by Sarah Welch
I first became aware of Dune when I found an old paperback copy in my parents’ bathroom. I was nine or ten years old, and reading everything I could get my hands on; newspapers, children’s books, the cereal box at the breakfast table, and as much fantasy as I could find, from Lord of the Rings to Brian Jacques. I could power through a Redwall book in an afternoon, and did so as often as I could. So when a copy of Dune materialized in my parents’ bathroom, I was curious. I was enough of a rule-follower that I didn’t take the book from the room, but I kept finding excuses to linger there a little longer, to turn another page. One day, I asked my mother about the book.
“It’s about power and betrayal. I’m not sure if you’re ready for it yet.”
The book remained in the bathroom, but again, I was a rule-follower, so eventually I left it alone, having only read the first ten pages or so. I wasn’t that interested in science fiction anyway. I preferred dragons and swords, and forgot about the book before too long.
The second time I came across Dune, I found it on a shelf after we had moved. I was home-schooled and my voracious appetite for books meant that my mother had to hide readings from my English curriculum from me so that I wouldn’t read through them ahead of time. Thus I was always on the hunt for more reading material, and remembered the book from a few years before — the black cover with the aerial photo of a sandy expanse, two tiny humans in white walking across its face. The book was beginning to fall apart. I don’t remember asking my mother about it this time around. It was on a shelf, so it was fair game, although she must have known I had it because we talked about the books I read frequently.
This time around, I was captivated. I must have read the entire thing in a day or two. I liked the languages: the kanly (vendettas) invoked by the great houses, the different words for poison in food (chaumas) or drink (chaumusky), the clear Russian names of the villains, the Arabic influences on Fremen culture. I have blue eyes myself, but wanted the blue within blue carried by Paul Muad’Dib. Frank Herbert’s rich universe fascinated me, although I was more than a little baffled by the ecological and political themes; up to this point, I’d preferred actual battles to political ones. Much of the book’s philosophy flew over my head, but who could blame me? I wasn’t much more than twelve years old at the time.
Dune is the first in a long series of books, all taking place in a distant future in which computers have been outlawed and replaced by highly trained people, in which a medieval class system helps the government to keep an uneasy peace, in which several factions attempt to breed their own Messiahs over hundreds of generations. The most powerful object in this universe is not a human computer, nor the Emperor, nor a religious sect, but rather a drug, found only on the desert planet Arrakis. The drug—“spice”—prolongs life, enables space travel, and allows people with telepathic abilities to see the future or tell when someone is lying. Paul Atreides (later Paul Muad’Dib), the subject of the series and a suspected Messiah, remarks in both book and movie that “he who controls the spice controls the universe”. The spice is the novum of the book, and a convenient shorthand for mystical and religious power, both of which provide its wielders a hefty piece of leverage on the political systems of the universe in which they live.
My parents found a copy of David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of Dune a few years after I read the book. They remembered it from before, quoting their favorite lines back and forth at each other across the dinner table before they’d even unwrapped the DVD case. I was fifteen, and by this point I was a movie adaptation purist, the kind who got angry with Peter Jackson for leaving out Tom Bombadil and the barrow-wights from Lord of the Rings. I was also annoyed by the lack of (what I thought were) important details in the Harry Potter films. Where was Peeves the Poltergeist? Why wasn’t Percy Weasley’s estrangement brought up at all? I didn’t care how long the Dune movie was; I just wanted it to hit every plot beat perfectly. Needless to say, the film did not impress me—although my parents still loved it, perhaps because of its flaws rather than in spite of them.
Dune is a notorious film. It had a famously troubled pre-production period during the 1970s, in which it was passed from director to director. Funding was difficult and distilling the book’s sprawling plot to a standard two-hour movie proved impossible (when it was eventually released, some theaters actually gave moviegoers a synopsis and a background for the Dune universe at the door). David Lynch finally took on the project following his success with The Elephant Man—but despite its surreal, dreamlike imagery, Dune does not feel much like a David Lynch film. The dialogue is taken verbatim from Herbert’s novel, to the point that the movie often feels as though it is paying rote homage. The editing feels disjointed, with too much information crammed into plot points that stretch too far apart. The costuming and set design are rich, but the film is not particularly beautiful, and, based on its treatment of its villains, the film has been called outright homophobic. Critics disliked the movie and it failed to make its budget back. Lynch himself was dissatisfied with Dune, claiming that he was shut out of the editing process, that he had sold out by making the movie, that it remains his only real failure. Even now, he refuses to talk about the film in interviews.
