November 13, 2005

Men died, women died, children died. But they went.

Snoqualmie Book Reviews and The Sci-Fi Canon Project jointly present Dune, Three Ways.

The first way is, of course, the original book by Frank Herbert. The second way is the feature film by David Lynch, and the third way is the Sci-Fi Channel's six-hour miniseries. It should surprise no one that a 500-page book packs in more background and character development than a six-hour miniseries, and a six-hour miniseries still manages to contain more than a two-hour movie, and as a result the book is the most fleshed-out and comprehensible while the movie is the least. But I'll be torn apart by Lynch fans if I assert that comprehensibility is the only arbiter of a story's value, and, indeed, they have a point. There's comprehensibility, there's visual style, there's the sheer enjoyment of watching. Call it a three-by-three matrix; Dune Nine Ways. Can you even imagine how long nine Dunes would be?

I have to start with the book, at least a little; it's the source of the characters and story, so it's the standard. As standards go, though, it's got its flaws. You can't get much more overblown than the story of the universe's long-awaited superbeing and the fate of the known world, unless of course you take frequent psychedelic metaphysical-masturbation breaks. Frank Herbert does so. He also makes extensive use of the colors black and white: the good guys are great, the bad guys are really terrible, this is absolutely the most important and widely-recognized thing going on in the universe but god forbid we should have moral ambiguity.

And yet, somehow, it's a good book. That's largely because it's so full; there's a ton of backstory and politics. There are 30 pages of appendices at the end of the book in case you ever wanted to understand how Kynes first met the Fremen or what the history of religion in the universe was before Muad'Dib came on the scene. I suspect that, much like J.R.R. Tolkein planned out languages and cultures before he wrote the books to use them, Herbert came up with all of the background first and then let the story write itself. It makes for good reading; when details are fleshed out that are relevant, interesting, but not actually necessary to get the gist of the story, it seems more like reading a news clipping than a novel.

All of that fleshing-out suffers in translation, though. As I re-watched the movie I noticed how much of the script was used directly from the book, or rather, excerpted directly from the book without Herbert's exhaustive explanation. "The gom jabbar kills only animals," says the Reverend Mother to Paul, but skips the arrogant Bene Gesserit philosophy of humans and animals that makes the remark make sense. Paul quotes his father in the movie as he does in the book, saying, "He who can destroy a thing, controls a thing," but it's apparently simpler and quicker to say that he destroyed spice production than to explain that he only conspicuously demonstrated the ability but never intended to use it. The miniseries does a better job on that count; a few dramatic lines may be sacrificed, but everything that's left is in its proper context. I suppose it's a luxury that comes with having six hours in which to work.

It's also a luxury that comes with sticking to the story instead of improvising. David Lynch improvises like crazy, with varying degrees of success. The Harkonnen heartplugs are, to my mind, brilliant. They're nowhere in the book, purely a Lynchian invention, but they sum up the Baron effectively: he's appallingly cruel and capricious. You could imagine him ringside at the archetypal Roman spectacle, shouting for more blood. If you had to drive that home in ten seconds of film, I can't think of a neater, more effective way to do it than to have him pull out a servant boy's heartplug just because he's happy. How about the weirding modules? Not, I think, so successful. They make filming fight scenes easier, but turn the weirding way, the ultimate weapon, from an art consisting of immense personal discipline into just another gun that anyone can pick up. They also confuse the source of Paul's power; the weirding way is part of the Bene Gesserit training, but the weirding modules are an Atreides weapon.

That's a problem of the movie overall -- Paul's power is made to look like it comes from his father. Duke Leto is the book's whipping boy; he's kind and well-intentioned and utterly impotent. "For the father," says the Reverend Mother dismissively, "nothing." He is not a controlling power in this story, and even as his fatherhood goes there is as much of Leto's father (arrogant, self-aggrandizing) in Paul as there is of Leto himself. He's not training an army in the weirding way; he doesn't even know it. He's got no business telling Paul how the sleeper must awaken. He doesn't know anything about sleepers. The name Kwisatz Haderach would be gibberish to him. Paul's power, all of it, comes from his mother and Leto never even knew what kind of power she had.

I'm running out of segues, but I'd really like to talk about the desert for a moment. If it's not too much trouble, you know, in a story about a desert planet. The thing about deserts is that they're hot, and dry, and pretty fucking boring and bare. If this description is inspiring you to think of grand, swelling, ominous music and a general preponderance of drama and action, I think you may be insane. Deserts are stifling and miserable and slowly suck the life and energy out of you. You cannot appropriately convey this by making 3/5 of your movie consist of glowing nighttime action sequences with an earth-shakingly loud, grandiose, four-note score by fucking Toto. Put some beige in. Turn the lights up. Turn the music down. It's hot, everyone's exhausted by the million small problems of living in a barren miserable environment, they've got headaches and sand in their teeth and they're thirsty, and they and their ancestors have been waiting hundreds of fucking years to stop living like this.

