Dune: Is the Book or Movie Better?

Every time a book is adapted as a movie or a television show, one of the first things people will argue about is how well the adaptation performs compared to the book. Dune is no different—the 2021 movie is the third screen adaptation of the book, following the 1984 film and the 2000 Syfy television miniseries Frank Herbert’s Dune, and it has reignited the same discussions about the book vs the movie. So, is the Dune movie better than the book?

The Dune movie and book are relatively equal in how well they treat the story. The movie is a rare adaptation that is truly faithful to the source material. However, there are some differences between them that stand out, and there are still many things that are only present in the book.

If you want to learn more about the differences between the Dune movie and the book, you’re in the right place. In this article, I’ll look at ways the two are different, allowing you to decide which of the two you’ll prefer.

Princess Irulan Is No Longer Present

Readers of the book will know that it is anchored by the narrative voice of Princess Irulan, daughter of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam Corrino IV. In the book, Irulan writes a series of historical texts about the power that Paul Atreides will gain over time, and epigraphs from her works serve as the start of each chapter.

However, in the movie, Irulan is done away with. Her character is never mentioned, although she’ll likely still appear in the next Dune movie.

Instead, the de facto narrator of the movie is Chani, Paul’s to-be lady love. However, even her voice is not given as much importance as Irulan’s is given in the book. Instead, Paul and Lady Jessica’s words and perspectives are front and center over everyone else.

This is an important decision in terms of how much of the complete plot of the book and the series is revealed in the movie. This is because, as readers of the book will already know, Princess Irulan is Paul’s future wife, who he marries as a way to consolidate his power and succeed Shaddam IV as the Padishah Emperor.

Chani, Paul’s true love and mother of his children, is “relegated” to the role of his concubine. While she has more power over him than his wife, she lacks the formal title held by Irulan, and this conflict affects Irulan’s actions in the second book, Dune Messiah.

In some ways, removing Irulan’s character helps focus the story on Herbert’s original vision of a fictional representation of the oil wars that were ever-present in the Middle East when he was writing the book.

The Fremen are clearly inspired by indigenous desert peoples, including the Bedouin and the San. The planet Arrakis was inspired by the countries of the Middle East, as well as Mexico.

By giving Irulan the power of telling the story of Arrakis, the Fremen, and Paul—an adopted member of the Fremen—Herbert was essentially giving the power of telling the story to the noble houses seen as the oppressors of the Fremen. Paul’s war against the Padishah Emperor is, in some ways, a war of independence for the Fremen, and giving Irulan the power of telling the story subverts this storyline.

Instead, the movie transfers the power of storytelling to Chani, an indigenous Fremen woman who plays a vital role in the story of her planet and people over the centuries.

We, the movie audience, are no longer asked to think of House Atreides and other newcomers on the planet as morally superior. Instead, like Chani, we ask, “Who will our next oppressors be?” making the point that, to the Fremen, House Atreides is as much of a suspicious unknown as House Harkonnen or the Padishah Emperor himself would have been.

The Fremen only accept Paul after he proves his role as the prophet Lisan al-Gaib, as well as acceptance of Fremen ways. By making Chani the narrator, power is returned to the Fremen, and viewers are made all the more suspicious of the people in power.

Liet Kynes Gets a Makeover

In both the book and the movie, Liet Kynes is an Imperial ecologist who serves as a secret leader of the Fremen. However, the film makes a critical change to the character. Instead of being male, the Liet Kynes in the movie is female and is played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster.

This change may not seem relevant to people who have not read the book, but it actually has the potential to significantly alter the history of one of the biggest characters in the book. In the book, the male Liet Kynes is the father of Chani.

While Villeneuve has confirmed that Kynes and Chani are still parent and child, with Kynes being Chani’s mother rather than father, we do not know how or if this will affect the second movie’s plot.

Additionally, in the book, Liet Kynes’s death was a significantly longer affair than we were shown in the movie. He was abandoned in the desert and left to die of dehydration and delirium. In the film, however, Kynes gets a more cinematic sendoff, protecting Paul and Lady Jessica from the Sardaukar by luring a sandworm to her location. The sandworm devours the Imperial troops—and, in the process, Kynes as well.

Lady Jessica’s Role in House Atreides Is Altered

Lady Jessica is not married to Leto Atreides in either the book or the movie. Even though there is genuine love between the two, she is relegated to the role of his concubine.

In the book, this reflects the position of marriage as a political tool. While Lady Jessica is extremely powerful, her name is not politically influential, and therefore, there is no reason for Leto to marry her. This affects her role in House Atreides, and many members of the House essentially treat her as a second-class citizen.

This secondary role affects how she is treated when her son is attacked. In the book, efforts by House Harkonnen leave Lady Jessica being considered a potential spy against the Atreides. Though Leto himself never suspects her, many of the loyal members of House Atreides do, including Thufir Hawat, which leads to a confrontation between the two.

In the movie, Lady Jessica is given significantly more power. She is no longer relegated to a second-class role in House Atreides and is no longer suspected of being a potential spy.

