
With the movie coming out (tomorrow, as of the posting of this review although not of the writing), I figured there was no better time than to read this immensely popular cultural touchstone. There’s no question that Dune is a sci-fi behemoth and that it has shaped the genre as we know it. I’m not going to get into that because I’m not an expert in the history of science fiction and there are lots of writers with more love for Dune who have done so, and have done a far better job than I could.
Instead, I’m going to review Dune as I review everything else. It is a book and I am a reader. I can acknowledge a work’s historical and literary merit while also reviewing what did—and did not—work personally for me.
My first impression of Dune, strangely enough, is that it is a terrible choice for film adaptation. The reason I read it now as opposed to five years from now or whatever is because it is being released as a big-budget action film with big name stars, everyone from Timothée Chalamet to Oscar Isaac to Zendaya to Rebecca Ferguson to Stellan Scarsgård to Jason Mamoa. I’ve seen Star Wars called a Dune rip-off, and while that’s definitely visible—Tatooine is basically Arrakis, for starters—Dune simply does not strike me as cinematic. Sure, there are a few battles and our hero Paul does ride some sand worms in dramatic fashion, but between a few flashy scenes… The characters are just wandering around in the desert. Jessica transforms poison while drinking it. A literal toddler speaks and acts like an adult. Years pass. Politicians squabble over the economics of a drug. Fremen try to make an inhabitable planet sustain life. None of that translates to a visual media, or at least not well or easily. Dune is nearly a thousand pages. It’s slow, highly political, and almost entirely internal. The most interesting parts are not plot elements that you can see. I’m probably going to be proven wrong, but I don’t look at Dune and wonder how it took so long to get a good adaptation. I look at it and wonder what possessed so many people to try to film it.
I was fascinated by the ecological/environmental elements. The Fremen live on any little bit of moisture they come across, and they are slowly working to transform their planet into one that can sustain life. They work hard and tirelessly towards this goal despite the knowledge that it will be many generations before anyone reaps the benefits of their labors. Considering the state of the earth right now… Frank Herbert and his Fremen could teach us all a little something about conservatorship. He was ahead of the curve. It’s not like environmentalism didn’t exist in 1965, but it wasn’t as big a thing then as it is now (and it wasn’t as time-critical).