Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
I suppose I should admit upfront that I’ve never read Dune, the famous 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, so I don’t know how the original story plays out. Neither have I seen the other big and small-screen adaptations of Dune. I was a newcomer to the work this fall when I walked into Denis Villeneuve’s film, so as far as I know, protagonist Paul Atreides’s story might be handled very differently in other contexts depending on storytelling perspectives, voice, and the eye of the narrator or camera.
When I sat down to Dune, I expected it to be a dense story filled with political intrigue, interplanetary conflict, social commentary, and (based on the way longtime fans talk about it) much more. But Villeneuve gave us something more intimate than any of that. He honed in on what would ground a massive story in the hearts of viewers: the journey of Paul Atreides from childhood to adulthood.
I didn’t expect a close and personal tale of a boy struggling to reach manhood. In short, I didn’t expect Dune to be a Bildungsroman.
A Bildungsroman is a genre of story focusing on the coming-of-age of a young protagonist passing from immaturity to maturity, usually containing trials and the loss of innocence. What struck me, a mother of a young teen, the most about Villeneuve’s Dune as I watched it was that the story is about death, loss, and extreme suffering. We have so few stories that are truly about such things these days. Instead we want to make stories for and about young people that tell them all about their very great potential. We want our kids to live in insulated worlds that revolve around them and how amazing they are. Pick up any Young Adult novel published in the last ten years, and you’ll see that this is true. Stories, especially for and about young people, are no longer morally complicated. They are filled with protagonists who are Chosen and unrealistically culturally pietistic.
Maybe you’re scratching your head at me because, if you know anything about Dune you know that Paul Atreides is literally a Chosen One. Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the young son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica of the Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson), Leto’s concubine and a member of the Bene Gesserit, a powerful religious order. Paul and his parents live on the planet Caladan but must relocate to the spice planet of Arrakis. The emperor has given the Atreides control of Arrakis and its spice production and trade—ousting the violent and oppressive Harkonnens. What seems to be a sign of favor from the emperor is actually an extermination of the entire Atreides line when, after they have set up their new home on Arrakis, they are betrayed to the Harkonnens, attacked, and systematically destroyed. They were sent to Arrakis to die.
Paul, however, has a different destiny on Arrakis. He has spent his life learning about the planet—learning their language, how to survive there, their customs and ways. He also has nightly visions of the Fremen, the desert dwellers native to the spice fields. When he arrives on Arrakis with his family, he has an uncanny second sense about how to act amongst the Fremen themselves. As he comes to learn, this is because his mother bore him, as part of her role in the Bene Gesserit, to be the Chosen One, the messiah, of the Fremen.
But the Chosen Ones of 1965 (when Dune was published) and the Chosen Ones of 2021 are as dissimilar as the eras themselves, and the distinctions in Bildungsroman storytelling from then to now is what makes Dune stand out to me—watching as a mother. Paul’s journey toward being the messiah of the Fremen is a journey into loss, death, and darkness. It’s not a journey of self-discovery, but a movement of forces he is swept along by. It’s no glorious self-actualization, but a violent death of self. Paul’s coming-of-age is more realistic, more honest and truthful, than any story I’ve read or watched about this stage of life in a long time.
Villeneuve crafts beautiful movies, and the beauty of his work is intentional. It sets the stage for necessary character and thematic development. For all the spectacle of Dune (and there is a lot of spectacle to the film), there is nothing on the screen that is incidental to Paul’s story. The world of Dune moves Paul forward or sets him back as necessary to the tides of the story. It sets trials in his way, and Villeneuve invites us in to see and feel and experience it alongside him. We can feel the spice sift between our fingers, feel warmth of the desert air of Arrakis and the rumble of the ground as a sandworm comes up from beneath. When Paul’s home is destroyed, we experience the explosions and the weight of what is happening. The quality of the film leads it to be awe-inspiring, which reminds us in turn that there is beauty in life, even when life is inhospitable, pain-filled, and hard.
Because of Villeneuve’s artistic vision, he was the perfect director to bring Frank Herbert’s world to life. Herbert created, and Villeneuve realized, a setting in the planet of Arrakis that illustrates the dangers of a world that literally wants to eat people alive. And placing Paul Atreides there for his coming-of-age trials further illustrates how passing from childhood to adulthood is not a benign time, but a time fraught with outside forces that threaten body, mind, and soul. Arrakis is inhospitable to life, with soaring daytime temperatures and murderous sun. But beyond that, on Arrakis, gigantic sandworms emerge to consume literally anything that makes vibrations on the desert floor, giving the impression that the earth itself is opening up to swallow people whole. Paul faces the worms more than once, and in the end, he must literally face down one, and survive.
He doesn’t survive because he’s worthy or because he’s the Chosen One, though. Not directly, at least. Paul is regularly saved by things outside himself—his entire journey is directed by exterior forces, making Dune extremely unique and counter to the ways hero stories are told today. Most of Paul’s coming-of-age trials are about grappling with these forces outside of his control—forces that move him inevitably toward a frightening future he can barely anticipate despite his confusing visions. He doesn’t know who he is, and everyone who loves him also moves him toward an uncertain end. As story devices, these people anticipate aspects of a life, and a death, that are rushing toward Paul. His father, Duke Leto, tells Paul he never wanted to rule—that he wanted to be a pilot. He tells him leaders are not born to lead; they answer a call. From Leto, Paul learns the virtue that is found in putting to death personal desire for the greater good, and in the person of Leto, Paul’s future is foretold.
