A Genuine Messiah: The Erosion of Political Messaging in Dune 2021

Misha Grifka WANDER


Frank Herbert’s sprawling Dune epic critiques imperialism, colonialism, and the notion of a messiah figure. Herbert drew heavily on Islamic thought and culture, incorporating it throughout the books, while also interrogating the problematic structure of thinking that leads to messianic figures and their political and cultural power. The 2021 movie adaptation by Denis Villeneuve emphasizes Paul Atreides’s uniqueness, his powers—the “specialness” that will enable him to become a messiah and cult figure. It leaves out the sinister tone, the critique that Herbert was levelling at Paul’s choice to tread the messianic path. Instead, the film chooses another familiar path, the storytelling conceit of the “chosen one” that is uncritically replicated across Hollywood science fiction. In this paper, I will use close reading to illustrate how Villeneuve’s adaptation fails to convey Herbert’s most important point, the critique of charismatic leaders. Through seemingly small, even insignificant changes, the filmmakers erode Herbert’s political arguments in favor of an audience-friendly focus on Paul Atreides as a young man on a hero’s journey. The resulting adaptation also removes agency and depth from the Fremen characters. The Middle Eastern and Islamic influences of Herbert’s worldbuilding are downplayed, leaving the film curiously whitewashed and more orientalist than the book. In the end, the film becomes the opposite of what Herbert intended to write: a hero’s journey, focused on a white protagonist whose unique powers are a source of wonder rather than fear. The deep engagement with Arrakis’s ecology and culture are missing, leaving only a traditional Hollywood bildungsroman.

Keywords: Dune, science fiction, movie adaptations, orientalism, messianic figures, hero’s journey

DOI: 10.24193/ekphrasis.28.4