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Terrible Purpose: Beauty and Contradiction at the Heart of Dune

  • Content Warning: Language, Violence, Sexuality
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • Age Recommendation: 16+

In Dune, Part One and Part Two, Denis Villeneuve has adapted the unadaptable. These two impressive films, though they simplify and sometimes alter their source material, manage to distill the heart and soul of Frank Herbert’s original novel (1965). Given the influence of the ideas embodied in the text and now popularized in the films, it seems a good moment to appraise these adaptations, and to reflect on the ideas they promote. Like the films, this essay is divided into two parts, the first being a traditional film review (of both films), and the second, a reflection upon and critique of Dune’s underlying philosophy. 

The Films

No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.

—Pardot Kynes to Liet Kynes, Dune

Set in the far future of our own universe, the two Dune films by Denis Villeneuve adapt Frank Herbert’s original Nebula and Hugo Award winning novel by the same name. Ten thousand years after the Butlerian Jihad in which human beings overthrew and banned thinking machines, the galaxy runs on spice. Found only on the desert planet Arrakis (or Dune) where it is guarded by enormous sandworms, the spice melange forms the basis of the interstellar economy, since, in addition to lengthening life, its mind-enhancing properties allow members of the Spacing Guild to perform the complex navigations necessary to safely move the enormous heighliner ships through folds in space-time. The galaxy is ruled by the Corrino Empire (a.k.a. the Imperium), and power is divided among various monopolies, quasi-religious orders, and the Great Houses. Of the latter, the House Atreides, led by Duke Leto and his common-law wife, Lady Jessica, are among the more virtuous, while the House Harkonnen, the Atreides’ nemeses, are thoroughly vile and corrupt.  

The story opens on the Atreides family, Leto, Jessica, and Paul, as they move from their idyllic waterworld of Caladan to the desolate world of Arrakis/Dune. In theory, Emperor Shaddam IV has given the Atreides a great honor by removing the Harkonnens from Arrakis and placing that pivotal planet under Atreides stewardship. In reality, this Greek gift is the means by which the emperor hopes to destroy the rising Atreides for reasons of political expediency. The Atreides know they are walking into a trap, but it’s one they cannot sidestep. Unlike the book, which is told somewhat in the manner of a Greek tragedy, with the general fate of its main characters known in advance, the film maintains dramatic tension, letting us hope that the admirable Duke Leto will somehow survive the ordeal. Shortly after arriving, Harkonnen troops, aided by an Atreides traitor and the emperor’s own elite Sardaukar, invade Arakkis and dispatch Duke Leto. However, the Lady Jessica, a Bene Gesserit weirding woman (more on this in a moment), escapes into the desert with her teenage son, Paul. 

To understand Paul’s significance, it’s necessary to know something of the Bene Gesserit. Imagine an all-female order of “Jesuitical” witch-nuns whose various modes of indirect, feminine influence have been greatly enhanced by a form of bodily telekinesis, and you will not be far off the mark. Though externally a religious order, they merely employ religion and myth as tools for controlling the political landscape. Their ultimate goal is to lay the genetic and political groundwork needed to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, a messianic male figure endowed with Bene Gesserit powers. Through him they connive to establish direct control over the Imperium. To that end, the Bene Gesserit have seeded local, organic religions around the Imperium with prophecies that tie into their own political goals. The Fremen—mysterious and fanatical denizens of Dune’s deep deserts—are among those who await this messiah under the name of the Lisan al-Gaib, a figure they believe will liberate their people and make Arakkis an ocean world.

While the first Dune film shows the fall of House Atreides and Paul and Jessica’s flight into the desert, the second film traces their rise to influence and power among the Fremen, Paul’s quest for vengeance against the Harkonnens, and his eventual embrace of the radical power that comes with taking on the role of the Lisan al-Gaib. This is no small matter, for, in addition to consciously stepping into a role he knows to have been fabricated, Paul’s Bene Gesserit pedigree grants him a strange and growing prescience, one that lets him foresee the consequences of this “narrow way through”: bloodshed on a galaxy-wide scale. Haunted by this “terrible purpose” and transformed by a quasi-religious ritual involving the spice melange, Paul Atreides becomes the (partially self-styled) fulfillment of the Lisan al-Gaib, otherwise known as Mahdi. In this way, the Bene Gesserit’s own machinations turn back upon them. Riding at the head of an army of radicalized Fremen, Paul confronts the Harkonnens, and Emperor Shaddam himself. As the second film closes, we realize that in Paul we’ve witnessed the rise not of a traditional hero, but of a political operator; perhaps even a tyrant. 

