Dune, Dialogue, Wishing Sand Worms Would Kill Me
Dune…desert planet…no dialogue. Before we plunge ahead in our ‘sit-still’ suits, I promise to work very hard to avoid any ‘spoiler alerts.’ Though, in my defense, this story has been around since disco was cool.
Also, feel free to disagree with my opinion, just please do so politely. Videophiles and cinephiles will LOVE this movie. For the record, I am not arguing about the breathtaking cinematic beauty of the movie. That was spot on.
…it’s just the rest I’ll pick to pieces.
Why am I taking the time to critique the remake of Dune? Other than the obvious answer that there are a TON of amazing stories out there that Hollywood hasn’t already remade?
It has to do with one of the key fundamentals of the writing CRAFT—dialogue. Dialogue is more than talking, and when writers fail to appreciate that, we end up with forgettable books, plays and yes, movies.
Today I am not going to deep-dive all the ins and outs of dialogue, but I will use the rerelease of Dune to show—NOT TELL—why dialogue is critical for excellent storytelling. We’ll cover some essential points about dialogue, then I’ll cross-apply this to why Dune 2021 left me more than a little underwhelmed.
Dialogue Makes Stories Iconic
I feel I am uniquely qualified to critique the new Dune because a) I am a hopeless nerd b) I have read the unabridged books so many times it is no mystery I was single until age 35, and c) I’ve watched the original movie so many times I know every line by heart.
Dialogue is one of the key factors that can elevate a story to a legend.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Leave the gun, take the cannoli.
T’is a flesh wound.
Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.
That’s my stapler.
Winter is coming.
I worked hard to give numerous examples. The first is from Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities, a book long enough to brain a burglar. Most people recognize this quote, even though I would venture to say that, though they know the quote, they’ve never read the book.
This one quote has lived on and is used in conversation, movies, etc. You might be yelling at me right now and saying, “But Kristen! That isn’t dialogue, that is narration.”
And that would be traditional thought. But, according to Robert McKee’s GENIUS book, Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Stage, Page, and Screen narration is dialogue and he explains why on page 3. We’ll also talk about this more in another post.
How many books, series or movies do we quote without even thinking? Lines that have woven themselves inextricably into our culture and even become part of our cultural lexicon? Dialogue is LIFE.
We KNOW Our People Because of Dialogue
The spice must flow…
Dear eight-pound, six-ounce, newborn Baby Jesus.
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
That’s my spot.
How many of us quote lines from books or movies we’ve not even read or seen?
I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.
I have never SEEN The Godfather. Don’t shout me down, I’m just not a huge fan of gangster films. But that has NOT stopped me from pillaging these movies like a crow for shiny bits of dialogue.
Don’t judge me. Y’all are guilty, too.
The point is, I will grant you that Dune 2021 is visually masterful, but when was the last time you shared a meme of something ‘visually masterful?’ Quoted…um, visual mastery? Memed visual mastery?
The point is, without solid story and DIALOGUE we all just sound like a bunch of Sundance geeks or pretentious film students.
Me: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Ultimately? Dialogue has tremendous power and resonance.
Verbal vs. Visual
This could be a symptom of me being an old curmudgeon, but I don’t think so. When it comes to the screen, I feel CGI was one of the worst things that could have happened to screenwriting.
When computers can create everything a writer ever imagined and more, this—more often than not—leads to lazy writing.
So now, we’ll circle back to Dune 2021. Yes, I will admit that part of Dune’s appeal has always been the utterly fantastical world. Vast deserts, sand worms larger than the human mind can conceive, futuristic weapons, folding space, etc.
If you want a ‘visually stunning’ experience, then the remake is for you. Frankly, I kept falling asleep then startling awake wondering how the hell Melancholia ended up in the desert.
The special effects are almost sensory overload, and they did a beautiful job bringing this science fiction world to life.
Problem was, I went to the movie for the STORY of Dune as well. If I only wanted to be visually wowed to symphonic music? Um, I’ve already been to the Van Gogh immersive experience in Dallas.