From his mother, Lady Jessica, Paul learns that he is an integral part of a master religious plan—a plan he never knew about. He learns that by virtue of his birth and powers of foresight, he might be expected to play the role of messiah to an oppressed people. In Lady Jessica is a foretelling of Paul’s future, not only in what she’s groomed him to become, but in her half of his parental upbringing. She is the religious aspect of his life; she gives him a spiritual inheritance he would never have gotten from his father. And Paul cannot escape the fact that even before he arrives on Arrakis, his visions have been pulling him to that desert planet—visions of a life and a future there with the oppressed Fremen, a life his mother’s religious order paved the way to.
From his mentors, Gurney and Duncan, he learns tactics and fighting techniques. He also sees in them the ways in which he must master his young and immature impulses to overcome trials and break into full adulthood. “The slow blade breaks the shield,” Gurney (Josh Brolin) tells him in training. In battle in the world of Dune, this is literally true, but it is also a life lesson for Paul. Perseverance is what he’ll need as he enters his trials in the desert—when he loses father, home, friends, and mentors. He doesn’t look inward to find it; he learns it from the men who have gone before him.
Arrakis may want to eat him alive, but it also propels him into his destiny. Paul doesn’t have any special virtue beyond perhaps uncommon bravery and a willingness to listen, learn, and be led. He’s not a traditional hero, and Dune doesn’t strike me as a Hero’s Journey. There’s no return at the end of this story—he journeys out from safety into danger, he loses home and father and mentors, and at the end, he dies a metaphorical death to gain new life as a man in an uncertain world. His story is a tragedy.
Neither does Dune offer any easy answers about what it means to grow to adulthood. It’s not an easy story; it’s a morally complicated one with all the honesty of real life. Immaturity and innocence must die, it says, for children to become adults. And when it comes to protecting children from this loss, there’s nothing a mother—or a father—can ultimately do. Children must face their own transition into adulthood.
The climax of Villeneuve’s Dune is rather quiet, given the scope and spectacle of the film, but it’s a fitting conclusion, given the nature of Paul’s journey. The young protagonist has to battle Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), a Fremen on Arrakis. It’s a duel to the death to determine whether or not Paul and his mother will be allowed into the community of the Fremen, and it’s a battle that comes at the end of a long series of trials and tragedies beginning with the betrayal of the Atreides family and the death of Paul’s father. Paul, only fifteen years old, has to kill Jamis, who is a seasoned warrior, or die himself. But before the trial by combat begins, he has a vision of himself fighting the man—fighting, and losing. A voiceover in his vision tells him, “Paul Atreides must die…” It’s a vision that mirrors earlier ones where Jamis promises to show him “the way of the desert,” and a Fremen girl named Chani (Zendaya) calls to him and offers him a sacred knife. The outcome of these interactions is unclear: Chani’s bloody hand with the knife, Paul’s death by the knife, Paul with the Fremen—these are recurring visions Paul has, and he doesn’t know what they mean. So when Paul, at the end of his journey, meets Chani and Jamis, and Chani gives him the knife from his visions to use in his fight with Jamis, we as viewers might rightly expect that Paul’s death is imminent. But in the duel, Paul kills Jamis, joins the Fremen, and the movie comes to a close.
In this moment, Paul passes on into his next life. The life of a grown man. In the mythology of the story, he begins his “rise” as the messiah figure, but it’s a “rise” that required his sacrifice of his former self. “Paul Atreides must die for Kwisatz Haderach to rise… When you take a life, you take your own.” To kill another person is to die as well. We cannot take a life without a consequence to our own souls. His visions came true. Jamis showed him the way of the desert, and Chani’s hand is bloody for having given him the implement of not only Jamis’s death, but Paul’s death, as well.
Before his assassination, Duke Leto asked Lady Jessica if she would protect Paul. She answered swiftly and unequivocally, “With my life.” Leto asked her again, clarifying that he was not asking her as Paul’s mother, but as a member of the Bene Gesserit. She doesn’t give Leto an answer—one gets the idea that she doesn’t because she can’t. There are things that are bigger than us as parents, and we know our children will have to face the world, someday, without our protection.
Dune is a tragedy because it tells a story of a boy transitioning to manhood, but he can’t become a man without first dying. There is no protecting Paul Atreides from the losses, betrayals, and deaths of his coming-of-age. It’s not a story about the rise of a messiah but a story about the loss of innocence. And too many parents know this story all too well. The world will ask everything of our children. We don’t have any coming-of-age rituals in America—no universally acknowledged cultural rites that symbolize when a boy becomes a man or a girl becomes a woman. We don’t test them or declare their worthiness; far from that, we strive more and more these days to protect them. Because the world is an inhospitable place. But they will pass through the fire that stands between childhood and adulthood, and it will often hurt. The cost of admission into adulthood in the arena of adolescence is the death of innocence. And that is, frankly, a tragedy.
What is the value of a Bildungsroman? It allows viewers to wrestle with the big questions and the moral complications of adolescence—to enter into thought and conversation about how best to help and raise our children. Because we can’t always protect them, and we must steward our time with them as best we can. Viewing Dune as a Bildungsroman helps the film make sense as a complete story when it is only a film adaptation of half of a lengthy novel. Dune might feel incomplete if you view it as something other than a Bildungsroman, but it tells a complete story about Paul. Even if we never get to learn anything more about what happens on the desert planet of Arrakis, what happens to the oppressed Fremen, to the spice production and trade, to Baron Harkonnen, to the emperor we never get to meet, we know that Paul Atreides died. But he also lived. And because life follows death, there is hope in the tragedy of what was lost.