Additionally, a significant change comes in the way she is seen by Leto. In the book, he tells Paul that he should have married his mother. In the movie, however, this confession is delivered to Lady Jessica herself.

Finally, there is the difference between how Lady Jessica and Paul manage to escape their Harkonnen captors. In both versions, Lady Jessica uses “the Voice” to free them—but in the book, she seduces her captors, while in the movie, she simply orders them to commit suicide.

Though these changes do not significantly alter the plot of the movie compared to the book, in some ways, they modernize the text, giving Lady Jessica more power. This reflects the way the film treats women in general, such as changing Liet Kynes’s gender and giving her death a greater impact.

Certain Characters Are No Longer As Important

Aside from Irulan, the movie does away with or alters the importance of several other characters. For one, Feyd-Rautha, nephew to Baron Harkonnen, is removed from the story entirely.

Furthermore, the class of Mentats is given significantly less importance. Mentats are humans with exceptional cognitive abilities—human supercomputers developed as a response to the prohibition against AI, computers, and robots in the Dune universe. While two prominent Mentats—Thufir Hawat of House Atreides and Piter De Vries of House Harkonnen—are present, their role as Mentats is not mentioned.

Additionally, their roles are much reduced. In the book, Hawat is captured by the Harkonnens and nearly destroys them from the inside by influencing Feyd-Rautha. By removing the latter from the story, this plotline is no longer present. Furthermore, as mentioned above, his confrontation with Lady Jessica is removed.

Similarly, in the book, De Vries is depicted as a villain only second to Baron Harkonnen. His death due to Leto’s release of poison gas is meant to be a triumph for the reader even though the Baron escapes. However, by scaling down his role, we no longer feel his death to be an acceptable alternative to the death of the Baron, making the release of poison gas feel almost like an exercise in futility.

These changes, it should be noted, are intentional. Direct Denis Villeneuve wanted the movie to focus more on Paul and Lady Jessica than on other characters. However, there remains a possibility that these characters will become more prominent in the sequel.

The Dinner Scene Is Removed

In the book, House Atreides hosts a dinner party with various guests, including Liet Kynes in his role as Imperial ecologist. One of the key moments of the party is Leto’s decision to end a ritual of pouring unused water on the ground during the event, as he recognizes it as an act of cruelty on a desert planet with little water.

This makes Kynes think more forgivingly of Leto, who he previously regarded as no better than other rulers of Arrakis. Kynes is aware that Leto is doomed, but his change of heart towards him impacts how he later interacts with Lady Jessica and Paul.

Additionally, the party is, in some ways, Paul’s coming of age. He takes over as host when his father is called away, showing that, while he is still young, he is ready to lead—and it is a change his mother notices. This impacts how she interacts with him in the rest of the book.

In the movie, the scene is done away with altogether. There are some suggestions that it was filmed but not included in the theatrical release.

The Movies Only Covers Part of the Book

Another intentional difference between the movie and the book is that the movie doesn’t cover the entire book.

When people think about movie adaptations of books, they expect the movie to adapt the entire source material. For example, the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone movie adapted the entirety of the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone novel for the big screen.

However, there are occasions when the source material is too long to be adapted into a single movie. The most famous examples of this are:

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: The book was adapted into two movies, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
  • The Hobbit: This book was adapted into a trilogy of movies. These were The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Similarly, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune plans to break the novel into two movies.

The original Dune novel is long and dense. Depending on the edition, it can be anywhere between 400-700 pages long.

Additionally, it introduces readers to an entirely new universe. Unlike Harry Potter, which has recognizable elements to our own world, Dune takes place in a distant future, on unknown planets, and features new concepts (Spice Melange), peoples (Mentats, the Fremen), and religious organizations (Bene Gesserit).

Readers who don’t know what to expect from the novel often stop partway through because they feel confused and lost, and this is a risk the filmmakers were aware of. The challenge of adapting such a long and complex novel for the screen was one of the reasons why the 1984 adaptation failed.

To overcome this issue, Villeneuve decided to split the novel into two and adapt each half individually. The 2021 movie is officially known as Dune: Part One, and a second movie—Dune: Part Two— is expected to be released in 2023.

This means that there is a good possibility that many characters missing from the current movie, such as Irulan and Feyd-Rautha, may appear in the second movie. That said, it should be noted that their exclusion still amounts to a significant change—the portion of the novel that Villeneuve has adapted did feature them appearing on the page.

However, readers of the book expecting to see the entire novel adapted into a single movie will be disappointed. At the same time, there’s a strong chance that the success of Villeneuve’s adaptation is due to his decision to split the book into two movies. Without this decision, he would have been forced to include multiple other important events, resulting in the exclusion of much of what did make it to the screen.

Final Thoughts

Dune,the book, and the 2021 movie are relatively equally matched. Director Denis Villeneuve has split the novel into two films to allow him to bring as much of the book to the big screen as possible, which means that fans of the books are unlikely to feel their favorite parts have been cut. However, this does mean that readers will have to wait until the rest of the book makes it to the silver screen.

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