The second time I watched Dune, home on a break during my sophomore year of college, I realized an incredibly uncomfortable fact: My parents were complete, unabashed nerds. On some level, I’d known this all along; my mother likes to tell a story about how I quoted the “Space, the final frontier,” monologue from Star Trek when I was two (they stopped watching TV around me for a few years after that). My earliest memories involve Babylon 5 and Mystery Science Theater 3000. I grew up steeped in nerd culture. I’d favored fantasy as a kid, but after hitting puberty and discovering Ender’s Game, I read almost exclusively science fiction. I thought all this was normal growing up—and then I left home for the first time and realized that I was the nerdiest person I knew. I was deeply uncool. So were my parents. They were my parents, of course, and therefore permanently uncool, but I’d been trying to shake off my well-earned reputation for being a homeschooled nerd. Finding out that I’d always been nerdy—and that my parents had been nerdy before me—was quite an unpleasant realization. “Nerd” was no longer a label, but an identity, and one I wanted no part of. I wasn’t going to give up playing Portal or watching Doctor Who, but I certainly didn’t plan to broadcast my tastes in entertainment any more. It wasn’t shame, but I wasn’t proud of myself either.
There’s a moment in the film in which Paul eats pure spice for the first time. The book is less spectacular; the spice simply inundates the air of Arrakis. In both versions, Paul experiences a “waking dream,” a premonition. In the film, Paul sees water falling in the desert where none had before, the second moon of Arrakis, an upraised hand. The book has him seeing one more thing: If he comes to power, a holy war will rage throughout the galaxy.
The third time I watched Dune involved a surprisingly disappointing drinking game. I was housesitting and convinced my best friend to join me for a movie night. I’d just had a breakup and was poised to move across the country, so I’d been keeping myself busy. My friend agreed to join me, on the condition that we watch bad movies.
The plan was to take a drink every time the words “spice” or “sand” were uttered on screen. We had only taken a few sips by the time the 45-minute mark rolled around. It felt strangely anticlimactic, so much so that we ended up watching Top Gun next, so we could watch a film we both actively disliked. I thought nothing of Dune afterward, though I was puzzled by my own lukewarm reaction. The flaws I’d found in it before didn’t bother me. I was fine with a streamlined story and no long monologues about sand, which wouldn’t translate well to film anyway. I was more bothered by the miscasting of Patrick Stewart and the terrible voiceovers representing each character’s thoughts. The dream sequences were odd, but by this point I’d discovered Twin Peaks and decided that David Lynch’s Dune wasn’t nearly weird enough.
The last time I watched Dune, it was a slightly different version—the three-hour cut for TV. This longer version adds in scenes from the book that had been passed over in both the theatrical and director’s cuts. It’s also repetitive and, despite repeating important plot points and place names, still difficult for the uninitiated to follow; I watched this version with my boyfriend and we had to pause several times so I could explain to him what was happening. Arrakis does not even appear until the 53-minute mark, nearly a third of the way through the film. The TV cut is frustrating in its repetitiveness, but its biggest flaw is that it misses the main themes of the book. There is no sense of the loss inherent in a military victory in the film. Ecology and religion are hardly touched upon, although both are prominent themes throughout the book.
But I realized something while watching this version: Not only am I okay with being the type of person who knows every little detail in a film adaptation from 30 years ago that no one else cares about, I’m also fine with showing that side of myself to my friends and romantic partners. It’s just a part of who I am—I was born a nerd into a family of nerds, and I will always be one. I’m not worried about the reputation any more. It’s a part of me, like my eyes, and it’s something I can’t change. I’ve stepped into the role, and in doing so the role no longer bothers me. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that nerd culture is now mainstream. Everyone has a favorite comic book superhero. Star Wars is back and more popular than ever. Being interested in things like science fiction and fantasy isn’t much of a stigma any more—but admittedly, I’m still nerdier than most. Dune isn’t exactly a mainstream franchise.
I think it’s telling that Kyle McLachlan, though excellent in Twin Peaks, will always be Paul Muad’Dib Atreides to me. It isn’t that Dale Cooper isn’t a memorable character—all shellacked hair and boyish enthusiasm—it’s that Paul is more like me. We have our differences. I’m not a military leader or a fighter, I’m not prescient, and I’m certainly no Messiah. Still, fifteen year old Paul reminds me of myself at fifteen: constantly on the move, unsure of himself, and afraid to embrace the parts of him that are so evident to his parents that it’s difficult for them to see him for who he is now, rather than for the person he could possibly become.
When we were in grade school, my mother liked to call my siblings and I “future world leaders.” I’ve been uncomfortable with the title in the past; it seemed to imply that I was going to do something great, almost as if it was an obligation, like Paul’s visions that must come true once they’ve been seen, and which bring something horrible along with the good. More and more I’ve realized that I’m not a slave to that title, nor am I a slave to a fixed future; I am free to choose what I want to do with myself and my future, but my mother sees the possibility for great things within me, just as Paul’s family sees the possibility for great things in Paul. Paul has prescient vision, but even he is blind to himself and needs the spice to see it. I was blind to my own traits, inherited and learned, until Dune came along. The Dune film, terrible and repetitive as it is, is my own spice. It’s made me aware of myself in a way I never could have dreamed.
Sarah Welch has just completed a master’s degree in the humanities at the University of Chicago. She likes theology, knitting, and shouting about science fiction.