This is where I have to come to a complete stop and just praise the everloving fuck out of the miniseries. The miniseries paid attention in class, and got an A on the test because it paid attention to the fact that the biggest, longest-running war on Arrakis was the war of attrition between the desert and the Fremen. Behind this Big Story of the Atreides and the Harkonnens and the Spacing Guild and the spice, there is the small story of saving the water from your sweat and learning not to waste moisture crying for your dead. And behind that there is the bigger story of adding up all of those saved drops until you have enough to change an entire world; that's the dream of Liet-Kynes, the dream the Fremen committed to even though they knew it would take hundreds of years to come to fruition. If you don't know that, you don't know the Fremen. And if you don't know the Fremen, you don't know Muad'Dib, and if you don't know Muad'Dib, you don't know the story. So what's the point?

The point could be the characters; that's a good place to go next. I'm going to froth at the mouth a little here; just be warned. There are a few places where the casting and directing of people as characters go to extremes of both excellence and awfulness. Take the Baron. I do so love the Baron. You have to love the Baron! He's corrupt, lascivious, violent, megalomaniacal, and a scheming evil genius. In the movie he's a comic grotesque, a pile of sores, jiggling hairy flesh poking out through his robes, a greasy spitting utter fucking dirtbag. In the miniseries he's fey, superior, smarmy, and talks in rhymes -- just to make sure you realize that he's thinking way ahead of you. They both work gloriously. At least, they both work gloriously by themselves. One of them fails to live up to his relationships with other characters, and I'm sorry to say that means it's time to bag on Lynch again.

You can't talk about the Baron without talking about Feyd-Rautha, his lovely and sadistic nephew, and you can't talk about Feyd-Rautha without talking about extreme unsavoriness. Feyd is the young, still desirable version of the Baron, at 15 (yes, 15 at the start of the story) just growing into his bloodthirsty malice but already cruel and arrogant. The Baron of the book looks on him not only with avuncular fondness but also with unmistakable lechery. âSuch a lovely boy,â he says, âwith such a lovely body.â Eeeeeuch! Did I fail to mention the Baron is a pederast? His bedroom is decorated with statues of naked boys; he buys slave boys so he can drug and fuck them. This means, David Lynch, you have to cast someone as Feyd who it's remotely plausible the Baron might find attractive. Not Sting; it doesn't say anywhere that the Baron likes muscley 30-year-old rock stars. The miniseries gets the gold medal for this one, making Feyd an attractive, graceful, 18ish boy with an infuriating air of sarcastic, superior courtesy. He and the Baron flirt so vaguely and casually that you're already trying to scrub yourself down before you figure out why it was that your skin was crawling. That's exactly as it should be; that's what House Harkonnen is about.

To praise Lynch again for a moment, the movie's Piter de Vries is stupendous. The Mentats are supposed to be human supercomputers, and if you take an intellectually superior human and multiply him by a factor of ten, it stands to reason you'll get someone ten times as irritating as the most irritatingly superior geek you know. He's pedantic and socially ungraceful; he lectures and rolls his eyes at the idiocy of his audience, and, in fact, he's a weasely nerd with terrible hair. The Mentats in the miniseries, de Vries included, are Any Advisor, composed, coherent, and friendly. It hardly gives the impression that there's anything remarkable about them. I can't support it. I have to believe that if you train someone into geniusness from birth you'll wind up with a freak; just look at my high school classmates.

This is more costuming than characters, but I was asked a few weeks ago what I thought of the Spacing Guild agents. This was one of the things I had to re-watch the movie to figure out; I couldn't for the life of me remember what they were like. I've got it straight now: contemptuous industrial-punk-looking dictators in the movie, obsequious chinless monks in the miniseries. They're both all right. You can figure that having that much power makes them used to sneeringly ordering even the Emperor around, or you can figure that having that much power makes them used to being sacrosanct and not having to assert themselves. Me, I slightly prefer the mousy version, if only for the contrast between the massive political power they wield and the watery-eyed passivity with which they wield it. The Lynchian ones are more stylish, though, of course. I don't think much of the navigators themselves, which in both adaptations are distorted creatures that don't look remotely human anymore. The movie version is wattley and grotesque, and folds space by blowing it around through a mouth that looks more like an ass than any other mouth I've ever seen. The miniseries version is fragile and batlike, and points delicately to where it thinks space ought to go. It's all a game of how-the-hell-do-we-show-this, since Frank Herbert never explained how exactly the spice gas mutated them. In the book two Guild agents reveal themselves to be actually navigators, meaning whatever the mutations are, they're not visible. It's an appealing thought, but hard to show visually.

