In adapting Frank Herbert’s novel Dune for the big screen, Denis Villeneuve has chosen to wrestle with a giant of the science fiction canon. Although Dune’s weighty reputation, dense worldbuilding, and reliance on internal monologue have proven to be insurmountable challenges for many directors before him, Villeneuve has risen to them well so far. Dune: Part One, which was released last year, adequately portrayed the first half of the novel. There are more challenges ahead, however, because for all that was influential about Herbert’s book, his characterization is sometimes lacking. Villeneuve will run up against one of the more critical problems with the source material in Dune: Part Two, set to be released this November.
The Dune franchise tells the story of Paul Atreides, a young man who possesses genetically-imparted powers of precognition. The political machinations of several noble families send Paul to the desert planet Arrakis, which is home to an indigenous people called the Fremen. It is the dream of the Fremen to overthrow their colonial oppressors and make their desert planet lush and green. They have a prophecy of a religious tenor, which speaks of a chosen one who will lead them to achieve both these goals. Paul fits the prophecy, but he doesn’t originally set out to fulfil it because he has no inherent ambition, and because his powers tell him that the path of the prophecy leads to a galactic-scale massacre. The first film ends with Paul having bested an Arrakis native in combat, asserting his claim to the prophesized role of saviour to the Fremen. In the novel, which is divided into three volumes, this scene occurs halfway through volume two. Volume three begins after an abrupt two-year jump, with Paul as the confident and revered leader of the Fremen. If Villeneuve continues adhering to the book, Dune: Part Two will feature a similar two-year jump. On no account should he do this, however, because the timeskip never worked in Herbert’s novel to begin with. The two years of offscreen action must be somehow bridged, since they are crucial not only to Paul’s character development, but to the entire ethos of the work as stated by Frank Herbert.
In the novel, the jump between volumes two and three is jarring because the change in Paul is so stark. Volume Two Paul is characterised by his unwillingness to bear the mantle of both Fremen leader and the Bene Gesserit’s chosen one. He kills a Fremen man reluctantly, and mostly to avoid eventual galactic war. However, in volume three he’s depicted as a confident commander, exploiting the dreams of the Fremen and their belief in him. In the span of two years, Paul has gone from grudgingly assuming responsibility to actively seeking power, from crying over his first kill to acting with such disregard for human life that it disturbs his old teacher, Gurney. Thanks to the timeskip, these two versions of Paul are separated only by a few pages, making his personality overhaul hard to swallow. Besides, bloodlust and iron-fisted rule go against Paul’s fundamental motivation, which is to avoid galactic war. At the very least, this change in behaviour means that Paul is no longer a pacifist and now wants to be in charge. At most, it means he is acting incongruously with his own intentions. So why does it happen?
By depicting Volume Three Paul as callous and ambitious, Herbert might have intended to show how blind faith in a leader is detrimental to society. Such sentiments are expressed in the novel, like when the ecologist Kynes receives this wisdom from the ghost of his father: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.” Herbert has also said as much himself, stating that Dune “was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader.” Paul’s behaviour in volume three, then, is in line with Herbert’s eventual aims: his following doesn’t lessen, even when he becomes dictatorial and violent. But Paul doesn’t start off acting like an infallible leader, nor do the Fremen initially think of him that way. There must have been some progression between the pacifist of volume two and the messiah of volume three. Presumably it happened during the missing two years, but an offscreen progression is not good enough. From a character perspective, such a drastic change in the protagonist warrants some scenes to show what caused it; otherwise, it seems confusing and random. From a thematic perspective, Herbert’s condemnation of the commanding ruler would work much better if the novel showed us how and why these rulers gain power. For example, the Fremen’s blind devotion to Paul after the timeskip is clearly costing them their lives and has the potential to lead to more sinister endeavours. There are obvious disadvantages to their beloved leader, just as there are disadvantages to dictators everywhere. What’s less obvious is why the Fremen follow Paul anyway. How did he convince them of his right to rule, and how can we avoid being similarly duped by charismatic leaders? The answers could only be found in the two years between volumes, which are inaccessible to us.
However, Paul never wholeheartedly embraces his role or the violence it entails after the timeskip. This is confusing since it means that, while in the act of killing or seizing power, he internally bemoans the need to do so. Maybe Herbert wanted this struggle to show the inevitability of fate, highlighting Paul’s intention to avoid war and leadership after the timeskip, even as he outwardly brings them about. The ironic fulfilment of a prophecy by attempting to avert it is an established trope, although Paul’s ability to see the consequences of an action should theoretically make that concept irrelevant here. Nonetheless, if Paul’s protests to himself are genuine instead of hypocritical, if they are meant to show the unstoppable progression of fate, then they need to be more fleshed out. In order for the idea that galactic war is inevitable to come through, we need to see Paul really fight that eventuality. Whenever he is cornered into making a decision that hastens the war or grants him more power, we need to see him resist, and regret his actions when he acquiesces. He should also actively try to prevent the war, even if his efforts always fail. There aren’t enough of these kinds of scenes in the book, because Paul doesn’t have time to do much as the leader of the Fremen. He’s in charge during the climactic battle for Arrakis (where the fact that he’s acting to avoid violence isn’t very clear—war to prevent war is not an idea that the reader can easily grasp), and then the book ends. Showing the events of the missing two years would be a good way to depict more of Paul’s struggle against fate. Surely he must have wrestled with the things he did in the interim to gain power and respect.
No matter how you interpret the change in Paul’s character between volumes two and three, the intervening two years are indispensable. If Paul is meant to be a critique of the infallible leader, then his rise to power should be detailed in the missing years. If he’s meant to be a tragic agent of fate, then we should see more of his struggle against it during that time. In omitting these two years, Herbert seems to have been either blind to their importance or unable to write them. The timeskip is a flaw in the imperfect classic that is Dune. It’s not the only flaw, either. There’s a risk in thinking too hard about this book and losing yourself among interrelated questions. What is Paul’s role in the narrative: the leader to be criticised, or a symbol for fate? What is his relationship to fate? Does he just protest it feebly, or is his struggle genuine? Is this too much analysis afforded to a simple adventure story? Is Dune just a space opera, maybe with added weight from themes of messiahs, war, and revolution? It seems to want to be allegorical, considering the degree to which it borrows from the real world. In that case, what is it an allegory for: U. S. involvement in the Middle East, the Islamic conquest of Arabia, or T. E. Lawrence and the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire? The ambiguities in the source material run so deep that these questions snowball very quickly. I’m not sure that Villeneuve has given any of them much thought. He hasn’t had to, though, since the portion of the novel he’s adapted so far works as a straight blockbuster. That will change in the upcoming Part Two, where it will be painfully clear if Villeneuve has not considered what he wants his film to mean, beginning with how he handles the timeskip issue. He can resolve the novel’s characterization flaws by refusing to skip over Paul’s two crucial years. How he chooses to fill that time will speak to what kind of message he sees in Dune.