Supplement: Denis Villeneuve, the White Savior of “Dune”
This is a supplement to my recently published essay on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, at Washington Post:
Perspective | The novel 'Dune' had deep Islamic influences. The movie erases them.
In 1965, "Dune" offered a daring challenge to imperialism. Frank Herbert's classic novel tells the story of an…
I went in with an open mind. I truly thought it might be something else, especially with that opening and the Jamis visions. But when I left the theater, I couldn’t deny how I felt: Transported but underwhelmed. Generic, bland, safe. A lost promise. Came across as “Star Wars for Nolan bros.”
For space, lots of material for my Washington Post essay was left on the cutting room floor — and for good reason. However, for the Duneheads and those who might “@” me, I would like to provide a few more thoughts, as well as details or explanations on issues only alluded to in the piece, in the hope that this can elevate the dunescourse, as they say, and provide a clear and specific elaboration of my issues with the film.
I’ve mainly structured the following as a series of responses to a few defenses against the claim that the film erases Dune’s MENA influences. This is relatively scattershot.
1.“But the film is clearly a critique of the white savior narrative!”
I actually agree, as I point out in the essay. The film incessantly returns to Paul’s visions of the bloody future he will herald; ugly plans to exploit the Bene Gesserit’s proselytized myth among the Fremen; and Paul’s bullfighting grandfather (a symbol of the Atreides’s precarious violence, perhaps like Peter O’Toole’s match in Lawrence of Arabia). The film ends when Paul kills a Fremen (Jamis) and insists on living amongst them, to his mother’s dismay.
My problems with the film are elsewhere. In my view, the film gets the “Dune’s not a white savior narrative” piece of my earlier essay, but misses the second half: “But it’s complicated.”
2. “But filmgoers will get more Muslim & MENA influence in Part 2, because that’s when the story really explores the Fremen.”
One might chalk up the superficial Muslimness to the fact that the film, like the book’s first half, follows Paul. His life with the Fremen is left for the sequel. However, one of the most enduring aspects of the novel is how its Muslimness, while concentrated among the Fremen, is not exclusive to them. It seeps into the entire universe.
It would be impossible to list all of the non-Fremen Muslim references and themes in the novel, and I’ve already shown the pervasiveness of the novel’s Muslimness elsewhere.
In the essay, I provide snippets of an interview Jim Freund conducted with Herbert in 1976, during the Children of Dune book launch (when Herbert thought he had finished the series as a trilogy). But, on the topic of the Dune universe’s presiding Muslimness beyond the Fremen, it is worth reading the full quote:
Freund: So what religions mostly go into the Bene Geh-sserit… or I must have mispronounced…
Herbert: I used Bene Jeh-sserit because I was thinking a female Jesuits. … They were kind of my model. Of course, Christianity, Sunni, the Muslim mystics, Sufism, Zen, Buddhism out of Gautama (in other words Buddhism prior to Zen). Islam, of course. Islam is a very strong element of the whole trilogy. We tend in this culture not to study Islam, not to recognize how much it has contributed to our culture because of the religious wars out of which our present consciousness has come, the awareness. But we owe Islam enormous debts of gratitude.
(The interview is in two parts: Pt. 1: https://archive.org/details/WBAI_99_5_FM_20211016_100000, and Pt. 2: https://archive.org/details/WBAI_99_5_FM_20211023_100000)
To me, it is significant that Herbert basically lists all the religious influences in the novels, and then, after that, adds: “Islam, of course. Islam is very central to the whole trilogy.” Don’t get me wrong — I am not trying to erase the other influences (which, by the way, are also mostly, and wrongly, excised from the film, especially Buddhism!). But Herbert did seem to view Islam as holding a particularly significant place in his worldbuilding, even if he entertained Buddhism himself. I originally had a bit on this in the review but had to cut!
