Cinematic Words: Deserts, Politics, and Spice REVIEWING Dune

Welcome back to The Real World According To Sam! Today we are going to be talking about a book that won the first Nebula Award and that has been lauded as one of the best science fiction novels ever written. The fun doesn't end there, however, because we will also talk about the 1984 film based on the novel! Today is a Cinematic Words review!!!


The Book:

Author: Frank Herbert
Genre: Science Fiction ➜ Space Opera
Year: 1965



Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the "spice" melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for...

When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul's family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad'Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind's most ancient and unattainable dream.

A stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune won the first Nebula Award, shared the Hugo Award, and formed the basis of what is undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction.


Where to begin? 

I had heard lightly of Dune, but never paid it much thought. I figured I would get around to reading it eventually, but then my boyfriend randomly asked me about it one day. He had heard about it getting turned into a movie, asked me what it was about, and then proceeded to tell me that I should read it and let him know how it is. So naturally, that's exactly what I did and here we are.

Dune is one of the great works of science fiction which has inspired many other works, Star Wars included. Reading this book, it was very easy to see different aspects that George Lucas took to form his own space opera. Spice, desert planet focus, and people that are known for being able to use mental tricks on others? Yeah, all of that screams Star Wars, but it also screams Dune since it came first. 

So what is Dune about? It's about a young boy named Paul Atreides, who moves to Arrakis, a desert planet known as Dune. His father is a Duke who is getting caught up in political moves and rivalry. His mother is a Bene Gesserit woman, which means she is specially trained and one of the people known to be able to pull mind tricks on others if necessary. Paul's father is murdered, causing Paul and his mother to leave their new home to seek shelter and try to navigate their place in the universe. 

This book has no shortage of adventure and complexity. It is a rather large book, coming in at around 600-700 pages. This is an epic of galactic proportions. Paul's journey is an interesting, but complex one. The world of the book is huge and it has a lot of detailing to make it come alive. There is a lot to learn. The story is partially framed by the writings of a princess in the future, while the events are all third person narrated. There are random quotes from the fictional history heading the chapters, there are histories of the different groups encountered throughout the story, and there are intricate political structures in place affecting everything. Honestly, there is way too much to talk about thoroughly. Just know that this book is large and the world in it is too. 

I really liked Paul as a character and enjoyed reading about his journey. He has intense situations thrown upon him and he rises to the occasion when he needs to. He has to deal with a lot, very quickly. Things keep changing rapidly on him and each time, he does what he needs to do to get to where he next needs to be. I'm interested in seeing the rest of his journey. I want to see more of what his life has in store. I get the feeling that it is going to be epic. 

The cast aside from Paul is also very interesting. His tutors and mentors are all intriguing characters with their own conflicts to sort out. The people of Arrakis are fun to learn about, because they have their own kind of existence separate from what the Atreides family knew before. The villains are interesting and I am curious to see how some aspects of this story will be tied together in the end. There are a lot of threads left to address and one book was not nearly enough to cover them all. Paul's mother has amazing abilities and I enjoyed reading about her training and her hardships. 

Now, it SHOULD be noted that this book was written in the 1960s, with a very American point of view of the world and of things in it. It was a time where the world was not nearly as connected as we are now. Patriarchy was more so in place than it is now and books were much less diverse as a whole. That doesn't change the impact that this novel has had on the entire genre of science fiction and it doesn't change that the story in of itself is epic. This book paved the way and inspired a lot of stories that exist now, which have been diverse and well-written in their characters and world building. 

Everything starts somewhere and the earliest forms aren't without flaw or temporal influence. It is completely possible to acknowledge the flaws of Dune and still enjoy it for the foundation it laid and the inspiration it provided to future storytellers. I honestly loved this book. I haven't moved so quickly through a book of this size in a decent while. I actually try to read smaller books most of the time because there are a lot of things I want to read. I was surprised that this one took me only two weeks of off and on reading. I was honestly THAT into it and if I'd been able to set everything else aside to just focus on this book, I might have finished it even faster. 

