Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a barrage of beautiful cinematography and sonic extremes. As you take in its entrancing visuals, you hear whispers and shouts, but almost nothing in between. None of the sustained dialogue, character development, or painstaking world building that was a hallmark of Frank Herbert’s novels. To make Dune accessible, Villeneuve’s team attempted to replace Herbert’s inner monologues and narration with visual and aural cues, focusing on Paul and his mother so as to, as Villeneuve put it, “allow us to feel what their mind-set is without having a voice-over.”
What’s left when you take away all of those thoughts and ideas and all of that detailed exposition and replace it with sweeping vistas and a blaring Hans Zimmer score? What remains on the sandy plains of Arrakis is, in large part, a vague Middle Eastern and North African aesthetic, peppered with actual Arabic words and filmed on location in Jordan and Abu Dhabi. Unfortunately, that aesthetic is not neutral in Hollywood, and the image of an Arab-ish crowd or veiled wailing women, not to mention when it’s injected with violence, has a history that is steeped in the dehumanization of entire peoples. It is certainly possible to reclaim and complicate these images, but that would have required an upfront act of subversion by the filmmakers. At the very least, it needed a multifaceted nonwhite character who survived to the end.
Herbert writes that his story “began with a concept: to do a long novel about the messianic convulsions which periodically inflict themselves on human societies.” In so doing, he was particular that it was “Western man” who was the focus of his ire, who uses this “messianic impulse” to control other societies and further “inflict himself on the environment.” After working on a story about sand dune control in Florence, Oregon, he was inspired to set his story on a desert planet. This led him to live for some time in the Sonoran Desert as well as to, in his own words, a “re-examination of Islam.”
Dune relies heavily on Islam to build its universe. For Herbert, Islam is a major part of human heritage and, by extension, its future. His use isn’t simple window dressing either: It shows a deep engagement with both the beliefs and histories of a wide variety of Muslims. And he further complicates his usage by not confining this “Muslim flavor” to the Fremen, the Native people of Arrakis. Rather, he extends it throughout the story’s universe—its peoples, religions, proverbs, and books.
The messiah he constructs is called a Mahdi, a Muslim term that refers not only to a messianic, end-times figure but also to the many historical figures who have made a claim to that title. And history has seen many failed messiahs, Mahdis among them. In his study of Mahdis and the jihads they led, the strongest influences on his story were the Sufi Muslims who fought against European colonialism in the 19th century. These include the Algerian Amir ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri, who, like the Fremen, made weapons factories in the desert in his fight against the French; the Chechen Imam Shamil, who fought against the Russians; and, in the most obvious of ways, “the Mahdi of Sudan,” Muhammad Ahmad ibn ‘Abdullah, whose war against the British became a consistent feature of English literature for decades after his defeat.
“I am a political animal,” Herbert said in 1983. “And I never really left journalism. I am writing about the current scene—the metaphors are there.” Dune was written during the height of decolonization in the Muslim world. His story reflects this, at times in obvious ways. In the book, the Fremen cheer and chant for Paul, their Mahdi, by yelling out “Ya hya chouhada.” His mother tells the readers that this means “long live the fighters.” Jessica’s translation is mostly correct. The phrase is Arabic for “long live the martyrs (shuhadā),” and was chanted by Algerians when Benyoucef Benkhedda (one of the leaders of the Algerian war of independence and the head of its first provisional government from 1961 to 1962) arrived in Algiers after gaining independence from France. Note how this was reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 4, 1962, just three years before Dune was published:
After [Benkhedda’s] speech at the airport, he and his ministers were preceded into the heart of the city by several hundred tough, battle-hardened guerillas from Algeria’s green Kab[y]lie mountains. The deafening roar “Ya hya chouhada” (“long live the fighters”) echoed in the streets …
Not only is this scene reminiscent of Dune, but Herbert even kept the French spelling and translation directly in his own narrative. His story might have taken place thousands of years into the future, but it was intentionally calling to mind current events.