Books aren’t Screenplays

In this much, the films and novel agree, though there is much that the films leave out. Hardcore Dune fans have lamented the loss of favorite scenes (such as the Banquet Scene), powerful entities (such as the Spacing Guild and its pivotal role in the book’s finale), certain subplots (most of Thufir Hawat’s story), and the transformation of Paul’s love-interest Chani from a mysterious and supportive Fremen Medea to Zendaya’s skeptical and somewhat angry rendition of that character. About many of these changes I have little to say, except to note that any film that did the novel complete justice would feel overstuffed, rushed, or badly paced. While the novel’s true fans may love it for its complexity, its hyper-omniscient, almost solipsistic narrative style, and its elaborate subplots, there is not a chance that a direct adaptation would be greenlit in Hollywood, let alone profitable. Consider for a moment that this is a novel in which a monologuing, super-intelligent four-year-old dispatches the Baron Harkonnen with a poisoned needle! Some things can only be written; not filmed.

 Before delving into the films’ brilliance as films, I must take issue with one innovation: that of styling the southern Fremen as “fundamentalists.” While I appreciate the director’s need, given the shortened timeline, to change the aforementioned character of Alia Atreides from a prescient toddler to a prescient unborn baby, and even the need to invent some artificial tensions between skeptical and deeply devout Fremen, the film thrice uses the contemporary “fundamentalist” as a descriptor for the latter (invented) group. Even more cringe-inducing, these super-devout Fremen live in the south, whereas the skeptical Fremen live in the north. This is just plain silly, although I suspect it was less motivated by a political agenda than by the writers’ modern parochialism. Little things like this mar the films, but they are still works of cinematic beauty. Their excellence shows in four areas in particular: cinematography, score, set and costume design, and standout performances.

Other-Worldly Cinematography

Following Herbert’s concern with the environment, Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Rogue One, The Batman) make every place a character. In a story so dense, the rocks themselves must tell tales; and they do. A brief glimpse of lush Calladan contrasted with the harsh world of Arakkis allows the viewers to feel the loss of the Atreides’ ancestral homeland, and the desolation toward which they’re heading. Where Calladan was a waterworld, the desert of Arakkis feels enormous, overwhelming, suffocating; and its monstrous dunes are frozen tidal waves; impassable mountains. Even before we see the sandworms, and well before Paul’s jaw-dropping worm-riding scene, Villeneuve and Fraser’s perspective on the desert highlights its sheer potential power in visual form, making it a dry, indifferent ocean or a sleeping god. But if Arakkis is indifferent, the Harkonnen planet of Geidi Prime, with its black sun and frightening, triangular colosseum, is downright hostile. Hostile is not even the word; the place feels like a demon, a hungry, hateful, perverse, industrial predator. Even its fireworks are corrupt; obese; flatulent. Words fail—as does this reviewer’s knowledge of the techniques behind the magic—but suffice it to say that every single shot in these movies, bright or ominous, epic or intimate, could be printed off and stuck in a frame on the wall.

The Music of Dune

The music of Dune is otherworldly, and is as much a “character” as the visual environments. Hans Zimmer’s score feels at turns dreamlike, driving, tribal, and threatening. There is a lingering sense of melancholy and doom woven through it, a feeling of unseen perils. From the throat singing on the Sardaukar planet, to shocking vocals of Loire Cotler on the track “Gom Jabbar,” to the chanting and driving drums as the Fremen army rides out on sandworms toward the emperor’s Sardaukar, one feels hypnotized. But silence is also a kind of song. Villeneuve’s decision to drop the score entirely for the climactic battle between Paul Atreides and Feyd-Rautha makes the scene frightening and raw. This is not Skywalker versus Vader in Return of the Jedi. There are no musical cues to tell us how to feel about this brutal knife fight between two killers, as if God himself were pulling back from the scene, and groaning within.

