Does Dune: Part Two succeed in convincing us that Paul is a dangerous leader?

Paul Atreides is a likable action hero, but he's also a dangerous demagogue who inspires a mass slaughter. Does the new movie get across the theme of Frank Herbert's original book?
Warner Bros. Pictures film Dune Part 2 in theaters Nov. 3, 2023.
Warner Bros. Pictures film Dune Part 2 in theaters Nov. 3, 2023. /

Dune: Part Two is officially out in theaters. Based on Frank Herbert's 1965 book, the movie follows the journey of dispossessed noble scion Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) as he lives among the native Fremen people of the desert planet Arrakis, slowly learning their ways and becoming a leader so that he can ultimately take revenge on the people who destroyed his family. Throughout the movie, he is tormented by prescient visions of what will happen if he comes into his full power: the Fremen, who will see him as a messiah, will take to the stars and massacre people in his name until Paul is the undisputed ruler of the galaxy.

At the very end of the movie, when Paul has killed the vile Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and taken the place of Shaddam Corrino IV (Christopher Walken) as emperor, an act sealed with a marriage to Shaddam's daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), that's what happens. One of the last things we see is ships full of Fremen taking to the skies, off to go and pacify the great houses who will not recognize Paul's rule. Paul's vision of people gasping and dying by the millions will come true. The story ends with a victory that becomes an unspeakable horror, all because the Fremen had an abundance of faith in Paul, and took it further than he intended.

That, in any case, is the point of Dune as outlined by author Frank Herbert. "I wrote the Dune series because I had this idea: that charismatic leaders ought to come with a warning label on the forehead ‘may be dangerous to your health,’" Herbert said during a speech at UCLA in 1985, a year before his death. "I of the most dangerous presidents that we’ve had in this century was Jack Kennedy because people said ‘yes sir Mr. charismatic leader what will we do next?’ and we wound up in Vietnam. And I think probably the most valuable president, of this century, was Richard Nixon, because he taught us to distrust government…and he did it by example… which is the best kind of teaching."

"Well anyway I wanted to do this thing about messiahs, and charismatic leaders, I mean why do nine hundred people go to Guyana and drink poison kool-aid…? Why do…the citizens of an entire nation, most of the citizens anyway, say Sieg Heil and murder some three million Jews, and Gypsies? Why do they not question their leaders?"

I take issue with some of Herbert's historical interpretations here. As someone who sat through all 18 hours of Ken Burns' The Vietnam War documentary, I'm just going to go ahead and dub myself qualified to tell you that it took a village to get the United States into Vietnam. Kennedy's actions were one link in a long chain forged years before he got into office. As for why people were willing to follow Adolf Hitler or drink kool-aid in a mass suicide at Jonestown in 1978 (fun fact: it was actually Flavor Aid), those also have long historical explanations that don't, in my opinion, boil down to "The charismatic leaders of these groups were dangerous." That's certainly part of it, but grifters like Hitler and Jim Jones didn't rise to power on charisma alone; a lot had to come together to make their ascensions possible.

Still, clearly the danger of charismatic leaders was on Herbert's mind when he wrote Dune. My questions is: does the movie sell this idea?

Dune: Part Two book club: Let's talk theme

When I read Dune as a teenager, I found it hard to get my head around these ideas, which may be part of the point. Dune has the contours of a rip-roaring adventure story. We ride giant sandworms and fight despicable villains and travel the dark reaches of space. Dune would go on to inspire Star Wars, a series that mostly just wants the audience to enjoy themselves. But Dune itself wants to use these action-adventure trappings as a Trojan Horse to deliver a message about the dangers of demagoguery. Nonetheless, on a first read, Paul's flashes of a horrible future were easy to ignore. It felt like they were getting in the way of the adventure story I was reading.

Watching the new movie, I couldn't avoid them. Clearly, director Denis Villeneuve wanted to engage directly with the meaning of Paul's visions. The best scene in the movie, I think, is when Paul gets up in front of a mass of Fremen and declares himself the Lisan al Gaib, the prophet who will lead them to paradise. Chalamet summons all of his considerable charisma to command the room, and it works. We see the Fremen sway and chant under his thrall. I was personally blown to the back of the theater. In this moment, Paul did seem dangerous, full of a powerful influence that could tilt into madness.

TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE: PART TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

One of the things I always wondered about Dune is, if the message is that charismatic leaders are dangerous, why don't we see the results of Paul's charismatic crusade? Both the book and movie end with that crusade about to begin. When we pick up with Paul in the next book, Dune Messiah, the genocide is long over, and Paul is installed as emperor. We don't see the horror Paul's been fearing this whole time. If Herbert is trying to tell us that Paul's leadership was dangerous, shouldn't we?

Dune: Part Two actually does more to push this message than the books does. At the end of the film, we get a chilling line from Paul's mother Lady Jessica as the Fremen ships take off: "The holy war has begun," she says. But still, that's where the story ends. The movie couldn't depict that holy war because then it wouldn't be an adaptation of Dune.

I guess I worry that, without something more explicit, a lot of people are going to walk away from Dune: Part Two thinking that it was the rip-roaring adventure story Herbert was trying to subvert. The Trojan Horse will never open. But I do think the movie does everything it can to get its message across while still working within the confines of the original book.

And hey, there's more to the story. Herbert may have written Dune Messiah — which ends in a way no one could mistake for happy or glorious — because he didn't think enough people took the intended message from Dune. Villeneuve has said he wants to adapt Messiah as a movie, so maybe we'll see the full shape of this story then:

Next. Baron. The book version of Baron Harkonnen was "useless" for actor Stellan Skarsgård. dark

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