Dune is a large book with huge influence on science fiction. I highly recommend it to science fiction fans, particularly those who have enjoyed Star Wars and the space opera genre as a whole. This book packs a lot of adventure. There are long passages of description, but that is part of the experience. I have times where I enjoy books with long description and times where I want things to be kept very concise. I caught this one at the right time so the lengthiness didn't bother me. If you hate long descriptions this book will not be for you. You will quickly feel bogged down. If you want to escape into a large world full of larger than life themes, definitely read this. I give Dune a Lone Star rating of ✯✯✯✯

The Movie: 

Screenwriter: David Lynch
Director: David Lynch
Year: 1984
Rating: PG-13
Actors: Kyle MacLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Francesca Annis, Sting, Patrick Stewart

Dune (1984)
This image belongs to Universal Pictures and all copyrights belong to them. I am using this image to provide identification for the film I watched, in a review where I am providing critical commentary on the film associated with the poster. I believe this qualifies as fair use, particularly as the image is of lower quality than the original, therefore doing no more than presenting the identity of the film within this blog.


Dune is a movie from 1984 that adapts the novel of the same name by Frank Herbert. It tells the story of Paul Atreides, son of a duke, who goes to the desert planet of Arrakis, also known as Dune. The story is the same as the book above. Paul's father is assassinated by the rulers of House Harkonnen and after surviving without them knowing, he becomes part of the desert people and eventually seeks revenge. 

I went into this movie having read the book first. I'm very glad I did. However, I also had my sister watch this movie with me, who has not read the book and who knows nothing about the story. I'm also glad I made the choice to invite her to watch it with me because that experience revealed more issues than I was initially thinking existed here. 

This is neither a faithful, nor a good, adaptation of the original novel. It is also not a good movie. I watch a lot of sci-fi films. I like watching cheesy sci-fi films and B-rate films. This movie isn't even bad in an entertaining way, to be 100% honest. I would much rather watch some B-rates I have seen over this film. I really can't think of any reason I would ever watch this movie again. I am planning to eventually watch the upcoming new film that is being adapted from the novel. This one? I'm fairly certain I am done with it, forevermore. 

To begin with, let's talk about the things that were fine or good. The soundtrack for this movie was actually rather enjoyable for me. The music was composed and performed by Toto, the American rock band from the late 1970s, popular for songs such as "Africa" and "Hold the Line." It also features the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. I generally like Toto, but something worth noting is that the music for the movie is instrumental. The vocalist for the band, Ferdie Frederiksen was not involved in this soundtrack. The fun thing about the music is that there are moments with electric guitar and typical 80s science fiction movie synthesizer and keyboard sections. I love music and I love listening to movie soundtracks. For a movie to be really good to me, it should have a solid soundtrack. For a movie to be decent and worthwhile, then the music has to at least be enough to hear casually, even if it isn't stellar. I don't have the education or knowledge at present to pinpoint the technical specifications that make a soundtrack sound good to me. It would be nice if I could. Right now, it's just how it feels to my ear and how it enhances the experience. It is all emotion and vibe based reactions. The soundtrack for Dune definitely has a fun, dramatic, 80s science fiction vibe. I'm all for it. 

The actors actually weren't bad in this movie. The majority of the issues come from the script. Given what they had to work with, the actors did a good job, in my opinion. Certain segments felt very melodramatic for characters, but this is all scripting. I don't believe the actors could have done more than they did. Kyle MacLachlan played the lead role of Paul Atreides. This was his film debut and honestly, I think he did well. Paul comes off as more immature in this movie than he did in the book, but again, I am certain it is because of the script. There is a lot that the script leaves out from the original plot of the book that would have fleshed him out better. MacLachlan later starred in the TV show Twin Peaks, which I've never seen. He voiced Riley's dad, Mr. Anderson, in the Pixar animated film Inside Out, which I saw and absolutely loved. I also saw him when he starred as Calvin Zabo in the second season of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I didn't know it was the same guy while watching Dune, but when I looked it up after, I do remember his character. I thought he was very good in that show, so clearly he isn't a terrible actor and for not having a major role before Dune, he did great. Patrick Stewart is also in this movie as a supporting character that helps to train Paul. He doesn't have very much screen time however, because this was early on in his film career. 