I could not feasibly cross-reference every Muslim or MENA term in the novel that was left out of the film, but a few exclusions stuck out to me:
- The film cuts a significant line from a pivotal scene testing Paul’s messianic powers: A missionary exclaims, “Kull-wahad!”, to mean, “Profoundly stirred!” The phrase echoes the opening verse of one of the most recited chapters of the Qur’an, Al-Ikhlas (The Sincerity): “Qul huwal laahu ahad” (“Say: He is the One God”). In Islam, recognition of God’s unity is considered profoundly stirring.
- The film cuts descriptions of the Atreides warrior-poet Gurney Halleck (likely a Moor) based on an aphorism from Islamic Spain.
- We get general allusions to the Orange Catholic Bible, but little of its Muslim roots, particularly in Shi‘ism.
None of this is in the film. These and other non-Fremen Muslim elements are lost on screen.
There are the MENA or MENA-adjacent terms that appear in the film. But, as I mention in the piece, these are the minimum necessary to tell the story: “Lisan al-Gaib,” “Arrakis,” “Shai-Hulud,” “Padishah,” “Gom Jabbar,” “Maula pistol,” “eyes of Ibad,” “Mahdi,” and “Amtal” rule. There is also “Padishah” and the “Sardaukar,” of course. And “crysknife” (from “kris” in Malay and Indonesian). Definitions here.
3. “It’s impossible to bring in all of Herbert’s terminology into the film, because it would require too much exposition or would confuse popular audiences. It is not feasible to stick so closely to the novel.”
The point is it’s an adaptation. There are ways to bring out these influences in creative ways. Herbert infused the book with MENA and Muslim terms, which works (mostly) because readers can pause on definitions. But in cinema, those references might need to to be supplemented with audiovisual worldbuilding. Maybe a film does not need to tell readers the history of Twelver Shi‘ism in a long explanation of the Orange Catholic Bible, but it could include iconography and musical touches that suggest that.
How to adapt these influences is a tricky question. A literal approach might embolden the orientalism, as when the 2000 Dune miniseries used the adhaan (the Muslim call to prayer) in a scene in Arrakeen.
In some cases, adapting the novel’s influences can provide an opportunity to move beyond the limits of the text. For instance, in the 2021 film, a prayer scene features brown and black pilgrims in orientalist rags, while vaguely ethnic vocals chant “Bene Gesserit,” “Arrakis” (Dune’s formal name), “Shai-Hulud” (Dune’s cetacean sandworms), and “Kwisatz Haderach” (Paul’s messianic status). As if the only subjects the Fremen pray on are Paul, missionaries, and worms.
This is where bringing in Muslim and MENA creatives might have produced a different audiovisual aesthetic, one which reflects the intricate terminology of the novel. In the novels, the Fremen turn to hadith (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) when they feel they are being manipulated by a Bene Gesserit. What if, in the prayer scene, the vocals riffed off of the Qur’anic chapters Surah Al-Ikhlas (warding off evil whispers of Satan — this would have a wonderful consonance, or perhaps disjuncture, with the earlier use of “Kull-wahad!” if that were kept in) or Surah Al-Falaq (warding off manipulative people or witchcraft). Something of the sort would have rooted Fremen religion in Muslim specificity and elevated their agency.
On this point, I critiqued the music in my essay, but there’s a bit more to say: One of the vocalists, Lisa Gerrard, seems to have transposed her work on Gladiator. The other, Loire Colter, drew on Jewish, South Indian, and Celtic elements; only the former is pertinent to Dune’s cultural specificity. There are some incredible Muslim and MENA musicians — why not have them develop unique, futuristic approach to their artwork?
I mentioned in my essay that Villeneuve might have done well to lean into his use of disjuncture or anempathetic sound, as he’s done before with Radiohead, which he used in Incendies instead of attempting “authentic” Arab music. That’s another option — or one can mix things around. When Paul’s asserting his power or appropriating Fremen ways, perhaps we hear something like Pink Floyd’s Eclipse. But when audiences are following the worms or Fremen perspectives, perhaps we hear something else. It depends on context, and one can be creative.
My issue was that the film’s music doesn’t take a bold position. The score is a half-measure, an approximation of an undecided religious and ethnic authenticity.
