Hey there! Been a bit! I got a bit too busy to keep this up and the entire space of comics was hit with a tsunami of Newsletters, so I figured I could take a step back for a second and not add to the onslaught for a bit. Now that things have settled a bit, folks have done all their subscribing, and discovered their balance, and what they can manage, I figured it was a good time to bring this back.
Considering the above stuff, I do mean for the newsletter to be shorter going forward, and a bit more spaced out in releases, as not to contribute to beating you over the head too much with the plethora of long emails that arrive all too fast, which you're likely reading on a phone. Now, that said, let's get into this.
The art of translation is always a fascinating subject for me. Though in this particular instance, when I say translation, I don't mean your standard spoken languages. I mean translation from one Art Form to another. In this case, I'm rather taken by an example of translation from the language of Prose to the language of Film.
I am referring, of course, to Dune.
[Some spoilers ahead for both the book Dune (1965), and the film Dune (2021). Proceed as you like.]
I remember the first time I read Dune.
What hooked me and interested me about this age old problematic classic above all else was this--its presentation. Its use of its form and presentation was fundamental to the contents in an inextricable way, and that's what actually kept me reading. And it is the first and fundamental thing I was shocked to see completely eliminated and absent from the filmic Dune by Denis Villeneuve and his team. Now, what do I mean by that?
Let's take a look at Frank Herbert's work here.
Every single chapter of Dune begins with an epigraph, like the above. All of the quotations used come from a whole wide assortment of different (fictional) books. All of them are, of course, by the same singular writer--Princess Irulan. They can be Dictionaries, they can be books on a planetary history, or a biography, or a text on certain cultural evolutions. They're all texts we never see, by an author we don't yet know, who is not our lead, but marks the beginning of every aspect of our story.
Why is that? What's the purpose of this choice?
Sure, you could easily treat it as an easy device for exposition, especially to do world-building and 'explain' terminology or conceits, and clarify some things which may feel too awkward in the text proper. That's not necessarily a wrong reading, for sure. But it does strike me as a surface-level one. The purpose of these is much more grand, their intentionality far more meaningful.
Let's take a look at this epigraph for instance:
Look at how the first line gets at, essentially, a cultural assumption, a point and a fact that is part of a discourse. Look at how then the quotation explicitly notes that this is a book you are reading. Notice how once again the final line talks about another cultural assumption, this time an error and an omission--the true consideration of Duke Leto's qualities as a father. All of these come from a fictional book and open the scene above.
Let's look at this one, which refers to a character by the name of Alia.
Now, Dune Book One is split into 3 'books' or 'acts' essentially within itself, 3 sections or 'periods', titled Dune, Muad'Dib, and The Prophet respectively. Alia is a character that we won't even hear a mention of or know the existence of until much later in the book, precisely at the end of Act 1. It's a character yet-to-come, of the future. And then the character properly debuts in Act 3/Book 3 (The Prophet).
But here, in the earliest of chapters, the character's already mentioned, in a book of Family Commentaries.
Here's a bit on Dr. Yueh, from a Dictionary. The epigraph, much like the prior ones, totally and completely reveal and out Yueh as The Traitor. There is no effort made to 'hide' the fact. There's no 'suspense' around this. It's not a 'reveal' around which we're meant to be blown away by. It just...tells you off-hand, matter-of-factly.
By now, looking at all of these, I hope what I'm getting at is rather evident and obvious. I hope I've illustrated it clearly enough.
Dune does all of this because Dune is not just a story, but rather a book of history. And a book of history part of and in a long-line of historic works on a well-covered subject matter. It's all fictional history, to be sure, but the point is the treatment of it all, the perspective of it all. This is a book of history deeply aware of, and deeply indebted to, all the other historic texts on its subject. It is a work of history by someone deeply aware of said history and all the dialogue and discourse around it. It's why it will allude to cultural assumptions we don't know and characters we have no clue about. It's a work steeped in its fictional intertextuality and it as a work of history is key.
But also, and this is important--Dune, in its presentation, not just a story, but rather a cultural document. Why doesn't it even attempt to hide what ought to be Big Reveals? Because it is written with the assumption that you already know the story.
This is not just a story, this is not just any story. This is a story that is deeply embedded in culture. This is a history known to its people. It is a tale that is orally passed down and just..known to even little children. It's a fixture of their everyday languages, and references abound everywhere. This is a tale that shapes and informs the very reality of a galactic universe and all its cultures. Children know The Big Reveals and Twists and Turns before they've ever read a single history book or seen some audio-visual adaptation. It's a profound blend of history and myth into a potent mixture.