I do have to talk about Paul, I suppose. He's a bit of a problem. As a character in the book, he's unthinkably arrogant, demanding, and generally unlovable. Yes, yes, he's the Messiah, he's the superbeing, he's the salvation of the human race, but you really just want to slap him every time he goes off on one of his prescient visions. As Kyle MacLachlan in the movie, dear god, he's more slappable than the book could even approach. It's not so much because he's self-important, it's because he repeats himself constantly and won't shut up. In the miniseries, he's slappable more along the book's lines; he orders people around and harps on his own greatness. Both get the point across, but only one does it the way the book suggested. Chalk it up to a difference between adaptation and interpretation, I suppose.

That's the bottom line of this review: the book sets up an idea, the movie interprets it, the miniseries shows it as it was written. If you were thrilled with the book, watch the miniseries and find it authentic, plausible, and complete. If you weren't thrilled with the book, watch the movie and find it tweaked, stylized, and heavily edited. And speaking of authentic, for god's sake, I know it was 1984 but people who don't have water to wash their hair do not have perfectly clean, blow-dried curls. Put that in the paragraph about the desert; Note To Costumer: More Grease.

I can never seem to refrain from adding one last thing. The whole book is told through a framework of Princess Irulan's obsession with Muad'Dib. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from one of her books on the subject; there's the Manual of Muad'Dib, the Collected Sayings of Muad'Dib, Muad'Dib: A Child's History, Muad'Dib: Family Commentaries, and a half dozen others I can't remember. It's a nice touch; you could say, âIrulan is obsessed with Muad'Dib,â but it's more subtle to let the reader get 100 pages in before really noticing that she's spent her life writing about him. The movie's nod to that framework and that fixation is to show her as a narrating talking head twice or three times and otherwise ignore her. The miniseries says the hell with the narration, the hell with the excerpts, and instead works her in as a character who happens to be studying Paul with a phenomenal singlemindedness. She even seduces Feyd-Rautha to try to get an explanation of the feud between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, and frankly, anyone who'd touch Feyd-Rautha without three layers of protective armor is really hell-bent. It's one of the few original leaps the miniseries makes and a very nice counterpoint to the book's approach.

Here's my real last word, then, to get back to my original three ways. If you want comprehensibility, read the book, watch the miniseries as a second resort, and throw the movie into a lake. If you want visual style, watch the movie, watch the miniseries second, and feed the book to your dog. If you're just looking for the optimum balance of satisfying and enjoyable, watch the miniseries and fling both movie and book under the wheels of a bus. Take your pick. The comparative study is fun, but when you calculate the hours of my life I've spent on it, between reading, watching, and blogging... well, I think it's high time I look into some new hobbies.

Posted by dianna at November 13, 2005 12:52 AM

irulan has a part narrating the mini-series. she gives little opening and closing statements as a voiceover. doesn't she? i could check this if you hadn't confiscated my miniseries.

are you going to review the sequel too?

Posted by: michele at November 13, 2005 01:09 AM

Well done and interesting. I was gripped from the first paragraph. Of course, to be truly comprehensive, you'd also have to review Dune: The Video Game and Dune: The Collectible Card Game. But then, that's probably more merchandising than art. You can examine the Dune canon comprehensively without reviewing Dune: The Lunchbox and Dune: The Novelty Iron Underpants.

Posted by: Zach S. at November 13, 2005 10:11 AM

Michele, I just checked and you're right that she narrates at the beginning. At the end, though, it's Jessica who does the voiceover about Irulan (about how she'd better keep busy with her books, because she'll have nothing of her husband's love to occupy her -- it's the ones who carry the title of concubine whom history will call wives).

I haven't read the sequels yet, any of them. I'd like to and probably will, and will also at some point watch the second miniseries (if I don't do so soon, I'll give it back to you). Strangely, though, the next book isn't Children of Dune. It's Dune Messiah. I'm not sure if the miniseries skips it or combines two books -- do you know?

I've also not worn Dune: The Novelty Iron Underpants. I expect they'd chafe, but I can only review what I've tried personally. I'm glad you enjoyed it -- the review, that is, and not the underpants.

Posted by: Dianna at November 13, 2005 11:24 AM

she narrates i think sometimes in the middle too at the 2 hour markers. like she says something at the beginning of the second episode and something at the end of the episode where the two doods are about to fight.

no worries about returning things to me. i prob won't see you till new year's so you've got some time. (this is not me saying i won't see you for two months because i don't want to, but me saying january because i'm not going to be in california much the next two months.) plus i still have your emperor/translator book, so we are even on the hoarding of each other's stuff.

as for children of dune. i have NO CLUE if it combines books. i've never read any of them.