Texture: Set and Costumes

All this visual and auditory ambience would be nothing without a world that felt lived-in. The novel, while hyper-descriptive in some ways, is short on the kinds of details that make visual interpretation easy. We have little sense from the books of how characters, ships, and costumes actually look. And, while there have been several previous attempts to film Dune, Villeneuve and his team have given Herbert’s world its definitive visual identity. This world feels real, and vast, and the vehicles, characters, and architecture, varied as they are, fit together as part of one universe. All of this suggests a great deal of thought, planning, and meticulous attention to the kind of background details that create verisimilitude for the viewer. As much as we’re shown, it still feels like what’s onscreen is only the tip of a very large iceberg (or sand dune). But Dune’s actors are never overwhelmed by these rich environs. 

Standout Performances

Each actor’s performance is highly competent, but there are a few standouts. Though I was initially dubious of Timotheé Chalamet’s casting as Paul, his transformation from skinny “pup” in Dune: Part One to compelling messianic figure in the latter half of the second film is somehow more believable because of the contrast between his skeletal frame and the change in bearing that Chalamet effects. Austin Butler delivers a disturbing performance as hedonistic psychopath Feyd-Rautha. Javier Bardem is a very likable Stilgar who tends to steal his scenes, though I must say, the script does the character dirty by making him a simple believer, rather than the grave and subtle man we meet in the novel. Léa Seydoux, who plays a minor role and spends perhaps five minutes onscreen, somehow lends weight and realism to the whole unseen background world in which the film takes place. Finally, and most importantly: Rebecca Ferguson. My goodness, what an incredible actress! The character she plays is many things: a protective mother, a loving wife (though one deprived of the title), a widow, a dangerous witch, a politician, a spiritual matriarch—and a monster. She carries all of these dimensions with her in every scene, like a diamond in shadow, its many facets just out of view. If there is any justice in the world, there’s an Oscar in her future. 

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica

The Warnings

Lest the praise I’m heaping on this film be taken as a universal endorsement, let me correct the record: these films are not suitable for all audiences. Both contain violent and disturbing imagery. The Harkonnens’ perversity and hedonism is mostly suggested rather than shown, but it is suggested very, very effectively. Acts of sadism and even cannibalism are alluded to or take place just offscreen, and it’s made patently obvious (without ever being shown) that their view of sexuality is entirely instrumental and predatory. Meanwhile, though the film’s entire plot revolves around religion as a social force, neither film contains anything like authentic religion as a counter-balance to false religion. Without saying it in so many words, the films suggest that religion is for the simple, unless of course it’s being wielded by the intelligent against the simple. Messianic concepts in particular are singled out as a means of controlling the masses. The film does not attack religion as such, and it can be seen as making legitimate critiques of weaponized religious zealotry, but there is nothing here to counterbalance the impression that religion is just the same thing as superstition. However, good art requires beauty and so can never entirely escape its transcendental bedfellows, truth and goodness. There are important insights to be drawn from Dune, even if these come somewhat at the expense of the story’s own message. With this in mind, we turn to investigate the enduring popularity of Dune and stories like it, in order to see what they can tell us about contemporary man’s relation to those higher things.    

Dune and the Sacral Order

What do you despise? By this you are truly known.

—From “Manual of Muad’dib” by the Princess Irulan (Dune)

Almost sixty years after its publication, Dune has a devoted literary following, which is only destined to grow with the films’ success. However, in following online discussions and film analyses from old fans and those new to the story, I’ve noticed a recurrent need among commentators to rationalize their attraction to the very elements in the story that make it unique. Specifically, there’s a kind of hedging or ambivalence about the pull of a universe in which nobility, monarchy, religion (in some form), and tradition play formative institutional roles. At first glance, this ambivalence seemed to apply only to fans whose sense of political correctness put them at odds with their own spontaneous affection for Herbert’s stratified future world. However, in re-reading the first book, I realized that the cognitive dissonance I’d attributed to contemporary Dune fans has its source in the novel. Embedded within Dune there lurks a tension between the modern, horizontal, secularized political order, which one is supposed to love, and an older, hierarchical, sacralized order, which one is supposed to hate. 

