Volume 3, Number 2, Spring, 1985

A Poverty of Philosophy


Directed by David Lynch

starring Francesca Annis, Kyle MacLachlan, Sting, José Ferrer, Siân Phlllips, Max Von Sydow.
Reviewed by John Ahrens

If there’s anyone who hasn’t seen Dune—and with the reviews it received that’s probably quite a few people—I recommend it. It’s a good movie: great actors, great SFX action and romance. If you haven’t read the book, you probably won’t be disappointed.

Of course, the film versions of great books. especially great long books, are usually disappointing to the book’s fans. It is simply not possible to capture the complexity and richness of a book like Dune in a movie of reasonable length. Characters, subplots, and events that are not "essential" have to be sacrificed to the attention span of audiences and the financial concerns of theater owners. Three-and-one half hours is just about the upper limit for a commercially viable film, and a book like Dune cannot be reduced to that length (much less the two hours and twenty minutes that the film actually runs) without some loss.

Unfortunately. what was lost in the adaptation of Dune to the screen was the most important part. The major elements of the story are all there, and aren’t even unduly overshadowed by the spectacular sets and special effects. The characters are virtually all there, too. but some of them are an unneeded distraction being introduced with great fanfare and portent, and then, because some subplot has been dropped or condensed, doing nothing.

Missing entirely, however, is the philosophical play and counterplay that characterized the novel. One essential element of the book, although not the only one. is the clash of two diametrically opposed world-views—that of the Fremen and that of the Bene Gesserit. The character Paul Atreides is the product of the Bene Gesserit philosophy, but he is more than that philosophy had ever envisioned. He is also the highest ideal of the Fremen philosophy, but he is more than that philosophy had ever been able to produce. In the person of Paul Atreides, we see the fatal flaw of one of these philosophies and the dangerous tendencies of the other.

The Bene Gesserit are Herbert’s vision of the philosopher kings. They are devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding and their devotion has given them great powers—the power to know the truth and the power to sway the minds of human beings. But, and this is despite the ambivalence to war [garbled --ed] power that is evident in most of Herbert’s work, the Bene Gesserit’s power has not deprived them of their integrity. Their goal is high and noble—to master the forces of nature that shape human destiny and to marshall all the resources of humanity to the task of shaping that destiny.

Herbert portrays the Freman, on the other hand, as fiercely individualistic. All individuals take responsibility for their own welfare and expect everyone else to do the same. Their deepest scorn is reserved for those who have never had to test themselves. who have used the artifices of politics and finance to shift risk and hardship to others. The Fremen have no desire for power; each of them desires to master only himself.

But this individualism has not deprived them of the benefits of civilization and society. For each recognizes his dependence on the group and each would willingly die rather than become a burden.

Most of this philosophical subplot is missing from the movie because it spends too little time exploring the Bene Gesserit training Paul receives before going to Arrakis and the changes be undergoes during the time he spends with the Fremen. We see the Fremen as little more than noble savages who have achieved dignity and civilization despite their harsh environment. They are portrayed as simple people with the simple virtues of loyalty and honesty. The Bene Gesserit are nothing more than witches, their power neither more plausible nor more interesting than the Force that keeps Luke Skywalker out of trouble.

Thus, while the movie tells the book's story, it deprives this story of much of its significance. The primary conflict in the movie is over control of the spice. The Bene Gesserit need it to maintain their [garbled --ed]. MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, does, in David Lynch’s film, Dune, mental powers; the Spacers Guild needs it to navigate interstellar space; the Emperor needs it to preserve his hold over the aristocracy. The Fremen have control of the spice, and they must exercise it in order to preserve the desert as a testing ground for their way of life.

This is essentially a political conflict and it is resolved according to the logic of such conflicts. The Fremen have a hole-card, control of the source of spice; and they have a leader, Paul Atreides, who possesses superior political and military skills. To no one's surprise, the Fremen win.

In the book, this political conflict is merely one manifestation of the much deeper philosophical conflict. The reader is never in doubt that the Emperor (and his tool, the Baron) and the Spacers Guild will lose. They are opportunists, and they make the fatal mistake that is so common among their kind: they assume that their opponents are also opportunists. The only real players are the Bene Gesserit and the Fremen, because they are motivated by a philosophy and this makes their motivations incomprehensible to an opportunist.

And, in fact, Herbert doesn’t leave the reader very long in the dark about what the outcome of this deeper conflict will be. He portrays the Bene Gesserit as attempting to control the human spirit for its own betterment: and he is clearly not optimistic about this. The only real doubt is whether or not Paul will be able to stop the Jihad that seems destined to follow his victory. In the end, he cannot.

This is the cautionary element of Herbert’s story. He sees a danger in the philosophy of individualism, especially when that philosophy is the result of a harsh and demanding environment. The danger is that the environment which produces the philosophy will come to be seen as a test and, hence, that those who have not passed the test will be seen as unworthy. This is exactly what happens in Dune and the jihad is the result. Herbert doubts our ability to control the human spirit and shape it into something more and better than it is; but neither is he unduly optimistic about what the unfettered human spirit will produce.

It is not clear to me why these philosophical complexities were omitted from the film. for in many ways the movie is quite daring. For example, the movie, like the book, makes extensive use of the internal monologue; throughout the film we hear the thoughts of the characters. It would hardly have been more daring to make the movie longer by 45 minutes or an hour to accommodate a bit of philosophy.

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