Every actor does as much as they're able to do with what they have to work with. Baron Harkonnen, played by Kenneth McMillan, was a definite stand out. This is because his character is awful. This guy is creepy in all the worst ways. Not only does he look horribly grotesque with pustules on his face, he is also a major creeper. He murders, plots murder, and is, uh.....a creepy homosexual. This is the worst kind of portrayal honestly. In the book he is basically a murderous rapist, which he does because he wants to and is in a powerful position to do so. What he wants, he gets. While the movie largely glazes this component, it is still briefly present in an obvious manner (a prolonged lecherous look and then outright murder) and it is even more sickening to see even a tinge of. It's awful, it's disgusting and...he is one of the biggest reasons I don't ever want to see this movie again. Almost every scene that disturbed me or creeped me out in this movie involves him. If the goal was to make this character one of the most disgusting beings you have ever seen in your life, that mission was accomplished. Let me make it clear that I have nothing against homosexuality and the LGBTQ community. The creepy in the sentence above is simply there to describe this character, not anyone else in any way. He is such a vile character and I am so disturbed by him.

That aside, one reason I also don't feel the need to see this movie again is how visually disturbing it was when it came to the Baron. Every time I saw him I was unsettled and cringing. On top of there there are a few grotesque scenes that are partially gory and it just made me very uncomfortable. They aren't overly gross at their base, and I've seen worse, in some regards, but the way these are framed and set up and the characters that are involved, just provides far too much cringe factor. 

The cringe factor and character grotesquery is really another way of saying that the practical effects and make-up team were exceptional on this movie. When I was supposed to be disgusted, I was. When I was supposed to be disturbed, the effects were believable in those moments. As far as digital special effects go, this movie is definitely dated and honestly pretty bad. I understand this is generally an older movie, with outdated effects. I have no problem with outdated effects. By 1984, however, and given this movie had a $40 million budget, the effects could have been much better. Star Wars, which was largely inspired by Dune, the novel, came out seven years prior to this film and it looked much better. It felt more like a visual space opera than the original space opera that really defined the genre. 

The green screen lines are very apparent, all of the electronic or futuristic lightning and technology components looked cartoony, and it became almost laughable seeing them. By comparison, Flash Gordon, which came out in 1980 and was a very campy kind of movie, looked much smoother and crisper. As far as special effects go, with space ships, lasers, and futuristic blasters, I'd much rather watch Flash Gordon.  I honestly love that movie because it doesn't take itself too seriously. It is fun and silly. It knows what it is. Dune does not know what it wants to be. It wants to be serious, but doesn't put in the effects that provide that tone at all. 

The worst thing about this movie is the script. The movie aims to be a grand epic and a visual spectacle in some ways, but it misses the mark on everything involving the story. The book is stripped down not just to its bare bones. It is stripped down to a point where there are obviously some bones missing. Despite being two hours long, the movie cuts out so many important details. It feels choppy and ultimately slow. Since I had read the book, I knew what was missing. I already had some familiarity with the planet of Dune and how it runs. I knew the political intricacies at work. I knew the importance of the spice and I knew Paul's full journey. The movie glazes over all of the details that create the deeper world of the story. 

I noticed immediately that some things were already somewhat unclear. I also noticed that a lot of awkward scenes with brief dialogue were used to drop exposition or essential plot points. For example, Paul has several moments where he has a line voice-over to present the audience with a thought. These thoughts are often either obvious or they explain, as dryly as possible what we should know. At one point he sees a technological weapon and explains what it is and how it works through a voiceover thought. Other times, he sees visions of other people and then says a single sentence so we know that those people are bad or what they are plotting since he wouldn't know otherwise. It seems like a very lazy way to write in conflict details and it makes the movie feel choppy whenever it happens. 

