Friday, March 19, 2010

TV Review: "Dune", "Children of Dune"

Once upon a time, a 17-year-old girl saw David Lynch's adaptation of "Dune". She did so at the behest of her boyfriend at the time, a hardcore Trekkie who also worshipped at the altar of Frank Herbert.

Three hours later, she came to the conclusion that there probably weren't enough drugs on Earth that could make her understand what the hell was going on.

To be fair, that's a problem I usually have with David Lynch movies, and since I lacked the time (and the disposition) to read Herbert's novels, I was content to let matters lie for a while. And up until a few weeks ago, that was that.

And then my dear kazekage brought up "Dune" in relation to "Avatar", and as is usually the case in our dialogues, he got me thinking. I realized that I'd never gone back to Herbert's creation as an adult - I do that from time to time, going back to stories I dismissed as a teenager just to see if my perspective has changed over the years. Sometimes I find myself developing the opposite opinion ("Sliders" seems so much more formulaic now than it did fifteen years ago), and sometimes... well, I still can't think of a single figure in the DCU pantheon who remotely interests me.

Of course, with my graduate thesis still circling over my head like a vulture, reading the books is still out of the question, so I decided to settle for the "Dune" and "Children of Dune" TV miniseries, written and directed by John Harrison. With a combined length of just over 9 hours, and a reputation that credits Harrison with being more faithful to the books than Lynch, I figured it'd be enough to get some idea of what Herbert was doing.

To my surprise, I really liked the first part of "Dune". Oh, it's slow, but it does an excellent job setting up the various worlds and people within. The actors mostly do well with the material, especially given how flat most of the characters really are: Alec Newman's Paul is just whiny enough to sell his aristocratic background without being obnoxious, Ian McNeice is marvelous as Baron Harkonnen, and Matt Keeslar is exactly the kind of pretty it takes to play the vapid and treacherous Feyd. I also enjoyed the complex political maneuvering between the three Great Houses. Part 1 ends with the climactic Harkonnen attack on House Atreides and the death of Duke Leto.

And then, in part 2... the Desert.

In a word? Oy.

I don't know, maybe it's me. Maybe I'm being unrealistic when I expect science-fiction to avoid the ethereal metaphysics of religion. Of course, I've never seen that combination work well, or at all: not with Kara Thrace, or Neo, or John Henry the Terminator talking scripture with a religious FBI agent. It always comes off as facile tripe, a cheap way of raising suspense by asking impossible questions that ultimately don't "require" an answer. And it completely takes me out of the story.

So after a fairly interesting and engaging first part, imagine my dismay when we spend ninety minutes exploring the Fremen culture, a wafer-thin metaphor for other "desert people" you may or may not have heard of right here on Earth. And then everyone gets high on homegrown drugs and gains superpowers. Paul, of course, is the Chosen One, the Messiah, etc. And he has visions of the future. Of course. By the time the third act started I was rather disengaged; it doesn't help that the story becomes rather predictable at that point, in that the Fremen defeat their Harkonnen tyrants, Paul becomes Emperor, et cetera. Everything is framed in prophecies and dreams and rituals, none of which I find even slightly coherent.

And what's especially frustrating about "Dune" is that, if Harrison had cut out the religious context, he might've been left with a great sci-fi political thriller. The most intriguing sequences in the second and third parts include Princess Irulan's investigation into the Atreides massacre, the Baron's scheme to glorify Feyd at his brother's expense and so on. Paul's ascension to the throne works on that level too. I even loved the various accents and the weird hats (seriously, there are some weird hats in this miniseries). But by the end of the miniseries, the damage had already been done.

Still, I was determined to see this through, so I continued to "Children of Dune". In some ways, it's an improvement; the political storyline is much more engaging from the very start, as Paul's reign has quickly degenerated into a senseless (and apparently meaningless) jihad against the rest of the universe. Paul himself is trapped by his position, while his own people conspire against him with the help of his defeated enemies, including Irulan and the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother. Meanwhile, Irulan's older sister Wensicia (played to perfection by Susan Sarandon) has a few schemes of her own.

Of course, by now I'd come to expect getting my hopes dashed, and sure enough, Paul spends most of part 1 having the same vision over and over again, about something called the Golden Path. I'll get to that in a bit, but let's just say right now that Path leads nowhere you'd want to go.

To both Harrison's and Herbert's credit, I have to say that "Children of Dune" takes some bold turns: Paul, our protagonist and focalizer since the beginning of "Dune", is written out at the end of the first act to make way for his children, Leto and Ghanima (with Leto being played by the absolutely adorable James McAvoy). Paul's sister Alia takes over as Regent, but her mental instability - long foreshadowed if poorly set up - leads her to become increasingly oppressive and violent. As it turns out, she's having hallucinations of the long-dead Baron Harkonnen, who may or may not be possessing her. That was a nice twist. Alia starts seeing the twins as a threat to her power, they go on the run, and... well, that's when I hit the next metaphysical pothole.

