‘Dune: Part Two’ is an outstanding interpretation of a classic

(Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

One of the greatest elements of literature is its openness to interpretation. With the writer only specifying details which they consider most important, readers get to imagine everything which is not written. This feature of the art form allows people to read and understand the same text and yet come away with completely different interpretations, experiences, and images of the narrative. Perhaps the most immediate example of this is when the cast of a cinematic adaptation is announced and some portion of the book’s readership protests that the lead actor doesn’t look how they had imagined, as was the case when Jennifer Lawrence was cast as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and readers protested that she was too blonde and “too fat.” Yet it’s literature’s unique ability to trigger the imagination which allows for the same story to be adapted again and again while still feeling new and fresh and exciting as filmmakers offer their unique interpretations of the same text.

Even prior to Denis Villeneuve’s 2019 film, Frank Herbert’s Dune had already been adapted several times – once failed, once for television, and once so poorly that the director disowned it before then re-editing to his satisfaction. While some people undoubtedly prefer the lattermost David Lynch version for its unique aesthetic, armored underwear, and general 1980’s cheesiness, and others prefer the Sci-Fi network version for covering more of the original story as well as its immediate sequel, and I’m sure still others prefer Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unfinished adaptation for promises it never had to deliver, no one prior to Villeneuve had been able to so beautifully capture the grandeur of the novel. Further, I’d contest that there is no filmmaker more suited to adapting this landmark piece of imagination than the best science fiction director of the century (if there is any debate about this just watch the back-to-back masterpieces of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049). Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One prepared us for a spectacular conclusion. What we may not have been prepared for however is the terror of Villeneuve’s vision of Arrakis.

Chani (Zendaya) and Paul (Chalamet) keep the narrative grounded. (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

A flash through Paul Atriedes’s (Timothée Chalamet) memories reminds us of both the narrative of Part One and of exactly what we can expect from Part Two – intrigue, rich characters, destruction, unique production design, gorgeous imagery, and masterfully constructed setpieces – and yet the film’s first minutes still manage to impress by being more of everything the first film did so well with an opening fight scene that rivals any from the previous film. Yet, where many of the highlights of Part One came through the visual and auditory experience, and its slow-burn narrative and obtuse philosophies may have left several viewers feeling lulled or lost, those same effects feel almost like an afterthought in Part Two as the characters and their various machinations, motivations, and relations reveal themselves on screen. Sequences like Paul’s first attempt at riding a sandworm and Chani (Zendaya) taking down an ornithroper, spectacular as they are, still pale to the emotional punch of Muad’dib’s declaration to the fanatics or the climatic proposal before the Emperor, the latter of which was such a gut shot that I heard the theater around me deflate in shock. The fact that some of the most amazing visual design in modern cinema is nearly forgotten illustrates just how successfully Dune: Part Two builds its characters, and why it isn’t Villeneuve’s obvious visual talents which make him the right director for this world.

Few directors over the last several years have demonstrated greater control over the cinematic form than Villeneuve. From the brutality of Prisoners to the tension of Sicario to the mind-bending cohesion of Arrival to the pacing, tone, and careful color palette of Blade Runner 2049, the French-Canadian auteur has demonstrated again and again why his films are vital projects regardless of box office. With its overwhelming lore, heady ideas, and (let’s face it) dense and dry prose, Dune is an incredibly difficult book to adapt. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Dune (both parts) could have easily become yet another in the ever increasing genre of big-budget multi-part book adaptations, along the lines of the Harry Potter or Hunger Games franchises, where the films may be good, even beloved among fans of their source material, but very few if any stand out as cinematic art. Even uniquely skilled filmmakers David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky failed to fully translate the visual, philosophical, and emotional peaks of Herbert’s epic. In Dune (both parts) we see the importance of allowing a talented filmmaker the freedom to bring their vision to the screen (unlike the first cut of Lynch’s film).

Like the previous film, ‘Dune: Part Two’ gives every house and culture a unique and memorable aesthetic. (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

At its core, a straight, no-frills adaptation of Dune would have all the makings of a good science fiction adventure film. There are spaceships, fights, explosions, huge battles, and giant worms that carve through sand like water. Modern CGI can easily make these spectacular. However, with Villeneuve at the helm, what could have been a cacophonous, overly-detailed, ultimately numbing struggle up the side of a speeding sandworm is portrayed almost entirely through light and dust. Rather than focusing on the immensity of battles, Villeneuve pulls our perspective into those of the characters engaged in that battle in a way that makes the film feel both galactic and personal. One of Herbert’s great achievements was in using a handful of characters to embody thousands of years of history. One of Villeneuve’s great achievements is in understanding that viewers don’t need to know these thousands of years to invest in the characters and their world. Rather than explain, Dune: Part Two assumes that its characters and audience are capable of learning through implication and action. This approach will not be for everyone as there are times when the film can feel impenetrable, drag and, as with Part One, become almost intolerably long. Yet, also as with Part One, the payoff is so spectacular that the slow stretches are worth every second. Similarly, though the film’s music is beautiful and powerful, if at times jarring and ripe for parody, Villeneuve understands that the most important aspect of the score is when and where it plays. Thus many of the most intense scenes are done without accompaniment, saving the music for moments where its sudden vocal strikes have the greatest impact. Basic elements such as color, light, and sound are given similar weight through absence. Other directors would no doubt interpret the material differently, but, as seen in the past, it takes an auteur like Villeneuve to create one of such success and power. Old and well-trodden as the source material is, in the right hands, Dune can still feel new and vital.

