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Dune v Dune: do Denis Villeneuve’s films stay true to the book?

<span>Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, left, and Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two.</span><span>Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros Pictures/AP</span>
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, left, and Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two.Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros Pictures/AP

The second part of director Denis Villeneuve’s vast adaptation of sci-fi set-text Dune is out this week. But what would author Frank Herbert have made of it? We explore which elements the films get spot on about Dune – and where they may have got a bit lost in the desert.

Right – The Atreides

In Dune, House Atreides are a colonial power. They may be more righteous than many of the Galactic Imperium’s other noble houses – notably their sworn enemies, House Harkonnen – but they’re still out for self-advancement, hoping to exploit the Fremen in order to secure their own position. From the very first moments, as Fremen warrior Chani asks “who will our next oppressors be?”, Denis Villeneuve and his co-writer Eric Roth don’t shy away from the moral complexities inherent in this setup, refusing – as previous adaptations have done – to paint the Atreides as simple white saviours coming to deliver the Fremen from tyranny.

Wrong – The Fremen

In Dune, Frank Herbert explicitly states that the desert warriors known as Fremen are the descendants of a great Islamic diaspora, and many terms from Arabic and concepts from Islamic thought, religion and culture recur throughout the novel. It’s easy to understand why Villeneuve chose to “de-Islamify” the Fremen for his film version, hiring a multi-ethnic cast and removing most of the Arabic references. But in the process the Fremen have become rather bland, just another band of scruffy anti-authoritarian rebels. Perhaps a better approach would’ve been to honour Herbert’s intentions, and consult with Islamic scholars and writers to make sure the nods to their culture were always appropriate.

Right – Arrakis

Villeneuve’s Dune (it may be in two parts, but it’s absolutely one movie) is a film to get lost in. Unlike much of modern, planet-hopping sci-fi, the story is set almost entirely on a single world – so that world needs to feel completely real. From its windswept ergs and drifts to its rocky pinnacles and huddled, secretive sietch dwellings, Villeneuve’s Arrakis is a totally immersive landscape, every bit as fascinating and believable as the planet Frank Herbert created more than 60 years ago.

Wrong – Arrakeen

In the novels, the capital city of Arrakeen is a bustling place, crowded with traders, smugglers, off-worlders, water-sellers and religious fanatics. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrakeen may be the same, but we never get to find out – the city is kept almost entirely off-screen. The result is that – once again – the Fremen get somewhat short-changed: for Herbert, these were a diverse people, from the comparatively prosperous and indolent “city Fremen” of Arrakeen to the furtive, hardy warriors of the sietches, with their signature “blue in blue” eyes. In the film, by contrast, the Fremen are almost entirely uniform, a largely faceless mass of dusty desert folk.

Right – The perils facing Paul Muad’Dib

In previous screen adaptations of Dune, Paul Atreides is depicted as a saviour: the holy prophet who comes to free the Fremen from imperial tyranny. But such a simplistic approach was never Frank Herbert’s intention – indeed, perhaps the key line in the entire Dune series is “no more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero”. By engaging whole-heartedly with this morally complicated but absolutely essential aspect of Herbert’s work, Villeneuve and Roth have made something infinitely more interesting than the straightforward “hero’s quest” that previous adaptations have offered.

Wrong – The tragedy of Doctor Yueh

Perhaps the greatest disappointment in Villeneuve’s Dune is his treatment of the traitor, Doctor Yueh. In the novels, Wellington Yueh is a deeply flawed but relatable character, willing to sacrifice thousands to free his beloved from eternal torment, and for a chance to avenge himself against Baron Harkonnen. In the films, however, he barely registers: he’s remote and impersonal, with no sense of his inner conflict and his deep love for his tortured wife, Wanna. This choice tears some of the heart out of the story, and leaves Yueh’s treachery feeling like a clunky plot device rather than the last act of a desperate man.

Right – The Bene Gesserit

They may keep to the shadows, but the all-female “mental and physical school” known as the Bene Gesserit are absolutely central to Herbert’s novel and, happily, to Villeneuve’s film. The idea that many of the religious beliefs held by the Fremen have been intentionally planted among them by the Bene Gesserit for their own manipulative purposes is a complicated one, so it’s perhaps not surprising that earlier adaptations chose to simply ignore it. Not so Villeneuve and Roth: indeed, by embracing Herbert’s idea that many aspects of religious belief might be the work of cynical puppet-masters makes these films feel quietly radical, and very timely.

Wrong – The mentats

In the universe of Dune, computers are banned. Following a catastrophic war, all “thinking machines” have been replaced by mentats, human beings trained and manipulated to be able to carry out complex calculations and predictions. Not that you’d get any of this from Villeneuve’s film: the grotesque and fascinating “twisted mentat” Piter De Vries – so memorably played by Brad Dourif in the 1984 David Lynch adaptation – doesn’t even warrant a name in the screen version, and while the Atreides mentat advisor Thufir Hawat does get a decent role in the first film, he’s unexpectedly absent in Part Two.

Right – The Imperium

It may have been inspired by a multitude of Earth cultures past and present, from ancient Greece to Soviet Russia, but the universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune is nonetheless deeply weird. Built on 10,000-year-old power structures and strict ideas of honour and propriety, everything in the Imperium is tightly controlled, from trade and travel to war, combat and even assassination. Through a combination of arcane ritual, spectacular costuming and off-kilter prop and spaceship design, Villeneuve’s film captures this strangeness perfectly, making the harsh but relatively straightforward life-or-death world of Arrakis feel almost familiar by comparison.

Related: Dune: Part Two review – second half of hallucinatory sci-fi epic is staggering spectacle

Wrong – The Spice

Frank Herbert’s Dune is trippy. It may have been published two years before the advent of the so-called “psychedelic revolution”, and penned by an author who claimed never to have consumed hallucinogenic drugs, but there are nonetheless passages in the story that evoke the narcotic experience with uncanny precision. Not so the films: though some of these sequences remain, they’re truncated and rather flat, lacking the hallucinogenic fervour of Herbert’s writing. And again, it’s the Fremen who suffer: the taking of Spice as both a religious sacrament and a bonding ritual is yet another fascinating part of their culture that Villeneuve has chosen to overlook.

• Dune: Part Two is out on 1 March in the UK and US, and on 14 March in Australia. The Worlds of Dune: The Places and Cultures that Inspired Frank Herbert by Tom Huddleston is out now.