“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows.” — Frank Herbert, opening line of Dune

 

I confess: I have only read half of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Imagine my delight, then, to find that the recently released movie would only cover the first half of the book! (It’s the small, nerdy victories.)

So far, the book is about fifteen-year-old Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, who is a member of the Bene Gesserit—a powerful order with sublimely cool and terrifying powers of telekinesis and telepathy, as well as the ability to control others by commanding them in The Voice. 

The Emperor gives Duke Leto the planet of Arrakis to rule. Arrakis is rich in a valuable resource called Spice, but its entire surface area is a dangerous desert, inhabited by giant sand worms and the Fremen, the native population of Arrakis, who live in uneasy peace with the imperial colonizers exploiting their planet’s resources.

I should get partial credit for even attempting. The book’s a sci-fi monolith. 

But having read the beginning of the book so recently, I was surprised to hear the movie open with the disembodied voice of Zendaya, who plays Chani, one of the Fremen, narrating: “My planet Arrakis is beautiful when the sun is low…”

Everything about Denis Villeneuve opening the film that way is significant.

In the book, Herbert focuses on Paul and showcases the imperial perspective. Every chapter opens with a quote from the imperial historian, Princess Irulan. The quote at the beginning of chapter one reads, “Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his [Paul’s] place.” 

Beginnings matter, as Herbert and the Bene Gesserit say. We are most likely to relate to and believe the first character we meet in a story. The fact that we meet Chani through her voice is also significant. The Bene Gesserit show that Voices have power; they make things happen. The person who speaks and is heard defines truth, reality. Villeneuve takes the prime, controlling voice of the story away from the colonizers, imperialists, and men and gives it to a colonized woman. It is her planet. 

Zendaya has only a few minutes of screen time, but her voice reshapes the story of Dune from the beginning. It’s the first of several masterful choices Villeneuve makes to emphasize the feminine in Dune. 

The character Liet Kynes, a Fremen who serves as the liaison between imperial authorities and the Fremen and the primary Fremen leader and representative, is male in the book. But Liet is a woman in the new movie, played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster with an emotional depth that uses her limited screen time as efficiently and powerfully as the Fremen use water. The symbol of the Fremen is a woman. 

Villeneuve seems to be drawing parallels between exploited places, exploited people groups, and the exploitation of women. And he uses empathy and strong female actors to show how wrong all of it is. 

Then there are the Bene Gesserit and Jessica. It’s a cringe-worthy cliche, but Jessica is frankly Duke Leto’s better half. Even in the book, Jessica is a more compelling character than Duke Leto. She is still more interesting in the movie, even though Leto is played by Oscar Isaacs. Even the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, who comes to test Paul to see if he has Bene Gesserit powers, says he is powerful not because he is Duke Leto’s son but because he is Jessica’s. This line is not in the book.

Before Paul, only women were capable of wielding true Bene Gesserit power. The only way he could have such power is through his mother. Yet, in this scene in the book, Jessica and the Reverend Mother remind him to draw strength from his identity as a duke’s son! 

Villeneuve gives up on making Leto “inspiring” or “remarkably heroic,” unashamedly settles for “handsome,” and gets right to work emphasizing Jessica’s importance. 

At first, Paul rejects the power he inherits from his mother. The Bene Gesserit, though incredibly useful to the men in power, are viewed with suspicion and called “witches.” It’s known that they orchestrate marriages and births among the powerful to manipulate the flow of history. This seems a fairly opaque villainization of the traditional power women hold over home and family. But Rebecca Ferguson’s portrayal of Jessica as a woman who is used remorselessly, even by her own order, to accomplish the plans of the powerful is a strong critique against the way societies, the fantasy genre, and even other women use and abuse women. 

I want to stop short of arguing that the new Dune (2021) is a great sci-fi feminist manifesto. It does manage to pass the Bechdel Test, but the Bechdel test isn’t exactly a trial by Gom Jabbar. But if I get some nerd credit for reading half the book, I think Villeneuve gets some credit for making some intentional changes to the story in a movie that is otherwise rigorously faithful to the book. Villeneuve is redistributing power between men and women and is “taking delicate care that the balances are correct,” right at the beginning, where it matters most. 

2 Comments

  1. James VanAntwerp

    In regards to treating women properly, the book Dune does better than its contemporaries (Asimov’s Foundation doesn’t even bother to have female characters). But I’ve still found a common theme when talking to people about the book; men love Dune, and women are ambivalent. They can’t really see themselves in the narrative or in the agency. I was also very glad to see that Villeneuve’s adaptation does better. Even many of the extras are women, where traditional casting would have placed men (such as Jessica’s guard when she meets Shadout Mapes). I love Dune and am glad to see changes that make the story more engaging for women.

    Reply
  2. Chad Westra

    It’s hilarious that your half-reading lined up with the movie version! I love the book and your review has reminded me that I need to go see the movie. Nice work.

    Reply

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