Bonus: The Deep History of Dune : Throughline Rund and Ramtin speak to sci-fi writer and Princeton historian, Haris Durrani, about why the lore of Dune still proves so relevant and the ways in which the 2021 film succeeds and fails to convey its messages.

"Dreams are messages from the deep." Those are the first words that appear on the screen in Denis Villeneuve's 2021 film, Dune, a cinematic adaptation of the iconic 1965 sci-fi book by Frank Herbert. The book contains dreams within dreams. Dreams of a future humanity in all of its flawed complexity. Dune takes place about ten thousand years from now with humanity having spread across the galaxy, populating planets and evolving in myriad mysterious and fascinating ways. But Herbert's vision isn't unrecognizable to our contemporary eyes. In fact, unlike many other similar sci-fi stories, Dune projects Islamic belief and philosophy into the future, placing it right at the center of future events. It uses Middle Eastern history to paint a dream of a future which is both futuristic and ancient, exhilarating and full of tension. It is a story about the perils of imperialism, messianic beliefs, and environmental degradation. It is a story about us.

Bonus: The Deep History of Dune

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RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Thank you for all the folks who've logged on. Just a heads-up - we're recording this, so this might end up being an episode. Also, there's likely to be some spoilers - so just a spoiler alert ahead of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

ZENDAYA: (As Chani) Our planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low.

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

Last week, after watching the new "Dune" movie, Ramtin and I could not stop talking about it...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

ZENDAYA: (As Chani) The outsiders ravage our lands in front of our eyes.

ABDELFATAH: ...The visuals, the sound design...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

ABDELFATAH: ...How good it felt to be watching it in an actual movie theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

ZENDAYA: (As Chani) Their cruelty to my people is all I've known.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

ARABLOUEI: And pretty quickly, we were geeking out about all the subtle and not so subtle Muslim elements of the movie.

ABDELFATAH: There's the Fremen, who look a lot like Arab Bedouins.

ARABLOUEI: The desert dunes, which look a lot like the Middle East - much of the movie was actually shot in Jordan.

ABDELFATAH: The spice melange, which is fought over a lot like oil is.

ARABLOUEI: And the language - Arabic and Persian words pop up throughout the "Dune" universe, things like mahdi, meaning prophet; lisan al-gaib, meaning hidden tongue; or padishah, meaning master king.

ABDELFATAH: We devoured a bunch of articles about the movie, and one name kept coming up.

ARABLOUEI: Can you pronounce your name for me real quick? I just want make sure I get...

HARIS DURRANI: Sure. Haris Durrani.

ABDELFATAH: Haris Durrani.

DURRANI: I got into "Dune" through my interest in science fiction, initially as a reader. I'm also an author. My science fiction novel is called "Technologies Of The Self." It's very "Dune"-y. And then also, it intersects with a lot of my doctoral work now at Princeton University in the history department there on the history of law, technology and empire in the 20th century United States.

ABDELFATAH: We decided to have a conversation with Haris on Twitter about the Muslimness (ph) of "Dune" and the history behind it and wanted to share that conversation with those of you who couldn't tune in - in case you've just watched "Dune" or are planning to watch it and need someone to geek out about it with.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Well, let's get started. First, we want to just do a kind of a quick description of the premise of, like, the story, so for folks who don't know the story of "Dune." So "Dune" is a book that came out in 1965, written by Frank Herbert. And it - this is the basic story. Twenty-thousand years into the future, humans have populated thousands of planets in the Milky Way galaxy. The prevailing order that dominates this human civilization is a form of kind of feudalism called the Imperium. Interplanetary travel is made possible by a substance called the spice melange. This space grows on one planet. It's called Arrakis. And the powerful houses, or kind of feudal lords that control the galaxy, also control the extraction and distribution of this spice. It's the most valuable resource in the galaxy.

