Dune and progressive media illiteracy (Jaimee Marshall, 3 May, 2024, The Critic)

Dune is no exception to this baffling media illiteracy. There has been no shortage of op-eds released in recent years disparaging Frank Herbert’s novel and Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptations as an orientalist white saviour story that simultaneously culturally appropriates Middle Eastern culture while erasing representations of its people. These criticisms ring hollow if you engage with the story in any thoughtful manner. Dune cannot be accurately characterised as a white saviour story when its explicit thesis is that we should be wary of self-appointed saviours, of charismatic leaders who claim a benevolent desire to liberate people from their oppression, regardless of their race.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Denis Villeneuve said, “When the first novel came out, Frank Herbert was disappointed by the way the book has been perceived. We felt that the readers were thinking that Dune was a celebration of Paul Atreides, but rightly the opposite. His intentions were to make a cautionary tale, a warning towards messianic figures.” This caused Herbert to write a follow-up book called Dune: Messiah, where the dangers of blind allegiance are spelled out more clearly. In Villeneuve’s film adaptation, he transformed Chani’s character into a more prominent, sceptical, and outspoken character. “Through her eyes, we understand what Paul becomes and in which direction he goes, which transformed the movie not into a celebration but as Frank Herbert was wishing, more of a warning,” Villeneuve explains. Chani becomes the moral centre that the audience identifies with, which awakens them to the warning signs of what Paul is about to become.