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I reread ‘Dune’ during the pandemic. It makes a lot more sense now.

A second reading of the book, adapted into a new movie by Denis Villeneuve, brings new relevant themes to light.
From left, Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet in the Denis Villeneuve film "Dune."
From left, Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet in the Denis Villeneuve film "Dune." [ WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT | TNS ]
Published Oct. 21
Updated Oct. 23

A beginning is a very delicate time. But so, too, is starting over.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, I cracked open a thick book I hadn’t read in 30 years. I wanted to mentally flee our own crumbling world and ... delve into a completely different crumbling world, in the form of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune.

The return visit was sparked by Denis Villeneuve’s new movie adaptation, out this week in theaters and on HBO Max. (Well, technically, the movie is Dune: Part One, with a potential second installment awaiting a green light.) Before that, it was a much-maligned David Lynch film. Before that, it was a book I devoured as a Nebraska teenager.

Dune is an epochal work of science fiction that was very much a product of its postwar American era, but I didn’t fully know that then. And I didn’t realize how much it would resonate in the modern world. Reading it today, it seems like a completely different tale.

But then, it wasn’t the story that had changed; it was me.

Do I need to provide a plot synopsis? Likely not, if you’re reading this, but the shortest possible version would be: A young man comes of age amid a feudal battle on a planet that supplies a critical resource driving the universe’s economy. He becomes a messianic figure to a tribal people who want to overthrow that system.

Let’s just say that spoilers abound from here on out.

I first read Dune at 15, the same age as protagonist Paul Atreides at the start of the story. It felt like a sweeping epic, a dense and grand Homeric narrative, a hero’s journey.

Paul is capable but inexperienced, thrust into a conflict for which he has little context. He suffers mightily by virtue of his birth, loses his family and friends and seeks vengeance against his foes. He is able to achieve victory by becoming a just ruler. At least, that’s how 15-year-old me read it.

My reaction was influenced by the cultish Lynch film, released in 1984. That adaptation was a failure with critics and audiences, derided as campy, dull and difficult to follow. While the movie was overloaded with exposition, vast tracts of the novel had been omitted or altered, including a Lynch-invented subplot about a weapons system based on shouting bisyllabic grunts at enemies.

Lynch insisted he was not able to showcase his true final edit, and took his name off the movie in protest. Twitchy studio executives bent on capitalizing on the success of the Star Wars saga (which itself had obviously cribbed plot points and details from Herbert’s novel) insisted on a cut so disjointed and bizarre that most audiences found the story impenetrable.

I mean, it was a David Lynch movie, after all.

But as confusing as that version was, it’s a straightforward narrative. Paul was all but preordained to become ruler, his victory inevitable and his cause, in the words of the characters, for the righteous.

It was then fascinating to me, 30 years later, to have an entirely different impression of Paul’s world and destiny.

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Written by a Libertarian-minded freelance journalist during upheaval in America, Dune spoke volumes about ecology, religion, gender roles, governance, drug use, cross-cultural interactions and economic intricacies (using an admittedly problematic colonial savior narrative).

A linchpin of the story is a scheme by imperial planetologist Liet Kynes to change the ecology of the desert planet Arrakis, the titular Dune, by altering a mere 3 percent of the arid surface with water. That 3 percent would trigger a tipping point that would forever change the planet and all systems dependent upon the status quo. Compare that to current discussions of the consequences of raising the Earth’s average temperature by 3 degrees!

The Dune universe’s addiction to the spice melange is a metaphor for oil production, and the characters’ political maneuvering and (sometimes quite literal) backstabbing could be from any era. Gender issues rear up throughout the story. In a neat twist, the Villeneuve movie features a Black woman (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) playing Kynes, which affects the story not one bit.

But the standout difference in the novel this time around was Paul. Because, well, he’s no hero, and by the end of the book the journey is no longer his.

Instead of a savior, I eventually read Paul as a child caught up in the machinations he has sought to control. He’s not a messiah, he’s a tool to achieve an end. He has visions of this, given his preternatural abilities, but he ultimately chooses to ignore them.

By the end of the novel, he has resigned himself to knowing that events will unfold with or without him. Paul has been the architect of his own irrelevance, his name and cause co-opted by his followers, in the name of achieving a selfish goal to avenge himself.

The new film preserves some of that. In this lush realization, we see Timothée Chalamet (now 25) as a convincing 15-year-old Paul who witnesses this vision and is willing to object to it.

But we know from the book that Paul won’t succeed in resisting.

As I finished the reread, this idea stuck with me the most — how, like Paul, we are caught in the slipstream of events around us. As hard as we try to maintain control, we’re often still trapped in the lockstep march of society.

There’s no shortage of news about people feeling that way. The seriousness of facing a deadly disease, or being stuck with a government with which you disagree, is as pressing to us today as it was to people in the past. The question, then, is whether we can see the future clearly enough to make the right decisions today.

I guess I’ll reread the book in 30 years and find out.