Perhaps cutting MENA and Islamic terms in the film, and framing the audiovisuals so generically, were merely decisions to reduce the worldbuilding or produce an appealing aesthetic. Perhaps this was not intended to be an erasure. But such omissions effectively erase the novel’s Muslimness. Regardless of intent, the result is an erasure. If Muslim or MENA creatives were behind the camera, they would have fought to preserve, and perhaps build upon, these influences in a way that works for the film, rather than cast out such influences as “too much worldbuilding for a general audience.”
4. “What are you talking about, the Fremen are portrayed in a positive way!”
I actually agree, in part. The film smartly deviates from the novel by starting with anti-colonial struggle. As in the books, the Fremen Paul meets are more skeptical of his messianism than the pilgrims who shout his name. The film also displays their technological, military, and political ingenuity. The decision to cut to the Jamis visions was a great deviation from the book.
However, the film also replicates the novel’s occasional depiction of the Fremen as adherents to rigid custom. While the final fight with Jamis depicts Paul as the aggressor, Jamis remains helpless in his obedience to custom. In the essay I suggest how MENA and Muslim creatives might’ve developed a more nuanced approach to custom for the film.
I actually think one could fix this issue simply by diving into the novel and reading it creatively: Herbert thinks a lot of customs arise out of “necessity” — and if the film could show why Fremen follow the Amtal rule, or why it is important to their traditions, or perhaps how there is disagreement on the application of the rule (which is only briefly referenced via Stilgar’s initial objection to Jamis’s initiation of the rule), this might’ve worked. (The alternative, of course, would be to center the final sequence on another customary rule.)
I also have a hot take that Villeneuve could have ended the film with Jamis killing Paul. This would preserve the white savior critique and close Paul’s arc. If Part 2 got greenlit, he could have an alternate cut where Paul lives — or just keep him dead and follow Chani’s story as the anti-colonial resistance takes another (or perhaps the same!) form as in the novel. But I get that this would be a radical deviation.
5. Something I wished I could have talked about in the review.
One thing I wished I could have talked about in the review is how the imperialists are portrayed as “all caps” EVIL (Sardaukar + Harkonnens), instead of treating them as the (mostly) more grounded evil they are in the books. In the novels, they are scary and weird, but they are no more weird than anyone else in that universe. This is what I mean when I say it came across as “Star Wars for Christopher Nolan bros.”
In particular, one aspect I missed from the book is the first introduction of the Baron, where he’s hunched over a map of Dune, making his schemes. This always reminded me, even the first time I read it as a kid, of the Sykes-Picot Agreement — imperialists drawing arbitrary lines that shaped what we today call “the Middle East.”
Instead, in the film, the first scene with the Baron displays him as very plus sized and scary (fatphobia!). But what if he were an “average” sized person who simply, as he had in the books, had very scary plans, drawing violent lines across Arrakis’s map? (Or maybe he could be plus sized, but his size could be shown as unconnected to his vile character.) That would have been a far more grounded, scarier, and politically interesting introduction, and would hew closer to the books in the first place.
I’m not saying that particular scene ruined the film, and I actually enjoyed it. I’m just pointing out one instance out of a series of choices.
I was actually surprised that the Baron was portrayed in this way, given that Villeneuve stated:
I didn’t want the Baron to be a buffoon or caricature, I wanted him to have the feeling of strength, a strategist. I wanted the Baron to be seductive, someone who has a certain kind of sensuality to him. Most important, I wanted the Baron to have a deep intelligence.
I wonder what happened, because I did not get that vibe from the movie.
This made me laugh-cry:
I always benefit from the work of: Ali Karjoo-Ravary (https://slate.com/.../dune-2021-movie-vs-book-white...), Roxana Hadadi (https://polygon.com/.../dune-review-denis-villeneuve...), Hanna Flint (https://english.alaraby.co.uk/.../dune-escaping-realm...).
Also loved this episode of The Middle Geeks: https://thenerdsofcolor.org/2021/10/25/the-middle-geeks-episode-31-dune-review/ (and, if you’re looking for something spicy, see 37:00!).