The extraction of spice is extremely dangerous. Arrakis is populated by massive sand worms that Indigenous people of the planet, the Fremen, call shai-hulud (ph). Also, the Fremen are fiercely independent and resist any colonial control from off-planet powers. House Harkonnen has been given the rights to extract spice melange by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam III for 80 years. Now their rights are being taken away and given to House Atreides, a family with growing power in the Imperium, who threatens the emperor. It's a trap. House Harkonnen, with the help of the emperor, tries to take back control of Arrakis and the spice control.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

OSCAR ISAAC: (As Leto Atreides) There is no call we do not answer. There is no faith that we betray.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Atreides, Atreides, Atreides...

ABDELFATAH: The heir to the throne of House Atreides is Paul, who's played in the film by Timothee Chalamet. And he's trained by his mother, Lady Jessica, played by Rebecca Ferguson, in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, a secretive all-women order that has great influence in the Imperium. When House Atreides is destroyed, Paul and Lady Jessica seek refuge in the deserts of Arrakis with the Fremen people. For centuries, the Fremen, whose religion is called Zensunnism, a descendant of both Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam, have believed in a messianic prophecy of the Mahdi. In Paul, they see the Mahdi. Paul seizes on this and uses the power of the Fremen warriors and their zeal to fight the Harkonnen, avenge his family and - oh, we're definitely spoiling the book here - ultimately win control of the Imperium. But all along, Paul's seeing visions of a future jihad. And I'm going to leave it at that so that we don't spoil too much of the second part of the book. Haris, how did that summary sound to you?

DURRANI: Sure. I mean, I think summarizing "Dune" in general is very difficult, so I applaud you on doing it in a curt fashion. Well done. And I'm just realizing that if we're going to have a really substantive discussion of "Dune," I think we're going to have to inevitably spoil the book anyways.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah.

DURRANI: YOLO.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, we have so much to unpack. I mean, just to jump in, you wrote a Washington Post article about "Dune," I think has been shared a lot. It's - you know, a lot of people I know have shared it with me. In even a (ph) really complex way about the book and its history - but here's a simple question. What did you think of the film? Did you enjoy it? You know, what was your favorite scene? What was your just initial reaction to it?

DURRANI: Yeah, I actually - I'm glad that article is making the rounds. But it's funny. I actually really liked the movie. But it - the writing probably makes it seem like I didn't like the movie.

(LAUGHTER)

DURRANI: I thought - I mean, I don't think it's Denis Villeneuve's best work for me. My favorite works of his are - I think "Incendies" and "Blade Runner" are my favorite. But I think it was a pretty good film. There's a tendency to say, oh, you know, it just cuts off; it's not a complete story. I think it actually works as a complete story because the Jamis fight at the end, the knife fight, is a sort of nice closure from a storytelling perspective, with the knife fight...

(SOUNDBITE OF COMBAT AMBIENCE)

DURRANI: ...With Gurney Halleck in the beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

JOSH BROLIN: (As Gurney Halleck) Don't stand with your back to the door.

DURRANI: I think there's a way in which it does act as its own standalone while setting up the next thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

TIMOTHEE CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) Guess I'm not in the mood today.

BROLIN: (As Gurney Halleck) Mood? What's mood to do with it? You fight when the necessity arises, no matter the mood. Now fight.

DURRANI: I think it could have been much better. But my issues were more about the representation and the politics of it than the storytelling. I think my favorite scene was when they first get to the desert, and he slowly pans up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

CHALAMET: (As Paul) The future, I can see it.

DURRANI: When I saw that, I was like, OK, like, this is "Dune."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) This is only the beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: I do find it interesting that you found it satisfying as its own movie because that last - or next-to-last scene where, like, Paul, you know, he kills someone for the first time, what I found fascinating about that scene is that you realize his visions are not totally accurate. And it's sort of - it's like, it's a premonition in some ways that, like, he can be misled by his visions and that he's not messianic in the way that maybe he himself even believes that he's messianic and that definitely the people on Arrakis are beginning to believe he is. So I don't know. I mean, did you feel like it was kind of beginning to turn into a space of more, like, ambiguity about his hero status at the end of the movie?

