Of sandworms and social science
By Paul Krugman
Blogger John Rogers once noted that there are two novels that can shape the lives of bookish 14-year-olds: “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Lord of the Rings.” One of these novels, he asserted, is a childish fantasy that can leave you emotionally stunted; the other involves orcs.
Well, I was a bookish 14-year-old, but my touchstones were two different novels: Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” and Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”
Many social scientists, it turns out, are science fiction readers. For example, quite a few experts on international relations who I know are fanatics about the TV version of “The Expanse.” I think it’s because good science fiction involves building imaginary worlds that are different from the world we know, but in interesting ways that relate to the attempt to understand why society is the way it is.
Anyway, that’s my excuse for devoting this column not to the latest scary developments in politics and economics but to a much happier event: the U.S. release of a wonderful, satisfying film version of “Dune” — the first movie I’ve seen in a theater since the pandemic began.
Before I get there, however, a word about the new “Foundation” TV series, which is being released one episode a week on Apple TV.
The “Foundation” trilogy had a huge impact on my teenage self. For those who’ve never read it, it’s about social scientists who use their knowledge to save galactic civilization. I wanted to be Hari Seldon, the brilliant mathematician who leads the effort; this economics thing was as close as I could get.
“Foundation” might seem unfilmable. It mostly involves people talking, and its narrative inverts the hero-saves-the-universe theme that burns many acres of CGI every year. The story spans centuries; in each episode everything appears to be on the brink, and it seems as if only desperate efforts by the protagonists can save the day. But after each crisis, Seldon’s prerecorded hologram appears to explain to everyone what just happened and why the successful resolution was inevitable given the laws of history.
So how does the Apple TV series turn this into a visually compelling tale? It doesn’t. What it does instead is remake “Star Wars” under another name. There are indispensable heroes, mystical powers, even a Death Star. These aren’t necessarily bad things to include in a TV series, but they’re completely antithetical to the spirit of Asimov’s writing. Pretending that this series has anything to do with the “Foundation” novels is fraudulent marketing, and I’ve stopped watching.
Now on to “Dune.” The book is everything “Foundation” isn’t: There’s a glittering, hierarchical society wracked by intrigue and warfare, a young hero of noble birth who may be a prophesied Messiah, a sinister but alluring sisterhood of witches, fierce desert warriors and, of course, giant worms.
And yes, it’s fun. When I was a teenager, my friends and I would engage in mock combat in which the killing blow had to be delivered slowly to penetrate your opponent’s shield — which will make sense if you read the book or watch the movie.
What makes “Dune” more than an ordinary space opera are two things: its subtlety and the richness of its world-building.
Thus, the Bene Gesserit derive their power not from magic but from deep self-control, awareness and understanding of human psychology. The journey of Paul Atreides is heroic but morally ambiguous; he knows that if he succeeds, war and vast slaughter will follow.
And the world Herbert created is given depth by layers of cultural references. He borrowed from Islamic and Ayurvedic traditions, from European feudalism and more — “Dune” represents cultural appropriation on a, well, interstellar scale. It’s also deeply steeped in fairly serious ecological thinking.
So why was the 1984 film a disaster? Because the director — yes, David Lynch — either didn’t grasp the subtlety and richness or decided that audiences couldn’t handle it. That is, he did to “Dune” what Apple TV has done to “Foundation.” For example, in the book there’s the “weirding way of battle,” which is about using psychology and deception to overcome foes; in Lynch’s film this was replaced with some kind of gadget.
The great thing about Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part I” is that he respects the audience enough to retain the book’s spirit. He trimmed the narrative to reduce it to filmable size — and even so, his 2 1/2 hours cover only the first half of the book — but he didn’t dumb it down. Instead, he relies on spectacle and spine-tingling action to hold our attention despite the density of the story. In so doing, he made a film worthy of the source material.
I wouldn’t say that this “Dune” matches the vision I had when reading the book. It’s better. The visuals surpass my imagination — those ornithopters! The actors give the characters more depth than the book’s author previously had in my mind.
Will this labor of love sell to a mass audience (and allow Villeneuve to finish his story)? The early box office looks good, and this does seem like the kind of film people will see twice — I did — so sales may hold up longer than usual. But I guess we’ll find out.
In any case, all of us former bookish 14-year-olds finally have the “Dune” movie we always wanted to see. Sometimes, things actually do go right.