As I mentioned before, my sister had no knowledge of the world of Dune. This was her first experience with it in any form. Part way through the movie she asks me, "what is even  going on?" Several times over, I found I had to explain things so she would know why they were important. I often just volunteered this information since I would notice the glaze over by the movie of scenes explaining those components. Late in the movie, she asks, "wait, what is the main point of this movie? What is the goal here? Did they say?" I answered, "revenge." She goes, "oh, right." So much was dropped into the movie and it was so drawn out with so little detailing and explanation that the plot became convoluted and seemingly pointless. I have watched lots of movies with my sister and I rarely hear her ask what is going on. She catches on well and we also tend to watch good movies where that isn't a problem. It wasn't a matter of paying attention, but a matter of how poorly the story was told. 

This movie is not good. It leaves out plot points that give meaning to the story, that critically build the world, and that make the story of Paul a grand epic in space. The planet is not fascinating or enthralling to see. It is generic and feels like a generic location. None of the mysticism or adventurous feel of being in new territory was present in this movie. While you can "experience" the story faster in a movie than a book, this is hardly worth it. You waste more time by trying to save time if you choose the movie over the book. This movie is a mess. Some visual scenes are placed very artistically and creatively, but the choppy, sucked out plot negate them. The characters have less of the depth to them and everything comes across very superficial. The plot for this movie was left paper thin, despite having such strong source material to work from. 

I understand the book is long and descriptive. It may be more than a single movie can handle. That doesn't mean it's inherently impossible. A few scenes with improved dialogue and emphasis on the parts that are most important would have made it more cohesive. I've seen more intricate and enjoyable plots at longer and shorter run times come out more effectively. For example, the original Star Wars trilogy. Every movie in that trilogy is two hours long, but has a few less minutes than Dune. Every one of those movies tells a complex story on multiple worlds with all the information you need provided. Granted, a lot of it was obviously inspired by Dune. The world is different and the conflict varies in many ways, but the world building and the necessary plot points are done effectively. 

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is another example. Tolkien's books each could have taken several more movies and plenty of edits were made to the original stories. The first two are three hours and the last is three and a half. Naturally, the climax and finale could use some more time to finish the story and wrap everything up in a satisfactory manner. Each movie tells the story of one full book. The world building is done effectively and the plot is cut to the point where you know what is happening and what the goal is at all times. There's an extra hour, but not even an extra hour could have saved this movie if it was being written and presented in about the same way. Herbert and Tolkien both used lengthy passages solely for describing their worlds, which can manage to slow down or turn away some readers. In the movies, however, there is one clear winner for telling a full, cohesive story, that anyone watching can understand and enjoy. The Avengers (2012) is two and a half hours and they throw many characters together and manage to tell a solid story all the way through, while balancing characters that can (and in most cases did, or will) have their own movies. The information that was most needed to make things work was kept. Important details were not omitted so that we had to guess at how everything fit or so casual viewers would miss important things that only comic readers would know. 

Ultimately, I do not recommend Dune. I enjoyed the book a lot, but the movie is one I don't feel the need to ever see again. I will definitely listen to the film soundtrack on Spotify and I wouldn't mind reading the book again, but skip the film. If you want to experience the planet of Arrakis/Dune based solely on the book or this movie alone, then read the book or wait to see what the upcoming movie adaptation has to offer. I'm looking forward to that one and hoping there will be much more to enjoy about it. I have seen online that there is a mini-series adaptation for TV of the film from back in 2000, and a mini-series for a sequel novel in the Dune series from 2003, but I've watched neither. I will not remark on those in regards to if they are a better experience than the book or movie, unless I watch them in the future. As it is, don't watch this movie. I can unfortunately only give Dune a Lone Star rating of ✯ and a half. The half is only there because I do really appreciate the soundtrack. 

This concludes another Cinematic Words review here at The Real World According To Sam, where where I bring the books (and movies!) to your computer screen and even put in my two cents about them.