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Forgetting the Environment. Dune: Part Two

Updated: Mar 12

By Julie Uszpolewicz

Frank Herbert dedicates his work “to the people whose labours go beyond ideas into the realm of ‘real materials’ — to the dry-land ecologists wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.” The creators of Dune: Part Two remain oblivious to this fact. A fact that, it seems to me, could not have been more relevant at a time when climate catastrophe looms over the horizon and which gets completely lost in this new adaptation. The moving story about the environmental revolution and an indigenous community’s ties to its land becomes nothing more than another tale about the pursuit of power. In this trade-off, the movie also deals strangely with two other central themes — women and religion. 

The perplexities start with Southern Arrakis and Liet Keynes. Unlike in the book, in the 2020 Dune, the planetary ecologist is a woman. However, in this case, it seems that gender inclusivity comes at the cost of Keynes’ revolutionary ideas. Liet Keynes has a vision of the Green Paradise on Arrakis — a dream of redemption and sustainable development he instils in the Fremen people much before they find Lisan al-Gaib in Paul Artreides. The partial realisation of his visionary goal is the real answer to why neither the Harkonnens nor the Imperial forces ever penetrated Southern Arrakis. Yet, in the movie, the region appears equally dry and impenetrable as the rest of the planet. Originally, for the Fremen, the ecological struggle was as important as the armed guerrilla warfare. 

When Stilgar ecstatically exclaims ‘Lisan al-Gaib’ every time Paul Atreides succeeds at doing something, the entire audience chuckles. The fanatical followers of Muad’Dib are mostly from Southern regions' conservative tribes, whose narrow-mindedness makes them blindly follow the Messiah. Villeneuve forgets when depicting the Fremen that Paul Atreides gains recognition among them because he shares their vision of an imminent, realisable ecological transformation of Arrakis. The Green Paradise, mentioned in the movie only once or twice, is not just an empty piece of Bene Gesserit propaganda — it is a very tangible revolutionary aim. Throughout the book, it remains unclear who of the Fremen followers views Muad’Dib to be a divine figure and who thinks he is a political leader. This is still a story about power, but Herbert wants us to focus on how we can recognise the danger of messianic prophecies only when we understand where they come from. The ease with which even such an esteemed tribal leader like Stilgar accepts the coming of the Lisan al-Gaib seems reductive towards the complexity of Fremen culture. Villeneuve’s adaptation flattens the story of the indigenous peoples and their land, remaking the story to centre solely on religious fanaticism. Interesting choice for our political climate, considering how visible is the resemblance of the Fremen to Tuareg and Berber cultures. But without the underpinning ecology, the nuances of the indigenous attachment to the land and their hopes of liberation are lost. 

In Appendix I to Dune, Frank Herbert provides the reader with a more detailed story on the background of the dream of Arrakis’ environmental emancipation. Talks of Green Paradise start on Dune with Liet Keynes’ father, who is also a planetary ecologist and recognises the potential for a new Arrakis. He wants to transform nature in order to serve human needs. Similarly to Paul, he is an outworlder, who promises the Fremen a better future. Similarly to Paul, he needs to prove himself in the armed struggle against the Harkonnens to be accepted in the sietch. And just like Paul he soon becomes treated like a prophetic figure. Liet and his father were aware that the change of the planetary ecological system would have taken take years. However, they were determined to pass on their knowledge of environmental emancipation to their children through education. When Paul arrives at the sietches, he notices that the ecological education classes, which all Fremen children take part in, remain uninterrupted unless there is a threat to life. The commitment to this environmental dream, deeply intertwined with the Fremen religion, underpins the entire organisation of the community.  It is not only due to the Bene Gesserit propaganda, then, but also due to this pre-existing fertile ground for ecological change that Muad’Dib is so quickly accepted as the Messiah. Both Liet and his father were imperial servants, which means they had been connected to the power structures important for Fremen’s survival. After Liet Keynes death, the community is in a need of a leader that has similar connections to the Empire and also shares their vision of environmental revolution. Paul Atreides swiftly fills that void. However, the transformation of Arrakis is a project that takes centuries. This is how Appendix I ends: “The course had been set by this time, the Ecological-Fremen were aimed along the way. Liet-Kynes had only to watch and nudge and spy upon the Harkonnens…until the day his planet was afflicted by a Hero.” The tale of fake Messianism then sounds even more sinister considered against this rich background of a long hoped-for environmental revolution. In many ways, this anti-hero story is aimed to caution us.

However, in the movie, the most obvious criticism of the Messianic myth is not rooted in any of these complexities but instead relegated almost entirely to the plot line I found the most bizarre: the romance with Chani. In a way, this seems to be nothing more than a means to simplify the plot for the viewer. Paul Atreides’ internal struggle, reminiscent of the myth of Oedipus, torn between choosing his own path and realising his “terrible purpose” is externalised through this romantic subplot. Chani becomes the voice of Paul’s conscience, constantly reminding him of the consequences that his ascent to power could and will have. However, this moral role given to her character is an invention of Dennis Villeneuve and his producers. The result is that, like many other elements in the adaptation, Chain’s character becomes flattened. As she becomes a fighter, she also becomes nothing more than an extension of Paul’s character arc. Even though she is outspoken about her scepticism of the legends of Muad’Dib, this lacks a sufficient amount of nuance to make her a truly tragic character. Zendaya’s debatable performance does not help. The final effect is a strange and trivial attempt at feminism, which, once again, makes little sense without the environmental issues in the background.

