The following article contains spoilers for “Dune”.
Duke Leto. Ultradad. Father Knows Best in Space. Every adaptation of “Dune” lionizes the man so that we know just how much his son Paul loses when House Harkonnen massacres his family. Yet the point of Duke Leto is the opposite. We understand Paul loses a loved one, but we also must understand how Duke Leto sets the themes of “Dune”. By transforming Leto into an enlightened ruler cut short, “Dune” immediately sets fire to the foundation of the themes Frank Herbert’s novel sought to develop.
Duke Leto in the novel is a man obsessed with aristocratic convention, hierarchy, and ancestry. He’s disdainful to servants, strict with Paul and his consort Jessica, he plots just as willfully and consciously as the Harkonnens. He’s not a good man caught in the trap of taking over Arrakis because others like him too much. He’s a man who’s shrewdly gathered power, spearheaded new military technology, and developed an army meant to rival the Emperor’s.
Leto is altruistic, though often with a goal, hoping the stories of his magnanimity reach others. He’s kind in many moments, but he can be cruel in others. At times his kindness is honest, at times it’s a leverage or exchange. It’s crucial in every adaptation that Duke Leto envisions himself as being a righteous, enlightened man. It’s a foundational mistake that every adaptation sees him this way as well.
The most accurate portrayal in director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of “Dune” is Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica. I understand the idea that she’s portrayed in an overly emotional way, but Villeneuve’s mistake isn’t doing this – she’s emotional in the book, too. This guides many of her decisions, and even ways in which Leto and Jessica use each other. Ferguson maintains Jessica as both intimidating and empathetic. Villeneuve’s mistake is not making Leto and Paul just as emotional. No, they’re supermen. Even if Paul is inconsistent, unsure, and often afraid of his visions, he’s still only a scene away from calmly piloting through a storm or going full John Wick.
This directly points to the thematic failure of Villeneuve’s “Dune”. In the novel, Duke Leto envisions his actions on Arrakis as righteous no matter how colonial his presence is. Paul is torn between the keen awareness of his mother even as she tries to subvert and accelerate prophecy, and the aristocratic determinism of his father.
It’s very appropriate that House Atreides views itself as noble, enlightened, and righteous – it envisions its leadership can bring peace to Arrakis, rather than recognizing that by definition its presence is yet one more act of violence. Simply because it’s not as brutal or wholesale a violence as House Harkonnen doesn’t mean it isn’t still violent. Of course Duke Leto views himself as righteous, but it’s a major, foundational problem that the film does, too. “Dune” misses an opportunity for this to be an object of discussion between Leto and Paul. They talk about who Paul wants to be when he’s older, but the pressing matter on Paul’s mind throughout the movie is one that he never directly voices to his father.
Every adaptation of “Dune” has treated House Atreides as noble and tragic when they participated in a cycle of direct occupation. In the novel, Leto sees Arrakis as an opportunity. He might even be described as foolhardy in his willingness to engage the danger. He jumps at the chance. Yes, everyone knows the Emperor has set a trap, but Leto also views this as the culmination of his own efforts to challenge the emperor. He certainly views it as the result of generations of his ancestors building power. It’s not just a situation he falls into cause he’s just such a gosh darn good space dad. It’s one his family’s been aiming for over generations.
In the novel, Arrakis isn’t a solemn duty Leto’s willing to martyr himself for as he tries to nobly empower the indigenous Fremen. To Leto, Arrakis is his family’s manifest destiny, and the Fremen are a tool that can be useful against both House Harkonnen and the Emperor. This sets the entire thematic foundation for Jessica and Paul’s later manipulation of the Fremen.
It also sets a comparison for author Frank Herbert’s criticism of “charismatic leadership”, wherein he offers an example of its danger in antiquity and monarchic history through Leto before engaging its modern populist version through Paul. Leto illustrates that this type of marketing of a hero or messiah isn’t something new that only inhabits a strict definition that’s easy to recognize. Through Leto and Paul, Herbert argues that it will always exist, hide in new forms, and define itself through whatever evangelizes a population into believing it uniquely embodies a manifest destiny.