So what you're holding in your hands? This book? It's a vital, valuable cultural document of a universe, a vital historic text of a tale even toddlers know, laying out the whole story like, say, a Mahabharata or a Ramayana. It's a grand epic, a tale of a legendary figure that matters to a people and holds great significance. It's a work that engages with prior assumptions or cultural ideas of the figures it's writing about and addresses them.
It's a work written in Third Person Omniscient, wherein we're constantly aware of every single character's inner-most thoughts as the story's events are unfolding. We're always aware of what everyone's thinking, as it's not hidden. And this suits the vision of Dune's story perfectly. Third Person Omniscient fits this approach of a Sci-Fi Fantasy Historian in a magical-universe telling a mythologized tale of a messianic figure.
You're situated in the place of a fictional in-universe reader, and taken on a voyage of a legendary story you've known intimately since you were a child. That's the state the book hopes to evoke and the parameters it operates under.
But even beyond that, it plays into something I think is actually vital to Dune:
The Perspective Of Time.
In Dune, Paul Atreides, the central character, has the ability to perceive time very differently than most. He can peer into the great past, he can see the truths of the present, and he can look all the way into the many vast permutations of the futures yet to be. Which is to say, the epigraphs, and what they tell, and what Paul sees, wonders about, contemplates, there's a fascinating dialogue and interplay there. They generate a sort of chemical reaction that is key to the book and its vision of time, as you see how the possible-futures Paul sees inform the present he makes and how it fits with the future alluded to by True History. We see all the possible futures that could've been, the paths that perhaps could've been taken and where they may have led, and thus get to better understand what choices and decisions truly led to The True History we know.
The quotations even become a beating crescendo by the end, as we even meet our celebrated and prolific writer Princess Irulan. There's a powerful thrill to that, as we understand that this isn't some distant figure or a retroactive one examining and dissecting history. This is an actual active character in the story being told and cannot be divorced from it.
And she's a figure Paul already knows before he ever meets her, due to the nature of his powers and the view of Time. And Irulan's presence by the end acquires a potency and weight, as you wonder about her and her fate and place in all this, which otherwise would not exist for you, the reader, without these epigraphs. They are fundamentally bound up in what's going on, in a beautifully inextricable way.
The perspective of Time, the view of History itself, these are all not just cool presentation bits or neat stylistic flourishes, but genuinely deeply considered, deliberate, baked-in aspects of the story being told. Which is a long and complicated way of saying this:
The actual telling of the story matters just as much as the story being told in the case of Dune.
The form of the story is fundamental to the nature of the story itself. It is deeply tied into it. To alter or erase the form, the presentation of it all, is to thus fundamentally alter and change the nature of the story being told.
Which is why I was so terribly surprised to see Denis Villeneuve's take on the material and see how much it...just does not at all engage with this aspect of Dune? It's just fundamentally not there, in the slightest.
The movie opens on a quote saying 'Dreams are messages from the deep', spoken in Sardaukar, and then we cut to the studio logos, and the movie starts playing. We're introduced to the world of Dune then by Zendaya's character Chani, who tells us of The Harkonnens, frames them as The Oppressors, and then as we wonders who her people's next oppressors will be, we cut to Timothee Chalamet's Paul Atreides, waking up from a dream. He's been dreaming of Chani a lot.
Now this is a wildly different opening.
'Dreams' are the key framing device for the work, as dreams pervade and drive the whole enterprise. Perhaps one may view the whole thing as a dream of sorts as well, a distant fantasy. But again, that's very removed from what Dune the book was going for in its telling of the story.
The framing of The Imperium and its agents, Harkonnens or The Emperor or Atreides, as The Oppressors is the movie's rather unsubtle and clear attempt to frame itself as an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist vision that has critical awareness and is a criticism of the enterprises it centers heavily upon. Now whether Villeneuve's film actually does that/is any good or successful at doing that in any meaningful way, or falls flat and ends up perpetuating a lot of unintended errors and problems in its own Whiteness, its own blindness, unawareness and lack of critical capacity, that's a different conversation (more on that below). What I wanna get at here is how this scene is an opener with a monologue by Chani in present-tense, assessing the past, namely the fact that Harkonnens are now being replaced, and pondering the future.
