It took four separate attempts to make a proper adaptation of Dune, and one of the biggest surprises of this holiday’s movie season was that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune wasn’t just good, it was really good – and really successful. For fans of Frank Herbert’s six book sci-fi series, this not only means we have an excellent adaptation of the first half of the first book, but already there are plans for at least one sequel, maybe more. Dune holds a place for sci-fi fans not unlike that of Lord of the Rings for fantasy: even if it’s not your favorite series, you must have at least grudging respect for its ambition and its massive influence.
So why is Dune popular, in the first place? The first book, just titled Dune, was already being adapted for film in the 70s, only a decade after its initial release in 1965. Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to adapt it first, but his take was never produced, while David Lynch famously burned out on big-budget filmmaking while making his version, released in 1984. The Sci-Fi Channel adapted the first three Dune books in the early 2000s, and now we have Denis Villeneuve, fresh off of two high concept sci-fi films, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, releasing his film after a year-long pandemic delay, in October 2021.
Clearly this material speaks to both the tastes of certain filmmakers and audiences, and has shown the potential, only now fully realized, of commercial success. Yet there are many things about Dune that are off-putting and make both the films and the books difficult to grasp. The story follows the heir to a noble house, Paul Atreides, as he navigates the political machinations of a galactic empire – this is hardly a working class story. At the center of all conflict in this story is the spice melange, a substance found only on Arrakis (Dune, a desert planet). The spice allows for space travel across great distances and, according to the succinct narration of Villeneuve’s film, is “by far the most valuable substance” known to humanity.
The complexity of Paul’s story can be off-putting, as Frank Herbert’s narration jumps not only across the galaxy, but inside every characters’ mind, telling us exactly what they are thinking as they are thinking it. Lynch chose to adapt these inner monologues, which was fitting for a filmmaker who routinely delves into interior states of conscious and subconscious thought. Villeneuve chooses not to include these moments of omniscient narration, streamlining the plot quite a bit while losing some of its texture. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of relationships, political agreements, and social structures to wade through to understand the plot and why Paul reacts the way he does. And this complexity, once a reader or viewer submits to it, is the source of Dune’s delights.
Dune is an adventure story, certainly, but like most great sci-fi, it is a well thought out speculative telling of a future history, one set 8000 years in our future. When the galactic emperor decides to shift control of Arrakis, and therefore the spice, from the vile House Harkonnen to House Atreides, we are struck by the fact that this story takes place in a feudal empire. Great Houses elbow each other for control, and different guilds manage important trade activities, like shipping commodities and armies across space. Historical materialists cannot help but ask how a capitalist society like ours could regress into feudalism. One inference a reader could make is that when capitalism progressed beyond a single solar system, the size and scope of its operations could not be maintained, and regression was all but guaranteed. I cannot say I have read enough theory about capitalist development at the galactic stage, but we could note that J. Posadas wrote optimistically about finding alien life that could “transform [matter] without needing to destroy its existence” and the potential that would hold for communism. (https://www.marxists.org/archive/posadas/1968/06/flyingsaucers.html)
What is notable about Dune, in contrast to both Posadas and much other science fiction, is that there are no aliens. Despite humans expanding their “civilization” across the galaxy, alien life has not been found. Instead, as humans in the Dune universe have developed social systems that allow them to manage commerce and war across intergalactic distances, some of these arrangements have produced humans frighteningly different from one another. One example is a secretive order called the Bene Gesserit that has developed techniques allowing them to control their own bodies as well as the wills of others, the latter accomplished through The Voice. This is one of Villeneuve’s best choices for his adaptation, as the sound design in his film generates a deep rumbling bass tone whenever The Voice is used. It is enough to shake the audience in their seats, creating an uncomfortable physical disruption that feels involuntary. The thunderous score by Hans Zimmer uses high pitched chanting whenever the Bene Gesserit are present or mentioned, which, along with the unnaturally tall headdresses they wear, adds to their alien quality.
Similar to the Bene Gesserit are the Spacing Guild, depicted only briefly in the opening moments of Villeneuve’s film as humans with orange-clouded helmets. This guild of trade workers take massive quantities of spice, allowing them to “fold space,” essentially finding wormholes in the galaxy that allow for instantaneous space travel. They are so addicted to the spice that they need it to survive. Villeneuve did not depict the Guild Navigators who actually do the space folding, but we have some greusome images from Lynch’s adaptation to tide us over. Villeneuve’s adaptation seems hesitant to expose every grotesque permutation of humanity in Herbert’s universe, but even limited to the first half of the story, it is full of strangeness. I hope the second half is less conservative.