Even the name Paul takes on, Muad’Dib, reflects this period of history. On Arrakis, it refers to a kangaroo mouse, but in the explanation of its meaning provided by Stilgar (the Fremen leader played by Javier Bardem in the movie), he says it also means “instructor-of-boys,” a definition Herbert probably pulled from the glossary of Richard Francis Burton’s translation of One Thousand and One Nights. But Herbert’s Muad’Dib was also likely inspired by the first president of Mali after its independence from France, Modibo Keïta. Keïta, a descendent of Malian aristocracy, was depicted in a 1961 article in the New York Times as “the only spokesman for the African community tall enough to look President de Gaulle in the eye.” He was an ideal symbol for Frank Herbert, a man from the desert facing a colonial empire in the eyes. And Keïta, as a member of the United Nations, was an advocate for Pan-African unity, the Non-Aligned Movement, and Algerian independence. He had all the makings of a hero. He even visited John F. Kennedy (another hero-in-making for Herbert) in 1961, so he would have been difficult to ignore for someone who was keeping abreast of politics. “Modibo” is simply the Fula language spelling of Muad’Dib, meaning the same thing, a fact that would have been obvious to Herbert, who prided himself on knowing how language changes over time and place. He likely had even come across the common title in his own research, which included the history of West and East Africa.
Villeneuve may have been aware of some of these themes when he chose to cast African and Black American actors for his movie adaptation, and at the time the casting was first announced, this felt like something to be celebrated. Yet when it became clear that the casting of these African and Black American actors was to the exclusion of North African and Middle Eastern actors, many were disappointed. Add to it that the strongest Black performances were for characters who died or who lacked the depth afforded to Paul and his mother, and the choice ultimately felt empty.
Villeneuve and his co-writers clearly tried to use language to complicate all of this. The movie features the inclusion of several fictional languages, and the Padishah Emperor’s Sardaukar are led in a prayer that sounds like Mongolian throat-singing, a nod to the Turco-Mongolian flourishes of the Padishah Emperor’s court and army in the book. But any of this nuance is drowned out in beautiful desert scenes whose “feeling” is somehow supposed to do the work of Herbert’s narrative. How could it not when the feelings associated with such images have already been predetermined by Hollywood’s long history of depicting Muslims as the enemy?
Part of this is also Herbert’s fault. By writing a story in which he intended to critique “Western man,” Herbert also centered Western man. Often when critiquing something, one falls into a binary that prevents the very third option that so many have been looking for since decolonization. Herbert’s greatest shortcoming can be seen in his analysis of T.E. Lawrence and the deification of leaders in an interview he gave in 1969. He said, “If Lawrence of Arabia had died at the crucial moment of the British … he would have been deified. And it would have been the most terrifying thing the British had ever encountered, because the Arabs would have swept that entire peninsula with that sort of force, because one of the things we’ve done in our society is exploited this power.”
Herbert’s shortcoming is not his idea that “Western man” seeks to exploit the deification of charismatic leaders but that Arabs (or any other non-Western) would fall easily for it. This notion, in fact, builds on a stereotype that motivated European powers to fund propaganda among Muslims during the world wars in the hope that they could provoke a global jihad against one another. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, because Islam isn’t a “warrior religion” whose followers are just waiting for the right trigger to go berserk. Islam’s followers are human and are as complicated and multifaceted as other humans. Herbert should have seen that more clearly.
Part of the reason for Herbert’s clear orientalism was simply that he was a product of his time. Most English and French literature about Islam and “desert cultures” at that time was orientalist. (Edward Said’s groundbreaking book Orientalism, in fact, was published more than a decade later, in 1978.) To his credit, Herbert tried to complicate this as much as he could. Language was the “primary tool” he used to do this—spoken language, because in his own words, “We are most profoundly conditioned to language-as-speech.” When you remove that language, when narrative is replaced by an unarticulated feeling or aesthetic, that centering of whiteness reads, in a way, as a type of white savior narrative. Even when the savior fails, destroys everything, and becomes a monster, his agency overrides that of everyone else and reduces them to side stories who are swept away in the terrific power of his myth. Everyone else who could have spoken but wasn’t allowed to becomes a mere accessory to a tragic coming-of-age story.
Dune deserves a good movie adaptation, but all good movies need to be aware of the shortcomings of their source material as well as the realities of their own age. A subversive and powerful reading of Dune is possible, even a reading that Herbert would have appreciated, but in its present form, this current movie becomes just the sort of phenomenon that Herbert set out to critique.