See, throughout the first part of "Children of Dune", Paul has the same vision over and over again, where Leto tells him about a Golden Path that holds the key to humanity's salvation. What is the Golden Path? Damned if I know: no one ever explains it. Oh, Leto undergoes a significant (and similarly ill-explained) transformation at the end, but still, as he's standing there declaring a new dawn for mankind, I'm utterly mystified as to the question of just what in the name of Gregor Samsa he's talking about.

Again, it's a situation where the best parts of the story are overshadowed by vague mumbo-jumbo about space heroin. And unlike "Dune", where the characters' relatively flat nature allowed their own arcs to continue despite the religious interruptions, "Children of Dune" seems to lose track of various characters, skipping over significant developments so we can spend more time on Paul and his kids tripping out. What happens to Wensicia's plan to steal sandworms? What happens to the Bene Gesserit after the Reverend Mother's execution? Why does Irulan switch sides after her conspiracy fails? Why don't we get to see characters reacting to major deaths such as Duncan and Paul himself in part 3? Because of drugs. So remember, kids, drugs are bad and will not give you superpowers. They may bore you to the point of utter frustration, though.

And that's it for "Dune". Unlike the Lynch version, I could definitely see a lot of potential in Harrison's adaptations... but at the same time, they're guilty of the same weak, wishy-washy use of pseudo-religion as a way to push the story forward without really thinking it through. And on that level it's no different than something like "Battlestar Galactica", which - despite having a tremendously talented cast and a brilliant story - ended on a note that still pisses me off, a year after the fact. If that aspect hadn't been so dominant, I think I would've liked "Dune". I think I would've liked it a lot.




Some reandom filling-in-the-blanks-using stuff from the books thoughts:

Well--and I understand this may or may not be small comfort--the religious stuff is pretty bog-standard, true, but it is meant as an anti-colonial allegory and while it may have been pretty fresh in the book's time, it can appear played now. What Dune ultimately works out to in the books, is a study of contrasting social movements and philosophies.

Thing is, the book goes into things in a bit more depth. Notionally you're supposed to contrast the Fremen jihad with the previous jihads that wiped out all thinking machines and identify them as a gross overreaction. In the second book, in fact, Paul is confronted with the reality that the Fremen have proved no more just with their reign of power than Shadam the IV did.Most of the second book is rubbish, but that notion of counterrevolutions being a necessary effect of revolutions is a good bit of business. The weakness you see in the end of Paul's story is the weakness of the second book--it's a few good bits, but mostly a deck-clearing exercise.

The Golden Path stuff is actually more from Paul's son's philosophy. Leto basically foresees the stagnation of human evolution (again--the first time this led to the anti-machine crusade) and plays a VERY elaborate long game to break the evolutionary deadlock. This also involves him turning into a sandworm, which is what the whole weird ill-explained transformation was all about.

The problem TV and movie adaptations of these books have is that so much of what happens takes place in dialogues and intrigues and this runs counter to the "show, don't tell" imperative that TV and movies have. Now, you could circumvent this by playing it more in the vein of historical epic/costume drama but . . .people don't imagine SF can really be that.

Just a few thoughts off the cuff. Really, if you want the full effect of Dune, the books are really the best bet.

Diana Kingston-Gabai


I wouldn't have minded the philosophical angle so much if it hadn't been delivered with the grace of old Dubya staggering up a flight of stairs: at least in the first miniseries, it's presented very superficially, without any shading at all - the Fremen are apparently always right, even when they're against Paul and his family ("Children of Dune" seems to lay the blame for the endless slaughter at Paul's feet, rather than his people).

It's a complex and interesting concept - I just wish it could've been put across in a slightly more dynamic way.

Okay, but why does he need to become a sandworm? What's he trying to do? That's the sort of thing that should have been clearer from the get-go, not wrapped in religious terminology and just put out there for the audience to decipher.

Well, of course any trans-media adaptation is inevitably going to miss out on a significant amount of content - it's just a question of whether the final product can stand on its own.

I'll have to get around to that, then. :)



Well, it's done with a bit of a softer touch in the book--really, the Fremen are more different than they are necessarily right (and there's something made of the fact that the Atreides may be using them for their own purposes at first) The business of Paul feeling responsible for the murders in his name is from the novels, but it feels a bit more natural, as it's done a bit more deliberately and doesn't feel like so much of a shift.

Well, for that you have to go to the books, as it's mostly a lot of subtext and intrigue and long conversation and that's the first stuff that gets jettisoned when it's time for a movie.

Well, by the time Leto II becomes Emperor, there's enough Fremen influence in the Empire that the sandworm is still divine, so the accession of what looks like an incarnate god to the throne gives him the added authority to put the Golden Path into action. It's an effort to use the symbols of a religion to dismantle the religion.

Very true. The problem is that more than most novels, Dune really suffers when you take out all the talky bits because all the talking about the plot is necessary to provide sufficient punch for the finale, if that makes sense. :)

Like I said--stick to the first 4. :) That'll give you the strongest picture of what it's all about.