Paul’s struggle isn’t between the goodness and idealism of his father and the awareness and shrewdness of his mother, as in the film. His struggle is whether he lies to himself and justifies it like his father, or he holds the awareness of exactly what he does and the damages he causes like his mother. Does he justify his manipulation of the Fremen to himself as enlightened fate, or does he recognize the violence he impels are his own decisions? This is why it’s important that his visions offer multiple paths; they’re about how much he chooses to lie to himself out of his own emotional shortcomings.
Leto and Paul are both emotional, unreliable, and narcissistic. It’s crucial to both that before they market their righteousness to anyone else, they’ve sold themselves on it. As a Bene Gesserit with a broader view, Jessica has no need for this. She doesn’t need to convince herself of her own righteousness like Leto and Paul; she has awareness they lack. She sees their occupation of Arrakis is itself an act of violence. She is comfortable committing that act. The problem in the film isn’t that Jessica is emotional, it’s that Leto and Paul aren’t even moreso.
Perhaps Villeneuve fails to show Leto or Paul in this light because of a male gaze that wants them to be more stolid and stoic. Perhaps he only sees the anti-colonial and anti-populist thread in Lady Jessica, and fails to in Leto and – to this point – Paul. Those reasons are worth discussing. What they arrive at is a lionization of Leto that directly undermines and sabotages the foundation of the novel’s themes. Villeneuve could go either direction with Paul – a hero’s journey that every adaptation of “Dune” has thus far embraced, or the criticism of the hero’s journey that Herbert actually wrote. With Villeneuve’s Part Two on the horizon, I’m willing to treat the jury as still out on Paul.
Yet by failing to recognize or engage this at all with Leto, Villeneuve has already shown a lack of recognition for, or a willingness to ignore, the thematic foundation on which the rest of “Dune” is built. Paul’s entire journey is one of balancing Jessica’s awareness and long view with enough of Leto’s narcissism and self-justification to overcome his doubt. He gets the worst of both of his parents, weaknesses we often dangerously mistake for strengths. Without showing what those weaknesses and dangers are in Leto, Villeneuve fails not just Leto’s character, but Paul’s as well.
Here, Leto is just a Golly Gee Awesome Space Dad in a Bind (if Chuck Tingle uses that title, I want royalties). Oscar Isaac is very good in that role; that role just isn’t useful in “Dune” unless you’re making a hero’s journey for a Chosen One – exactly what “Dune” was written to criticize.
Changing Leto for the film adds some drama to the premise for House Atreides, but it does so at the cost of meaning in relation to the Fremen, the novel’s themes, and the very characters of Leto and Paul. Instead of viewing the Fremen as enduring one more viceroy, no matter how “soft” his colonialism acts, we now view Leto as a tragic victim.
Villeneuve’s “Dune” wants to have later conversations about colonialism, but it misses the most important opportunity to build a foundation for these. Every adaptation of “Dune” has been too preoccupied and worshipful of the classically tragic nobility of House Atreides, and that’s excused any of these adaptations from giving its leaders the more complex presentation they need.
Because the Duke is sold as enlightened, we avoid engaging him with the same critical eye “Dune” turns toward everything else. That means the very first thing Villeneuve’s “Dune” does is ignore the same ideals the rest of the film seeks to criticize. Simply because every adaptation likes the Duke too much, we fail to engage this first act of harm. Our first lesson in every “Dune” adaptation is to ignore the very conversation “Dune” wants to have. Because it’s a “softer” act of harm, or one we feel Duke Leto has no choice but to commit, we begin an anti-colonial narrative by first excusing an act of colonialism. We’re taught to treat a viceroy who sees Arrakis as an opportunity for his own advancement as the real victim of colonialism. Then those adaptations want to talk to you about colonialism as if they haven’t already started by excusing it.
“Dune” somehow manages to trick its storytellers into undermining themselves despite Herbert expressly detailing who Duke Leto is. No adaptation has actually managed this first hurdle because none of them are willing to sacrifice the hero’s journey and the justifying incident that it requires.