Posted by: michele at November 13, 2005 11:42 AM

I just realized I forgot to explain my title. It's from one of my beloved appendices, the one explaining the first interactions of Pardot Kynes (Liet-Kynes' father, the first Imperial Planetologist on Arrakis) and the Fremen. Kynes was an official thorn in the Fremen's side; he poked his nose in where it didn't belong, broke Fremen taboos, and raved like a madman. He was condemned to death, and the executioner sent to do the job found him lecturing an impromptu ecology class. Kynes glanced up and saw the executioner, snapped, "Remove yourself," and went on lecturing. The executioner, of whom it was later said that he was moved by fate, fell on his own knife -- removing himself. It was taken as a sign; Kynes was protected by higher powers.

From that instant, Kynes had but to point, saying "Go there." Entire Fremen tribes went. Men died, women died, children died. But they went.

If I wrote a book, it would all be an elaborate excuse to write appendices like that.

Posted by: Dianna at November 13, 2005 02:28 PM

I vaguely recall that the second mini-series does combine Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, based on some reviews I read at the time, but I could be confusing it with some other visual media translation that combined multiple books, like Lemony Snicket.

Posted by: Zach S. at November 13, 2005 02:31 PM

I think you may have missed one of Mr. Herbert's boats entirely. While the original Dune is framed heavily through the eyes of outsiders, the book manages in places to hint at a larger, more morally complex history that is taking place. I liken the book's approach to the character Baron Harkonnen: the Baron endlessly rants about how everyone else is stupid, and he has a pretty good point. Whenever things go wrong for him, it's always because he decided not to take his own advice in some small, seemingly insignificant way. You need to take what the book tells you and look for the cracks, think a few steps ahead. Whether Herbert gives the reader enough to go on is certainly arguable, and of course, it's tempting to make use of the hindsight granted by reading the next 4 or 100 books or whatever.

Similar to the Baron, the book I think intentionally sabotages the moral message of its self-chosen protagonists, beginning with the massive pre-arrival mindfucking done by the Bene Gessirit and proceeding down through the line: the crazy ecologist pursuing a dream of "freeing" the Fremen that he didn 't really think all the way through, Duke Leto who not blindly but willfully walks into Arrakis, a custom made Harkonnen deathtrap, and finally Paul Atreides, leading a revolution that he can foresee may go too far and consume the entire universe in flames.

The less said about the Bene Gessirit the better, because I simply don't have time to rant on them nearly as much as I'd like.

The ecologist, benefitting indirectly from the Bene Gessirit mindfuck, continues his predecessor's dream to terraform Arrakis. The consequence, of course, will be the destruction of the Fremen way of life. While the later books hammer this home with the Big Fat Obvious Club, the book is nice and subtle - Arrakis, like the homeworld of the Sarudukar (forgive my spellng, it's been many many years) will be "fixed" - but the consequences for the "natives" (not true natives in the Sarudukar's case) will be staggering, not to mention to the indigenous life forms.

The final wrinkle, of course, is that the chief protagonist learns to see through time. This causes some serious problems for a reader looking for moral or consequential ambiguity. Ultimately however, by reading between the lines of the intersecting goals of the ecologist, priestesses, and god-boy-hero, you discover some interesting things. Clearly Paul Atreides Superman understands by the end of the book the long-term negative consequences the Fremen will suffer due to the massive terraforming operation. This is Paul's tragic choice, and unlike the spice navigators, he's able to make such a choice rather than be paralyzed by the spice. The navigators are victims of their own power, and desperately try to influence the outcome of events solely to keep the spice flowing. Incidentally, this is why Paul's demonstration that he's willing to stop the spice flow is so important on so many levels.

Anyway, the whole thrust of the book's conclusion is that while Paul "liberates" the Fremen on a superficial level, ultimately he makes the decision to effectively destroy their way of life, in large part because if the Fremen were allowed to continue on under his leadership (or worse, anyone else's,) they'd essentially destroy the whole universe in a ginormous jihad. Jihad and universal subjugation is a recurrent theme in Herbert's universe. Large-scale holy wars were terminated with the adoption of the Orange Bible, which in turn spawned the Bene Gessirit. Centuries of human enslavement by thinking machines was ended (and prevented from recurring) by the training of Mentats. Dune can be understood as a third turning point in human evolution, and in part a moral evolution: combining the best elements of the Bene Gessirit, spice navigators, and Mentats, Paul's exceptionalism is almost a foregone conclusion. But his moral judgments are not - nor are they nearly as clean or clear-cut as they might seem.

It's some pretty dense stuff. Personally I enjoyed the book thoroughly, and while some of the movie's visuals were good (Herbert himself was consulted as to them but apparently not much else,) the miniseries did do a better job of covering more bases.

The movie does get mad props for having Jean-Luc Picard play a lute.

Posted by: poot at November 14, 2005 05:54 AM