A culture’s values can be discovered, in part, by looking at its architecture and social structures. For much of human history, the dominant physical structures in any city were its temples, monuments, and buildings of state, the latter being also imbued with a sense of higher purpose. Lifestyle and identity tended to reflect workways, and these in turn were often prescribed within clear boundaries. Whether one considers a pre-Christian pagan state in which the king was often a high-priest or demigod, or medieval Christendom in which the secular state, though distinct from religious authority, still derived its right to rule from God, civilization prior to final collapse of the Ancien Régime was hierarchical—and self-consciously so. In contrast, the modern system, a synthesis of liberalism, nationalism, and industrial capitalism, has replaced the temples and palaces with government buildings that, at best, look like temples, while its most dominating structures are pragmatic rectangles dedicated to trade. While the old order was hierarchical, the contemporary order prides itself on being horizontal, that is, “equal.” While the former states had rulers appointed by God/the gods, these have “representatives” and “executives” whose authority is said to bubble-up from the mass of equal, self-governing individuals. Now, I do not propose here to criticize the modern system, or argue for the older one, but I will make some observations.

Firstly, in practical terms modern citizens are no more entirely equal and free than were ancient or medieval “subjects.” Differences in parenting, education, experience, health, wealth, virtue, and so on will invariably generate hierarchies, and everyone knows that his equality before the law depends, at least in part, on the quality of his lawyer. Secondly, modern government officials, whether styled “executive,” “representative,” or “public servant” do, in fact, command and rule. True, their rule is often curtailed in many ways, but the same was true of medieval kings and Roman emperors. Thirdly, our societies, while lacking any official religion, produce copious amounts of pseudo-religion in the forms of “civic religion,” political causes, social crazes, spiritual gurus, and ideologies. Now among moderns, there are those who acknowledge natural hierarchies and embrace them—“conservatives,” generally speaking—those who acknowledge hierarchies but regard them as unjust—“progressives” or “radicals” (depending on how much they stand personally to lose)—and those whose views are some combination of elements of the above. But no matter where a modern citizen places himself philosophically, he tends to view the contemporary Liberal-Secular-Egalitarian arrangement as a vast improvement on the old hierarchical order, and to look with suspicion on anything that smacks too much of established hierarchies. We may say then that while ancient or medieval man, subject to a sacral order, was a “transcendentalist,” contemporary man, even when religious, is an “immanentist.” 

And yet, we moderns, while we reject the sacral order, also crave it. Enter Dune. Indeed, enter many science fiction novels and films.

Were Dune pure fantasy writing, its hierarchies, palace intrigues, and magical/spiritual qualities could be safely dismissed to the realms of “a long time ago,” somewhere far, far away; as in Star Wars. But Dune is essentially political sci-fi wearing the garb of space opera. Had Herbert only wished to create a world where characters were safe to ride dragons, fight with blades, and do battle with evil barons, he could have written in Tolkien’s genre. Instead, he chose to craft the political, technological, and historical details of his universe so that they would render blades, dragons (worms), and barons necessary. He wanted a world that looked “medieval.” He wanted a world where wizards (mentats, guild navigators), monastics (the Bene Gesserit), and magic (the spice melange, the weirding way) were necessary. And then he wanted to overthrow that world, to show, in story form, the dangers (as he viewed them) of hierarchies, established religions, and rulers. Frank Herbert expressed as much in interviews about his reasons for writing Dune. Yet the entire appeal of Dune depends upon this sacral order.