Villeneuve uses the basic elements of cinema to tremendous effect. (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

In my review of Dune: Part One I mentioned that reading Dune was the first time I realized the expense of the human imagination. In the more than twenty years since I read these books what’s stuck with me is less the characters or even the specific ideas in them than the sheer scope of the storytelling and the creativity in conceiving this entire universe. I admired Herbert for its foresight and a level of planning rivaling that of his Bene Gesserit. Perhaps I wasn’t looking deep enough, taking from the text the wrong things, or not reading the prose correctly, but never once did I consider the terror in the book’s promises and prophecies. Here, yet again, we see the importance of interpretation. In Villenuve’s vision, a drive toward destiny becomes a struggle against it. Having already shown us glimpses of possible cataclysm, Dune: Part Two fleshes out the method by which Paul may both win back his family’s place in politics and, as a result, lose his place in humanity. We see how such societal factors as culture and religion serve as methods of control, turning entire populations from loving supporters into willing martyrs. Faced with an opposition as cruel as the Harkonnen, we understand every step Paul takes to protect himself and his newly adopted people, while dreading the result of each decision necessary to secure that protection. As well, Dune: Part Two addresses such issues as if we can ever truly be accepted into another culture by reminding Paul that no matter how much he may live among them, practice and even succeed in their ways, he can never be truly Fremen (a lesson that a haole from Hawai’i who now lives in Asian knows very well). There was always something which bothered me about the way that Dune handled Chani and Paul’s relationship, yet it wasn’t until this interpretation of Dune, Villeneuve’s interpretation, that I truly grasped just how vile, how disastrous Paul’s possible ascendancy is.

As with the book, Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) serves as occasional narrator. (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

One of the most dangerous elements of literature is its openness to interpretation. With only the words on the page, readers get to imagine any meaning they wish. This freedom of interpretation becomes dangerous when devotees of the material start clinging to their own understanding of word as that of absolute truth. What was intended as sarcasm, like the final line of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” is misinterpreted as honest commentary. What started as a simple parable about the importance of being kind can be passed, mistranslated, and redefined into a justification for enslaving entire populations. Warnings against plague become nursery rhymes, fairy tales become prophecy, fiction becomes fact, and curiosity becomes fanaticism. Pretty soon matters as trivial as the adaptation of a young adult novel result in Hunger Games readers sending death threats to Amandla Stenberg because they don’t want an African-American actress playing a character described as having “dark brown skin.”

At its best, the openness of literary interpretation can lead to inspiration of further genius. It can help create entire branches of technology, like Jules Verne with the submarine or Arthur C. Clarke with geosynchronous satellites. It can show us what the human mind is capable of. At its worst, words on a page can persuade entire populations to hate each, to fight, and die, and kill for what they’ve codified in their minds as right. Beyond its technical achievements, its gripping narrative, and its cinematic mastery, Dune: Part Two powerfully illustrates the perils of when ideas become reality. It shows us the ways in which humans, fictional or not, twist others’ words and our world into what we want them to be and that we, regardless of how precise we may be, can never control another’s interpretation of our intentions.

Here come the fanatics of Dune.
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Amazing as it is, and it is amazing, there are bound to be some people who are disappointed with how Denis Villeneuve chose to conclude his Dune duology. Some of those people will go online and scream about how Paul has been misconstrued, how Chani isn’t the same as they imagined, how the script is too critical of certain portions of society. Some will say that the film upholds the white savior trope or hints too much at Middle Eastern cultures while, paradoxically, others will claim it’s blatantly anti-religious or “too woke,” whatever that means. No doubt some of those people will send angry messages to the filmmaker and the cast and, if the story catches attention, there may even be news reports which will be picked up and rewritten and expanded and extrapolated into broader commentary about how modern society is ruining all of the greatest contributions of Western civilization. Then, years from now, perhaps the descendant of one of those spurred fans will launch a holy war against the other group of spurred fans simply because they have different ideas of how to interpret the same text.

Never forget that “fan” and “fanatic” come from a common source.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.