MAJOR SPOILERS lie ahead for the books Dune (1965) and Dune: Messiah (1969), in addition to the film adaptations from David Lynch (1984) and Denis Villeneuve (2021).
Since its release in October 2021, Dune has garnered plenty of attention from film critics, cinephiles, and casual moviegoers alike. The film is an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s behemoth bestseller of the same name from 1965, which is regarded by many as one of the greatest pieces of literary science fiction of all time. It follows the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a young man who finds himself at the center of an intergalactic political power struggle. When the Emperor of the Known Universe grants House Atreides full ownership of the planet Arrakis, the only place to obtain the extremely valuable spice melange, Paul must conquer his fears and face his destiny in the ensuing chaos.
Despite the prevailing positive reception to Dune, some audience members were left with a bad taste in their mouth coming out of the theater. A major part of the plot of Dune has Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Fergusson), fleeing into the desert following a sizable attack on House Atreides by rival houses Harkonnen and Corrino. Paul and Jessica are eventually accepted into the ranks of the local desert-dwellers, the Fremen, due in part to their belief that Paul may be the long-prophesied messiah in their religion. Several viewers have pointed out that this is all in line with an infamous narrative trope called “the white savior.”
But what is the white savior trope? Essentially, it’s any story that has a powerful white figure rescuing a struggling, non-white group of people from poor or dangerous circumstances. Naturally, the trope is heavily criticized for propagating the concept of colonialism, the practice of gaining political control over and exploiting a pre-existing group of people. But generally speaking, the trope glorifies the idea that a white person could look at a non-white group of people in an unfavorable situation, decide that only they can save that group from said situation, and do just that; instead of that group doing anything for themselves, they need a white person to come and do it for them.
With that knowledge in mind, it’s perhaps understandable why some have looked at 2021’s Dune and given it the label of a white savior story. Keeping in mind the film adapts only the first half of the classic novel, we still see Paul using his status as a potential messianic figure among the Fremen to his advantage, and we can draw very quick similarities to plenty of other ‘chosen one’ plots throughout cinema and stories in general. On the surface, it certainly appears as though Dune could support the propagative trope, but what does further analysis reveal?
Well, let’s carry on with the story put on hold at the end of 2021’s Dune (the film covers half of the first book, and Paul’s journey doesn’t end there, either). After joining forces with the Fremen, Paul goes on to, in fact, become one worshiped among them as a messianic figure. Using the might of the Fremen legions, Paul not only defeats the Harkonnens, but negotiates a deal with the current Emperor for his own future spot on the throne.
Here’s the thing, though: the Fremen religion, the one promoting Paul as the potential messiah, isn’t exactly a reliable faith system, since we know exactly WHO came up with it in the first place, and also WHY they did. The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood (think back-alley Jedi) planted the superstitions (which spun themselves into religion) among the Fremen, and solely for the gain of their own organization.
The Sisterhood’s MO is completely built around the idea of using an intricate crossing of bloodlines to breed a figure that can use visions to predict the future and lead humanity towards the best possible outcome, but with the Bene Gesserit as the ones pulling all the political and social strings. It just so happens that Paul is that exact vision-plagued figure. Effectively, his status among the Fremen isn’t really presented as a glorified legend the way it could have been. It IS presented as… well… exactly what it really is: a blatant, manipulative lie – religion as a weapon.
But it’s in the book’s sequel, Dune: Messiah, where things start to get REALLY shady. Picking up twelve years after the events of Dune, Paul rules as Emperor of the universe. During the climax of the first book, although Paul managed to overthrow the Harkonnens and secure the throne, he also set in motion a jihad on a major scale. This holy war, fought by the Fremen forces, has claimed the lives of 61 billion people; Paul is the most powerful and tyrannical figure the universe has ever known.
Paul himself knows that the religion is fake, and despite his visions telling him that his jihad is far from the worst possible outcome for humanity, he struggles with the morality of it. Several groups conspire to dethrone Paul, and during one particular assasination attempt, he is blinded by a bomb, although is still able to ‘see’ due to the incredible accuracy of his visions. However, when Paul’s visions ultimately fail him, he maintains Fremen tradition for the blind by walking off, alone, into the desert.
Not exactly a savior story. But, conveniently for me, this isn’t just speculation. On multiple occasions, Frank Herbert has discussed his exact intentions with writing Dune. In one interview, Herbert said, “I wrote the Dune series because I had this idea that charismatic leaders ought to come with a warning label on their forehead: May be dangerous to your health,” while in another, said, “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”
But still, that was only the original author’s intention. Naturally, when books are adapted into films, certain aspects are always going to be lost in translation. The thematic translation was, in fact, one of the issues present in the oft-hated David Lynch adaptation from 1984; that version was pretty much exactly what people are calling this new film with respect to the white savior trope. That begs the question, does 2021’s Dune understand and do justice to the themes of the novel, or does it brush over them? Well… the answer isn’t so readily available that you can pick it up and slam it down on the evidence table. Since the movie doesn’t cover the whole story, it’s hard to say for certain which direction the sequels will take.
Or IS IT? Operatic revelations aside, there may not be conclusive proof of the direction these films are taking, but there’s certainly still an abundance of evidence. For starters, there’s the opening narration, where Zendaya’s character Chani contemplates the Emperor’s decision to grant Arrakis to House Atreides, specifically saying the line, “Who will our next oppressors be?” It’s not a sure-fire guarantee of the film’s thematic intentions, but it would certainly be an odd line to include otherwise.
Furthermore, we know for a fact that director Denis Villeneuve knows precisely what he’s doing in regards to bringing the necessary themes to the big screen. First off, he’s stated numerous times that he plans to adapt Dune: Messiah in addition to the first book, which, as I stated before, is ALL ABOUT Paul’s struggle (inner and outer) with the consequences of his jihad.
A bit more conclusive, however, are Villeneuve’s comments when asked directly for his take on criticisms Dune has faced regarding the white savior trope, and I think it’s fairly safe to say he knows what he’s doing with these films. During a roundtable discussion with many journalists, including Eric Eisenberg of Cinemablend, Villeneuve said the following:
“It’s a very important question, and it’s why I thought that Dune is… the way I’m reading it, relevant. It’s a critique of that. It’s not a celebration of a savior. It’s a criticism of the idea of a savior, of someone that will come and tell another population how to be, what to believe. It’s not a condemnation, but a criticism. So that’s the way I feel it’s relevant, and that can be seen as contemporary. And that’s what I would say about that. Frankly, it’s the opposite.”
All being said, I don’t believe it’s out-of-line to say that claims of Dune being a blatant propagation of white saviors are not only premature interpretations, but also woefully assumptive and under-educated. Paul’s journey from young man to messianic figure to tyrant isn’t glorified, but rather criticized. Ironically, Dune is actually quite the opposite of the white savior story it’s been accused of being, and perhaps more relevant than it’s ever been before.
Click here to read my review for Dune: Part One (2021).
Click here to read my review for Dune (1984).