That is just what I find so interesting: the commentators, the film journalists, the deep thinkers who praise the film and then, shaking their heads gravely, hasten to remind us that Paul is not the hero and that Herbert never intended him to be, are telling lies. They aren’t lying about the film or books. They are lying to themselves, and about themselves. They are pretending that their hearts—which skipped a beat when the Fremen charged over the dunes of Arakkis bearing the standard of House Atreides on the backs of gargantuan creatures—do not also long for the old glory of seeing noble standards carried into battle. They are lying when they confess to loving Lady Jessica and palace intrigue, but not to loving ladies and palaces. They are lying when they disapprove of the entanglement of clergy and religion with the shape of the state, while at the same time enjoying the drama of that influence in the form of Bene Gesserit. They are not being serious if they imagine that the scene in which Paul silences the Reverend Mother Mohiam, avenges his father, and takes the imperial throne would have been just as appealing had Paul instead used his influence to draft documents for implementing a direct democracy, and his bully pulpit to persuade the masses to join him in a new egalitarian existence. In all of these examples, the whole drama of the story depends upon the drama of sacral order, whereas its supposed “lesson” concerns the importance of overthrowing that same order. In other words, the real drama of Dune is the drama of blasphemy, and blasphemy is always parasitic. To quote Chesterton: “Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it” (Heretics).

The widespread appeal of stories, films, and video games that recapitulate the old hierarchies, the Western tendency to elevate actors and athletes and presidents to pseudo-noble status, even the tabloid appeal of the British royal family, seem to testify to an enduring, but for us moderns, taboo instinct to long for sacral order. We democrats say we do not want kings, courts, and priestcraft, but we have a strange tendency to produce “big brothers,” pseudo-nobles, and social gurus. One way of looking at this is to claim that the project of progress is not yet finished, and requires more education, but an objective observer from outer space could be forgiven for thinking that we egalitarians very much want what we say we don’t want. We want a society and state imbued with “terrible purpose.” And I think that Frank Herbert, loud literary protestations to the contrary, wanted this too. He may not have wished it, but he did want it. Six books of increasingly convoluted court intrigue and pseudo-transcendance testify to that want.  

Now perhaps this very human desire for a purposive social order imbued from the top-down with the odor of transcendence is only a kind of persistent superstition, the sociological equivalent of a logical fallacy. The voices of revolution always tell us what was wrong with the old ways, but never why anyone wanted them in the first place. They do not explain the tendency of revolutions to produce new pseudo-kings, new oligarchies, and new spiritualities. Iconoclasm, like blasphemy, feels liberating at the start, but always seems to erect new, unquestionable idols, the latter more terrible and unforgiving than the first. But the iconoclast has a dark secret, which I will now reveal: he is nothing without his icons. A philosophy of pure “progress,” of continual revolt against the established, must eventually run out of idols to smash. And when that terrible day comes, when the last icon lays broken on the floor, the iconoclast must turn his ire on the one image remaining: himself. It’s perhaps not surprising then that contemporary progressives have made the human form, male and female, the latest sacred vestige in need of smashing and reshaping, or that in later books Paul’s son, Leto Atreides II, in order to complete the liberation of mankind, turns himself into a sexless human worm!

Now it is possible this is all just the cost of progress, the proverbial breaking of a few eggs. But it is also possible that human beings, though they long for salvation, do not have the power to effect it merely by willing it. It is possible that some elements of the old hated order were necessary for imbuing human society with beautiful purpose, lending life a greater nobility within the limits of this present darkness. Dune, an American novel written in the 1960s, offers a message of liberation from sacral order, but it had to recreate the external forms of that order just to be able to break them. The great irony of this work is that its attraction lies precisely in the structural elements of the world to which its underlying message is most opposed. Dune readers and film viewers are supposed to come away with the message that we should be careful about trusting leaders endowed with “terrible purpose,” and that we should be suspicious of waiting on a messiah for the liberation of mankind. But the actual lesson, the lesson I derive from the spectacle and phenomenon of Dune, is that the great battle for human progress isn’t an economic and political battle for a heaven that could be here, but a personal and spiritual battle for a heaven that must be elsewhere. Something must be missing in our modern, progressive vision, for it seems to degrade our world as much as progress it. To quote the Orange Catholic Bible from Herbert’s book, “What senses do we lack that we cannot see or hear another world all around us?”  

About the Author

Joe Breslin

Fifth Grade Homeroom

The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.

-Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Joe Breslin teaches writing, and other homeroom subjects at the Heights School. In 2022, he published Other Minds: 13 Tales of Wonder and Sorrow. His next collection of speculative fiction, Hearts Uncanny, will be released late summer of 2024. Samples of his fiction and his essays can be found at

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