The very notion of this being a history, or the sort of orally-passed down grand cultural document or artifact are lost and gone. The fundamental telling of the story of Dune is completely gone, with only its 'contents' of story taken and reproduced. It's telling that much of the film slavishly adapts a lot of the book's contents, as it's clearly made by diehard fans of the material, whilst just cutting out all the internal thoughts and monologues that Prose permits, thus making a lot of key beats or moments land without the emotional resonance or impact in the work. You care, and this stuff hits, because you're clearly aware of the contexts and what these people are going through.
But in the film, you get a sort of visual speed-run of all the key beats of the first half of the book, as the filmmakers clearly love the story of the book, without any meaningful considerations for how to truly translate not just 'the contents' or story-beats of Dune but the essential nature as a text with what its telling makes it. The ambitions to adapt it do not go upto doing or envisioning what it might perhaps truly take to manifest a Dune such as it exists on page, which feels weird.
Dune as not just a story, as it has now been rendered in Villeneuve's telling, but something more within the contextual framework of its world, that's lost. Dune as a text in prose very much emphasizes the fact that it is not just a pure transparent glass-lens through which to view story, but an actual object in-context. It is a book that was written. So one would assume, in the process of Translation of forms, you'd craft a film that was written, as in a fictional film plucked from another world, which is very much operating on the same history-cultural osmosis myth logic that the book was.
Now, that's perhaps not as much of an immediately commercially appealing prospect, sure, but hear me out: a film aware that it is a film, on a well-covered subject, a piece of history that occupies legendary status and holds religious significance. A work of cultural understanding that alludes to or touches on common cultural assumptions or errors, and wherein the beats like Dr. Yueh being The Traitor are not repackaged into another general Reveal moment, but are always known from the jump, as the film just...tells you, like the book does.
A story aware that it is a story being told, to an audience.
It strikes me that that would've been fascinating, and would perhaps fit Dune better, at least for my money. At the very least, it would've demanded more experimentation and structural screwery and a lot more artistic bravery than the standard adaptation approach the film takes.
None of which is to say the film is bad by any means, in fact it is probably a very competent piece of work that I would not call 'bad' on any technical merits at all. But certainly, it is a take on the material that has vastly different interests and priorities and thus I think misses a key component of said material, at least in my opinion. To me the telling of Dune matters as much as anything with-in Dune, as the telling of it as history is continued even in its sequel, Dune Messiah, which Villeneuve plans to adapt as Film 3 in his envisioned Dune Trilogy.
I'm surprised I haven't seen more discussion in regards to this loss of a key aspect of the work in the translation between works, as Villeveuve and his crew made little effort to find their own filmic formal equivalent to try and accomplish what Herbert was going for in Prose.
Now, give I've gone 2.6k words, I'll shut up and move on, because despite my promise to keep it short, we've gone long again. But before we go...
I wanna take the time here to link to a ton of coverage and work by some AMAZING folks, as the cultural dialogue on these things tends to be heavily skewed to a White-Lens and White audience, and it bugs me that these aren't the folks at the forefront.
Here's an incredible panel with Muslim thinkers, most of them MENA, discussing everything from Herbert, Dune, Imperialism, Islamic Cosmology, and Linguistics. This is Part One of Two, with the second being on the 29th, with the film being the specific focus in Part Two. I'm very excited.
Another lovely podcast with 4 MENA critics just diving deep into the subject. It's fantastic. Also, there's a BTS bit mentioned on Bardem on-set that genuinely made me go 'Holy Shit'.
The ever-incredible Haris Durrani on the Muslimness of Herbert's Dune and more. This is a fascinating deep-dive.
A sharp piece on Dune by Roxana Hadidi over on Polygon. Real good stuff.
Haris Durrani again in an excellent piece discussing Herbert's work in relation to the White Savior idea, diving into the history, the intentions and politics of Herbert. Peep his other stuff in here if you're interested, it's also great. (Haris will be in that Part Two panel I mentioned in the first link!!)
Here's Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve sitting down to chat about Dune (2021). It's an interesting listen.
That's it for this entry!
I pray that this was at least somewhat interesting even if you don't give a shit about Dune, because what I was really writing about, or trying to write about, was how the case of Dune, the biggest thing under the sun at this pop-culture juncture with the release of the film, illustrated a lack of consideration in the translation of something from between two forms, and what can potentially be lost there, and what kind of works or possibilities may not manifest.
What If...it has ever been my favorite set of words.
Anyway, as ever, let me know what you made of this, and feel free to hit me up. I'm rather bad at getting back, though I read and sit with and mull over each reply, appreciating all the effort, care and thought. Always love those.
Until next time.