‘Dune’s ending gets one frustrating thing right about the books
despite being the most nuanced and patient blockbuster in recent memory, denis villeneuve’s dune: part one probably won’t elicit a nuanced or patient response from the general public. For all the hot dune shots and deep sand dives, the one prevailing and inescapable truth about this dune version is that it’s fundamentally incomplete.
Some might say dune’s runtime feels long, but when you consider how abrupt it ends, the story actually shortens. Until the existence of Dune: Part Two is made clear, the prevailing sentiment about the new movie is that it leaves us hanging. while this is pretty frustrating, it’s also weirdly perfect. the whole story of all things dune is the story of loose ends. the truest dune is the unfinished dune. this is why.
Mild spoilers ahead for Dune: Part One.
the terrible truth of the end of dune
It’s no secret that Dune: Part One ends at roughly the 500-page mark of the 794 pages (excluding appendices) that make up the bulk of the plot of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune. It’s also not a spoiler. reveal that right towards the end of the movie, chani (zendaya) tells paul atreides (timothee chalamet), “this is just the beginning.”
More accurately, chani could have said, “This is about two-thirds of the way through the beginning, but it also depends on how far into the series we go.”
villeneuve has made it clear that he wants to make a trilogy of films out of two novels, dune and dune messiah, and the end of dune: the first part is the build-up to the events of the rest of the proposed trilogy. If he only watches Dune: Part One on HBO Max, this could make the movie feel like an overlong pilot episode for a TV series that may or may not be picked up.
say dune: the first part is a masterpiece not bad, but it’s also like one of those incomplete van gogh paintings. It’s not that it’s not great, it is, but its basic incompleteness, the missing pieces of the narrative puzzle are, strangely enough, its defining characteristic.
which dune: part one is left out
apart from the fact that dune: part one stops before part three of the book begins, there are also a plethora of other details from the novel that the movie leaves out. non-book people probably have no idea of dr. yueh (chang chen), it is also not clear that thufir hawat (stephen mckinley henderson) is a “mentat” (a kind of traveling computer that has served at home atreides for generations). the relationship between the duke leto (oscar isaac) and his “concubine” lady jessica (rebecca ferguson) is not made clear in the film, nor do we know why the duke is turning his back on lady jessica in this part of the story. (There’s a whole subplot in the book about Leto’s need to publicly pretend he’s mad at Jessica in order to fool her political rivals.)
In short, the dune novel, despite its epic fame, focuses on the inner life of its characters. That’s why the incessant voiceover in David Lynch’s 1984 Dune is at once a curse, but oddly, closer to the feel of reading the book.
villeneuve’s version is closer to the correct description of the events of the book, but seems strangely distant from his characters. true, we have a lot of paul atreides in this movie, but do we really understand his journey? for most of the film, he is bewildered and reluctant to take up the mantle of leadership. then when he is offered no other choice, we simply have to accept that he has changed.
This works in the novel in a way that it barely works in the movie. by the time paul rants to liet-kynes (sharon duncan-brewster) about how he’ll make arrakis a “paradise” with a “wave of my hand” when he becomes emperor, it’s like we’ll have a full anakin skywalker arc in about 20 minutes.
In Dune: Part One, Paul’s journey should be central, but because the film has to so slavishly depict every step of the Harkonnen invasion, we don’t really see Paul change. leto is killed, and paul is suddenly a bigger asshole.
These deficiencies also exist in the novel. the difference is that the book is designed to make you uncomfortable with all these issues in a way that the movie really doesn’t. Instead, the movie confuses you about how to feel about Paul and his Messianic ancestry. He doesn’t have one of those over-the-top Anakin Skywalker “uh-oh” moments, but you wish he did.
The only thing that dune: the first part is left to interpretation are Paul’s future visions, while the rest of the film is relentlessly literal. But interestingly, some of these counterintuitive dream sequences are actually where we feel closest to Paul. In those moments, the plot matters less, which is when the Dune story is at its best.
the curse of trying to “finish” dune
Frank Herbert wrote six novels in the Dune series, and in the last book, Chapterhouse: Dune (1985), the events of the story also end on a cliffhanger. To be clear, Chapterhouse is set roughly 17,000 years after the events of Dune and Dune: Messiah, which means that aside from a cloned version of Duncan Idaho, you’re not dealing with any of the original characters at the time.
herbert passed away before writing the seventh book, but his son brian herbert and novelist kevin j. Anderson “completed” the saga with Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. reactions to these books were decidedly mixed, with many fans calling the latter “one of the worst books” of all time. whether the statements are objectively true is not really the point. the point is that, in all media, dune is always unfinished and no one is completely happy.
jodorowsky’s failed attempt to dune in the 1970s is perhaps the best example of this. pundits liked to call it “the best science fiction movie ever made.” The Sci-Fi Channel managed to adapt the entire first book into an early 2000s miniseries, but was only able to cover Dune Messiah and Children of Dune by combining them into a single follow-up miniseries.
In terms of film and television, there has been no attempt to adapt the series beyond the third book. when you consider how many successful sci-fi/fantasy book series have been adapted into TV shows and movie franchises, this is a bit of a shock. harry potter got eight movies for seven books. the foundation is adapting seven books at the same time. even the vampire diaries adapted several novels. why is it so hard to adapt to dune?
why dune can never be finished
Despite all the accolades dune receives for its impressive worldbuilding, its reputation depends primarily on its ideas and themes, not its story. This may sound hyperbolic, but try to find someone who will say that Heretics from Dune (1984) or Chapterhouse: Dune (1985) are their favorites from the series. You won’t. You might find those who claim that Dune Messiah or Children of Dune are as good as the original, but even that’s a minority opinion.
at least one review of dune: the first part states that “the next lord of the rings and star wars is here”. this is untrue all three lord of the rings books are equally loved, and the story told in those three books is cohesive and satisfying.
this is simply not true for dune books beyond the first. Now, I’m not saying Lord of the Rings is better than Dune, in fact, in a way, he’s not. because dune plot is so unwieldy it might actually make better art than lord of the rings. there is no clear hero. the bad ones are bad, but the good ones are sometimes worse. the main characters come and go. With these novels, Frank Herbert did something that was not populist: Paul does not have a hero’s journey, because Herbert’s message was “beware of heroes”. as literature, this is bold and fascinating.
However, this kind of thinking doesn’t necessarily work for big blockbusters. subtlety is difficult. Although Villeneuve says Dune is the “opposite” of a white savior movie and rejects “traditional” hero narratives, his film doesn’t always make that clear. instead, dune: part one tries to have it both ways. it wants to be the start of a big, epic, exciting franchise, but it also wants to stay true to the murky, less definable, thoughtful aspects of the books.
dune: part one makes blockbuster franchise building better than meandering sci-fi novel. but, because the movie feels unfinished, and may very well stay that way after all, it ends up staying true to the vision of the Dune books.
It may not be satisfying to experience the endless ending of this movie. but the experience of reading all the books is also not satisfactory. and maybe that’s okay. perhaps the metatextual message of dune is not about the geopolitics of sandworms, but about what we expect from our stories. In a world where books, TV shows, and movies follow a formula of climaxes, endings, and resolutions, Dune dares to leave all the threads hanging.
chani is right, after all. this is just the beginning, because in life it always is.
dune: the first part will be broadcast on hbo max and will be released in theaters on October 22, 2021.