Every adaptation of “Dune” commits a first sin of failing world, theme, and character. We only even see half the Duke’s tragedy. By wanting to love his character so, we overlook that his fall is also the result of his self-serving nature. To be a classically tragic leader, the Duke must be capable, kind, and admirable. So we get a classically tragic Duke – but he’s also meant to be tragic in a much more modern sense. He might understand the politics of the universe beautifully, and he’s educated himself on Arrakis well. Yet in lying to himself about his role in relation to the planet and its people as an enlightened ruler who can save it – instead of as an imperial viceroy whose participation in saving it is simply a continuance of a violent colonial act – the idealism that makes us view him as noble and enlightened is itself a lie. The whole point of his character is that the narrative he holds of himself is a lie. As a novel, “Dune” is clear on this. What he sacrifices himself for lacks meaning, and first requires the sacrifice of those who follow him. That is the tragedy. The point of the Duke is that populism of any sort kills itself when it buys into its own marketing, and in doing so it will sacrifice everyone else first.
In the classical sense, the Duke is tragic because he thinks he can succeed at making things better – and this contributes to his death. In the modern sense, the Duke is tragic because his self-marketing makes him believe he is playing a role far more righteous than it is, one he can manifest, one that his aristocratic history and adherence has led him to. His surprise with the quickness that he loses is because he thought his ascension was determined, trap or no trap. He’s not an idiot; he knows the danger. He just thinks it can’t touch him. This is specifically observed by other characters in the franchise, such as Princess Irulan (who you’ll meet later).
Adaptations of the novel choose the righteous half of that description – they believe what Leto believes about himself. They forget the self-righteous half – the role Leto plays, and that his belief does not define fact. The noble act he dies for is itself a lie he believes. Missing this in “Dune” means we once more have an adaptation that fails to fully grasp the conversation on which it wants to spend hours more philosophizing.
To understand how Jessica and Paul move forward as they do, especially as manipulators of the Fremen and not just a Chosen One and his mom, we need a more complex understanding of Duke Leto. Because we don’t have it, “Dune” in adaptation after adaptation trips into becoming a heroic Chosen One narrative regardless of its intentions. Like Leto, adaptations of “Dune” have made the mistake of thinking they’re more noble than they are. Their stories employ violence as episodic set piece without a deeper grasp of “Dune” as a story about cultural acts of violence. They mistake their protagonists as heroes in these set pieces, rather than as characters who see the violence of these set pieces as markers to exceed when they get their chance.
Like the 1984 film and the 2000 miniseries, the 2021 Part One of “Dune” is an exquisite adaptation of a hero’s journey, which means it fails the very first test of whether it’s a good adaptation of the novel. “Dune” as a novel understands the hero’s journey is marketing, that in the real world it covers over atrocities and builds populist consensus for war. Perhaps the newly greenlit Part Two of “Dune” will course correct this. Perhaps “Part One” is just a set up for how it all comes crashing down.
On its own, astounding as it may be in other ways, Villeneuve’s Part One fails to confront the questions that “Dune” as a novel is built around. It’s the third time in a row an adaptation screws up out of the gate. It fails to see that its thematic conversation starts with Leto at the very beginning, and not simply with Paul as a reaction. Leto isn’t just a premise or a sacrifice that evokes Paul’s vengeance and ambition; Leto is the prototype of it. Leto is a rough draft that ultimately fails, both literally and metaphorically poisoning itself. You can only engage so much of that conversation if you completely miss its foundation. You can only recognize a very limited amount of what “Dune” entails if you miss the bulk of where it starts and what it includes. Villeneuve’s “Dune” is a really solid “Game of Thrones” in space, but it’s not a good adaptation of the novel. I don’t care if the visual and technological details are painstakingly accurate when the theme isn’t. Science-fiction can only be so high-concept when it completely misses the concept.
This is the first sin of adapting “Dune”. No one who has adapted it so far is willing to treat its “soft” colonialism as violent, or its historical populism as a rough draft of Paul’s. Leto is treated as the first step of the hero’s journey: what is lost. He’s supposed to be the first step that argues against it: what justifies vengeance. That’s the foundation on which means are justified to achieve vengeance, on which violence is justified to realize those means, on which leadership is sold to make that violence achievable, on which a messiah is marketed to achieve that leadership.
Adaptations of “Dune” don’t just miss that first step; they directly reverse it. You can no longer argue, embody, or represent the themes of the novel when you’ve inverted the foundation to mean the opposite of those themes.
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