The book, as well as the original movie, have SO MANY quotable lines, which, aside from being memorable, served a very important purpose.
Dialogue and Subtext
Yes, I saw the movie when Toto was still cool. Yet, even as an elementary school kid (yes, I am OLD) who had yet to read the book, I could understand there were so many more layers below the surface.
I can appreciate that the 2021 version was working to differentiate itself from the 1984 version, but there were a number of decisions I found rather perplexing.
First of all, the movie refers to a LOT of information/trivia that ONLY THOSE WHO HAVE READ THE BOOK would even remotely get. This is an almost 900 page book that weighs over a POUND.
For geeks like me who are in the know? Then the painting of the old duke and the bull and the subtle references to plant life make sense. To everyone else? That painting means NOTHING, and everyone else is going to have to wait for the second movie to know WTH the plants are about.
Since they fixated SO MUCH on the visual, there is actually very little talking. And, for the record, a lot of that ‘talking’ was pretty important for a number of reasons.
This is a Test
For instance, in the beginning when the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit comes to test Paul Atreides, there is a subtle difference between the two movies.
Paul overhears the Reverend Mother chastising Jessica for having a son, but in the earlier movie (and the book) she makes a proclamation, “For the father…nothing.”
To which Paul freaks out and demands to know why RM is talking about his father as if he’s already dead. This not only foreshadows what is to come, but it SHOWS Paul is still a boy. He’s emotional and reckless with his words. He also has zero clue who he’s talking to and why yelling at this old woman might get him Vader-choked.
Paul has not yet evolved from boy to man, let alone from heir to ruler…let alone into a messiah.
Dialogue and Stating the Obvious
The beauty of the book as well as the original Dune is the notion that a potential messiah was coming. When the RM arrives, she chastises Jessica for daring to believe she could birth the Hooked-On-Phonics-Worked-for-Me Quizat Haderach.
We don’t know what this QH is, other than some sort of super being. OH-KAY. Remember how I preach, and preach and preach about how superlative storytellers excel at being amazing secret keepers?
Yeah, well Dune 2021 just tossed that concept out the window more times than I could count. Because apparently audiences sophisticated enough to keep up with Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Downtown Abbey and more…need everything written out for them with Crayons lest we get lost.
Granted, in the book, this is different, but Frank Herbert had like 750 pages more to work with.
When it comes to movies? Save a little for later, okay? Tantalize us. We like to be woooooed.
Case in point. These snippets of dialogue are from the BEGINNING of the movie *Kristen rails at the heavens*
Gaius Helen Mohiam : You’ve proven you can rule yourself. Now you must learn to rule others, something none of your ancestors learnt.
Paul Atreides : My father rules an entire planet.
Gaius Helen Mohiam : He’s losing it.
Paul Atreides : He’s getting a richer one.
Gaius Helen Mohiam : He’ll lose that one too.
I don’t even have to put in any spoiler alerts. THE Reverend Mother Mohiam does it FOR ME!!!
Or how about this?
Paul Atreides : There’s something happening to me. Something waking up in my mind. I can’t control it.
Gaius Helen Mohiam : What did you see?
Paul Atreides : There’s a crusade coming.
WHY DO WE EVEN NEED THE MOVIE?
AND THIS is actually a line! Literally NOT joking.
Gaius Helen Mohiam : Arrakis is a death trap.
Thank you, oh Great Stater of the Obvious! Where is a sand worm to crush me when I need one?
For the record, for a movie that cut out SO MUCH DIALOGUE? This is NOT how one uses the remaining dialogue.
Part of the reason screenwriting is SO DIFFICULT is it is CRAZY how much you have to jam into a handful of lines without spoon-feeding the audience like they’re braindead.
Short of the Reverend Mother Mohiam or Paul pulling out a Flannel-Graph or a Power Point, they’ve basically spelled everything out in case our teensy-tiny brains couldn’t keep up.
In the book as well as the 1984 movie, we know House Atreides is walking onto a trap, but the story uses the dialogue from other characters to add suspense: voices of warning (Yep, it’s a trap), voices of uncertainty (You sure they’d be so obvious?), and voices of pride (Who cares if it’s a trap? We can outsmart them).