What is also striking and appealing about Herbert’s universe is that it is made up entirely of analog technology. Thousands of years in the past, artificial intelligence was common and widespread until the AIs collectivized and fought back against organic life. This “jihad,” as it is called in the book (but not in the movie), resulted in the banning of all artificial intelligence, the economic effects perhaps serving as another explanation for society’s regression to feudalism. In place of AIs, there are humans who devote themselves to rigorous training to do computations in their own minds, known as Mentats. Although we get to meet the Mentats Thufir Hawat and Piter de Vries in Villeneuve’s movie, they are presented as an oddity and not fully explained. Part of what makes Villeneuve’s movie work is that it does not stop to explain every strange thing in this universe, but leaves them in as objects of fascination and subtle world-building.
From the AI jihad against organics to spice as the economic base of this galactic empire, what is clear for historical materialists is that Dune’s world is decidedly material. Control of the spice drives all political and social relationships, because it is necessary for reproducing human survival. Every event in Dune can be traced back to material causes from historical events (which are dense and liberally peppered throughout the book). Even when Dune dabbles in religion and messianism, it is clear that thousands of years of history are still in play. A key plot point in each version of Dune is that the Bene Gesserit have been doing selective breeding for thousands of years in the hopes of producing their messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach, a being who can “bridge space and time.” On top of their breeding program, the Bene Gesserit have also been manipulating religions and cults by planting prophecies that they are then able to fulfill. This material view of religion may be cynical, but it pushes the audience to question the messianic development of the story’s hero. Paul’s trajectory may seem headed straight for white savior territory, but Villeneuve’s adaptation has provided just the right amount of detail to prepare us for what happens next.
What is of particular interest to communists who enjoy Dune is its insistence on the sanctity and self-determination of indigenous communities. The Fremen people, while human, have spent thousands of years living on a harsh desert world and have developed social structures that reflect the scarcity of their existence, including worshiping and protecting the sandworms that live on Arrakis. Their political existence is characterized by eco-terrorism, and their religion is also looking forward to a messiah. This part of the story may not end up satisfying to communists, however, as Herbert’s love of subverting tropes in the second book, Dune Messiah, shifts his story into a vague anti-communism, or at the very least, skepticism about revolution from above and its effects. But the political play between warring factions and repressed groups is clearly a reflection of our world. It is possible that Herbert’s primary influence for writing about feudalism was not some belief that we would inevitably regress into it, but rather a suspicion that we already inhabit it. With the rise of tech companies and billionaires, capable of owning whole towns and governments, with profits that rival many nations, along with private mercenary armies and plans for colonizing humanity offworld, it is a jump but not too much of a jump to see a lot of Dune in our world today.
Why would a major film studio driven by profits be willing to produce a film so skeptical of economic domination, and in later adaptations (we hope), frankly condemning of messiah-worship? This is a film industry whose dominant cultural product is superhero stories with their individualistic messianic capitalist myths, and their sarcastic detachment from reality, used together as some collective panacea against the feeling (growing every day in all corners of the capitalist world) that perhaps our lives, in their current state, are meaningless. The detachment and hero-worship promoted by superhero cinema attempts to justify and resolve the deeply alienating effects of capitalism on our mental health and our physical well-being.
In fact, capitalism makes us sick. Period. And no efforts of a lone superman or a uniquely gifted individual will reverse that. It’s alienating enough to be coerced to create profits for villains in order to earn the privilege of having food and shelter. Add on to this the general alienation of being a human, struggling to make sense of existence in the midst of forced scarcity. And somehow the corporately managed and highly profitable superhero cinema continues to promote, implicitly and explicitly, the deranged belief that a lone human, on their own, can fix any of this. Dune’s materialism and skepticism are the polar opposite of superhero cinema; Dune tells stories of complex worlds made more complex by the introduction of history-breaking events. These stories are told in epochs, not mere days or years, and the motivations of each character are shaped and undone by historical events, not the other way around.
So long as the Dune series creates profits, we can expect that the capitalist cinema apparatus will continue to adapt Frank Herbert’s books long past their relevance to our times. The later Dune books regularly jump forward in time, sometimes one thousand years into the future, and here Herbert’s materialism is entertaining and interesting, but at the cost of some basic human elements of storytelling. He remains committed to explaining everything in his stories through economics, politics, and sociology, even as his writing gets even more purple and his characters become paper-thin stand-ins for philosophical viewpoints. But the ambitious scope of his project remains admirable, as it attempts to do what its characters do, which is to try to explain all things. For those of us committed to historical materialism, we know that such a thing is possible, so long as we do it collectively, with class consciousness as our primary goal. What will be most interesting is to see what Western film production will do with Herbert’s books when they get sour, reflecting a cynicism about all forms of social change. For communists, this first film is a rare opportunity to use a popular imaginative world as a framework for telling the true stories of class conflict, economic domination, and revolution that we live every day.