selfaware soup

Esther Weidauer

"As is written"

Fiction justifies the actions that lead to good outcomes within it. Or: Why Dune Part Two is an irresponsible film.


scene from Dune Part Two where Chani tells a crowd of Fremen that the prophecy is a means of control

Spoiler warning for Dune, Part One and Two of the Villeneuve films, the original novel and the later entries in the series.

TL;DR: Dune Part Two (2024) is an irresponsible film, just not very good, and kind of boring.

Any adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune series that stays close to the source material will always suffer from the fact that it’s a Dune adaptation. Let’s be honest, Dune is full of garbage, and not just by modern sensibilities. It is steeped in unquestioning themes of patriarchy, racism, colonialism, fetishisation of indigenous peoples, and tries to make a case for autocratic totalitarianism, as long the “the right one” gets to rule. It’s regressive in many very obvious ways and generally treats people other that its chosen few aristocratic white people with contempt, as unenlightened primitives that can’t be trusted with their own lives and need to be ruled by a literal omniscient god, who is of course also an aristocratic white man.

When it comes to adaptations I usually approach them with an attitude of “the books don’t matter”, or whatever else the original medium of the source material was. An adaptation can and often should make its own choices. I believe complete faithfulness to the source material often isn’t even desirable. A famous example of this is the omission of Tom Bombadil from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. The character is not really important to the plot and would have clashed with the overall serious tone of these films. Cutting that entire chapter makes sense in an already three hour film and was probably the right call. Some pedantic fans of course were up in arms about it, but nobody else cared. Changes can be made for all sorts of reasons, not just pragmatic ones like in Tom Bombadil’s case. A film director can try to tell their own version of a story and make different decision than the original author. There can be a “what if?” element to explore entirely alternative story paths, or the themes of the source can be deliberately subverted in order to comment on them.

And sometimes changes can just be cool and interesting. If someone wants to make a version of The Lord of the Rings as a biker gang movie where Aragorn is a butch lesbian, that’s ok. Actually that sound awesome and I’d like to see it made please.

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune generally stays pretty close the source material and especially in Part Two suffers greatly from that. It even includes some information that previous adaptations left out and which makes it so much worse. While the general vibe of Dune is present in all its now three film versions (David Lynch’s from 1984, the 2000/2003 TV miniseries, and Villeneuve’s 2021/2014 movies), especially the orientalism, colonialist themes, and white-saviour story, Villeneuve’s Dune Part Two makes sure to tell us that Paul’s actions are not his free decision. It is explicitly mentioned that his visions have shown him that his course of action is necessary to prevent millions of deaths. He’s not just a white saviour, he’s one that can’t even be blamed for his behaviour because magic says he must do so. In the earlier films the stakes are his family’s survival, political power and some vague notion of justice and freedom for the Fremen people. Now it’s the fate of humanity across the galaxy.

In the original Dune saga this is described as the Golden Path. Among the countless possible futures that Paul can see, all except one lead to the decline or even total annihilation of humanity. The story forces him and his descendants to do horrible things because the alternative would be worse, thereby justifying his actions no matter how unethical they might be. The later books describe how humanity is actually saved by a long period of oppression and tyranny.

Now, some fans will be eager to defend this with the internal logic of the Dune universe: The prescience of the future that some characters have clearly lays out that this is the only way. It’s the lesser evil when compared to the threat of the total destruction of humanity. However, I reject the idea that in-fiction arguments justify a story outside of itself. The author made the decision to write the fiction like this without being in any way forced to do so. Dan Olson did a video several years ago about this line of in-fiction-justification discourse: The Thermian Argument. It’s not long, less than 5 minutes. I recommend watching it.

Fiction justifies the actions that lead to good outcomes within it. In The Lord of the Rings, it was the right choice for Gandalf to send Frodo on a horrifying journey that would traumatize him for the rest of his life because it ultimately got the Ring destroyed. In Avengers: Infinity War, it was the right call for Dr. Strange to give Thanos the time stone because his knowledge of all possible futures told him it was the only way. And in Dune, Paul is right to make himself leader of the Fremen and start a holy war across the entire empire, because it is what ultimately saves humanity. Fiction produces it’s own internal justification but those don’t apply outside of it. As Dan puts it:

The only reason anything is the way it is is because a writer chose to make it that way. The diegetic argument aims to dismiss criticism at its core suggesting that there aren’t any problems with the text, provided controversial elements are internally consistent with the rest of the story world.

The recent Dune movies by Denis Villeneuve are the way they are because people decided to make them like this. This goes back to the decision to make a Dune adaptation in the first place, as opposed to an original screenplay for example. And while making a Dune adaptation, it includes the decisions to stick closely to the regressive themes of the source material. To be fair, Dune Part Two contains some reflection on these themes, namely through the character Chani who rejects Paul’s power grab at the end, but we still know that the story has internally justified his actions. Chani just doesn’t know the full picture because she isn’t a god-like oracle. And she can’t ever gain that knowledge because in the world of Dune, only aristocratic white people can become gods.

Part One was an expertly crafted spectacle that did some excellent world-building and it left space for self-reflection that never came. Part Two fails to live up to this in terms of cinematography and overall coherence. It’s unfocused, the performances are rather dull and even the show-off scenes with all the infrared black-and-white filming are disappointing. Overall it’s a rather boring affair and just not a very good film.

But what I was most disappointed by is what an irresponsible film it is. It gladly carries the source material’s underlying bullshit themes and even on a surface level its treatment of the Fremen is condescending and full of downright contempt. The internal colonialism and white supremacy of the fictional world leaks out into the real one through how the indigenous characters are portrayed: as superstitious, gullible, and fanatic. It didn’t end up like this by accident.

I truly hated Part Two and I can not recommend it.