Most of the critical information was delivered to the audience in subtext and vague references that one would NOT fully understand unless one watched the full movie or read the entire book.
Yes, Paul has visions but they make no sense until later. His visions are disjointed and lack context…until he evolves from boy to man to taking The Water of Life (test).
It isn’t until he survives the test, proves he is ‘potentially’ the Quizat Haderach that the visions fall into place in any coherent manner.
The visions serve as foreshadowing, they don’t spell out the entire PLOT OF THE MOVIE.
Also, just because Paul survived The Water of Life did not automatically mean he really WAS the Quizat Haderach. He still had to prove himself in Act Three as liberator, crusader, leader and, ultimately…messiah.
How do we know this? DIALOGUE!
At the end (mini-spoiler alert), Paul’s sister Alia proclaims, “And how can this be? For he IS the Quizat Haderach!”
The only reason she’d need to announce this is if, up until such point in the story, the idea her brother was the Quizat Haderach was somehow in question.
But for the 2021 crowd, I guess that is coming in the second movie.
Dialogue and Character
We can tell a lot about a character’s arc from dialogue, as I noted above. But, with the new
Kylo Ren Paul Atreides, he’s completely flat.
In the book and earlier movie, Paul had super abilities as well, partially from his mother’s training. Yes, he passed the test with The Box, he knew instinctively how to wear his still-suit desert-fashion, he had visions…but always with heavy dose of immaturity and childlike astonishment.
It’s only later that Paul remotely evolves into the stoic leader that the remake hands us almost from the outset.
There’s a crusade coming *Resting Paul Face*
Good to know!
What really saddened me about them removing SO MUCH dialogue from the movie is that—pay attention writers—dialogue is what adds dimension to characters.
In the new Dune? They did very little with the characters. I was actually shocked they’d made such a big deal about Jason Momoa being in the new movie since he has like three lines and is barely present.
Same but Different
Before anyone gets too upset, I agree, the new Dune is *mumbles* visually breathtaking. In fact, over the holiday, knock ourself out. Go to an IMax theater for the full visual and symphonic experience.
But, I’m talking about story today.
In the remake—due to plain awful or missing dialogue—most of the characters were interchangeable and had the depth of an Instamodel Real Housewife.
This did NOT have to be the case.
I was very pleased to see references from the book (as I mentioned above), and TRUST ME. There was MORE than enough dialogue the new screenwriters could have taken from the book so as not to copy the old movie.
ALMOST 900 PAGES WORTH!
As for the movie, I loved how they reimagined the Baron Vladmir Harkonnen. In the 1984 movie, they couldn’t get into nuance and so they made up for it with shock value.
Conversely, in the 2021 version, the Baron is MUCH more like the political shark he’s portrayed to be in the book.
I also LOVED how they reimagined Dr. Lyet Kines…except then they practically did NOTHING with her. Sadly, many characters who could have been SO MUCH MORE…fizzled or disappeared.
Here’s hoping for Part Two, though not holding my breath.
And if you want a laugh, Honest Trailers apparently thought a lot of the same things I did (it’s PG-13 so you know)…
What Are Your Thoughts?
Oh, I am bracing for it. I KNOW IT WAS VISUALLY MASTERFUL! That’s already been stated for the record. I’d hoped it wouldn’t simply be a retread of the 1984 film, but—since we’re referencing the 80s—where’s the BEEF?
In my POV, if they were going to retell Dune it should have been done in a long series like Game of Thrones. It is just THAT deep of a story.
I can see why the remake relied heavily on visual effects and musical scores that make film festivals all weepy-eyed. For those who were going to see it over the holidays…um, sorry but it IS VISUALLY MASTERFUL!
So what are your thoughts? Am I being too hard? Did I miss something (I DID mention I kept falling asleep)? Is there some nuance I overlooked?
Did you miss the dialogue from the book and older film? Am I the only one who thinks they could have done more with such a great cast of characters?
What are some your favorite lines of dialogue from movies, Dune or otherwise?