In the novel, not only is Chani uncritical towards the myth of the Lisan-al Gaib, but she also becomes a Sayyadina, a Fremen priestess. When the time of war comes, she goes with other women and children to hide in Southern Arrakis. I understand the decision to make Chani a Feyakin fighter in the movie to be a feminist matter — it gives her more agency. However, this only appears to be so once the plot is already removed from Arrakis’ ecology. As a Sayyadina and the daughter of Liet Keynes, Chani already plays an important role in the source material. She supervises the water distribution (the significance of water scarcity was also heavily reduced in the movie) and tends to the Green Paradise during her time in the South. While Paul leads the political revolution, Chani guides the environmental one. This is why, I argue, Dune: Part Two ends up with a somewhat outdated half-hearted feminism. I thought that by 2024 we would have moved past the trivial claims that to achieve equality women should embody masculine characteristics. Chani’s role as a Sayyadina could have given her as much agency as her position as a soldier. 

On the one hand, Dennis Villeneuve's movies appear inclusive — there is a female planetary ecologist and female Fedaykin fighters. On the other hand, I am doubtful whether Dune: Part Two even passes the Bechdel test. Maybe women now appear in male-dominated positions, but as a result, they lose their original character depth. This is most visible with the depiction of Lady Jessica, who appears to be a power-hungry, cunning Bene Gesserit witch who strives to place her son on the Imperial throne no matter the cost. By contrast, in the novel she is the one who is the most aware of the terrible consequences of the messianic legends. Her prescient visions are often more revealing than Paul’s, for which she gains the respect of the Fremen people and their leaders. She also has a beautiful relationship with Chani, in whom she recognises herself as she, too, once was an Atreides concubine. There would have been no need to reinvent Dune to make it more progressive if only it had properly addressed the issues of environment and spirituality through which a lot of the female characters reveal their depth.

The ecology of Dune is the story of the land and the people inhabiting it. It is impossible to separate one from the other. Therefore, it is interesting why the producers of the 2024 Dune: Part Two, at a time when we can see the climate crisis affecting almost every aspect of our lives, decided to focus exclusively on the power struggle. The scarcity of water on Arrakis, downplayed in the adaptation, was, initially, a metaphor for oil. However, almost sixty years later, the theme of water scarcity is more relevant than we would like it to be. The dreams and hopes of ecological redemption resonate with us more than Herbert could have imagined. Inspirational stories about finding answers to the climate crisis by returning to indigenous methods of land cultivation circulate the news every so often. Tuareg women, who catch dew drops in the Atlas Mountains (sounds familiar?) give us hope for the emancipation of desert climate in the Middle East. While, the war in Palestine reminds us how indigenous populations lose their homeland as a result of exploitation of resources and geopolitical decisions beyond their exploitation control. In so many ways Dune would have been a perfect story for our time — why did they forget the environment? 

In the essay “Dune Genesis,” Frank Herbert explains his motivations for writing Dune. Yes, his initial idea for a Messiah story was supposed to be a moralistic tale about scepticism towards power structures and cults of personality. However, as he became more interested in environmentalism, he became concerned that ecology would soon, too, fall victim to power-seeking “wanna-be-heroes," as he calls them. His essay is an invitation to consider those issues systematically, not to immediately believe or discredit fanatics and opportunists, but to ask ourselves “how did we get this way?” Herbert reminds us that fanaticism is not always religious and that we, all too often, become victims of secular Messianic promises of politicians who promise us a better future. Again, a theme that became even more relevant as populist parties gain popularity. Dune seeks to understand the human nature that makes us so vulnerable to believe in the Second Coming. It is a story of how emancipatory ideals eventually can become corrupt. “In the beginning I was just as ready as anyone to fall into step, to seek out the guilty and to punish the sinners, even to become a leader. Nothing, I felt, would give me more gratification than riding the steed of yellow journalism into crusade, doing the book that would right the old wrongs,” he writes. So, why does it feel like Dennis Villenueve’s production only manages to scratch the surface? What happened to Herbert’s complex moral tale?

Writing this immediately after the screening, I do not yet have the answers. This is not an attempt to discredit the movie based on a trivial claim that “the book was better.” If anything I encourage you to engage with both and find out your thoughts for yourself. By no means, I am trying to suggest that the movie is not good — it is strikingly beautiful, for one, and very much impressive in many ways. However, I wonder at the discrepancies between the book and the movie. I refuse to be satisfied with the answer “because it is more marketable this way.” If Dune will own up to its hype of becoming a trilogy to define our generation, what does it say about our time?

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