DURRANI: Yeah, I definitely agree. I - that was a nice touch. I mean, I think in the books, it's always a little bit unclear how much he actually does see the future or not. And I think what the movie does well is it makes that more explicit, and it makes the critique of Paul as the white savior more explicit. It's in the novel, but it doesn't really become overt until the second novel, whereas with the film, I think showing the mistakes in his presence - and especially that point at the end where Jessica says, oh, you know, it's still dark, and we just know - get a ship to get off planet, and then Paul says, no, my place is here in the desert. It is, like, a clear decision to go along a path that he knows is not the right path. And there are a lot of, like, decisions along the way that I think the film highlights very well in showing that this is not the guy you should be rooting for, even if he is sympathetic.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. That - you know, it's such a fascinating portrayal of leaders. And, you know, we'll get into that a little bit, about what Herbert's view on leadership and charismatic leadership was. But before we do that, I just want to get into one of the most - the things that has fascinated me about the book, and then we can talk about how it manifested in the film. Since I was a kid - I'm Iranian, and so reading this book as a young person, I never really read sci-fi that projected Islam into the future and Middle Eastern culture into the future. Can you just talk a little bit about the role Islam plays in the universe Herbert builds for the book? And how did that play out in the film, and what ways do you think it stayed true to the book or it failed to kind of manifest those pieces in the book, in the film - from the book, in the film?

DURRANI: That's a loaded question. I could spend four hours talking about that. But I'll squeeze it into, like, one minute. With respect to the book, I think, you know, the important thing to acknowledge in the book is that he's drawing on a lot of different cultures, histories, religions - Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, paganism. He's talking about "Lawrence Of Arabia," but he also read Suleiman Mousa's "T.E. Lawrence - An Arab View," which is a critique of the "Seven Pillars." But he's also - he also read Lesley Blanch's "Sabres Of Paradise" about the Muslim Caucasians. But he was also thinking about, like, decolonization movements and Indigenous life that he was directly affiliated with - the Quileute Tribe - in the United States but also in Latin America and southern parts of Africa. So he's drawing on a lot of different things.

And when I talk about the Muslimness of "Dune," I don't mean to, like, elide or erase all those other aspects. But I will say that what is very telling is that the Muslimness is a pervading aspect that seems to seep into every aspect of the Dune universe, not I think most explicitly among the Fremen but everywhere. It's kind of like, when I think about - I mention this in my Washington Post op-ed. But sort of when I think about something like algebra or even our - Locke's concept of tabula rasa, so many things that we take for granted in our society today have roots in a much more porous history of East and West than we traditionally think. And I think Herbert explicitly knew that. And he says, people don't realize how much Islam has contributed to our society, and I wanted to sort of write something against that.

And there's a great quote somewhere where he - someone asked him about the religions of "Dune," and he says, oh, yes, you know, I drew on Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Zen - all these things. And then he pauses, and then he says, Islam, of course; Islam is a central element of the whole thing (laughter). So it is - it's very much - partly, it's an analogy. He's drawing analogies to different Muslim histories and theologies.

But at the same time, I see it as speculative in the truly science fictional speculative sense, that he's trying to ask, what would Muslim life look like 20,000 years from now if it was syncretized with all of these other faiths and cultures? I think in my view - I'll just do it very quickly 'cause I just spoke for a lot. But with respect to the film, I think the film does the bare minimum necessary to tell the story. And I've seen a few people say, oh, you know, we get Mahdi, we get Lisan al Gaib, we get the desert, Arab, Bedouin vibe. And I'm like, you guys are used to consolation prizes, man.

(LAUGHTER)

DURRANI: Like, if you order, like, a Oreo milkshake and they give you a vanilla milkshake and they sprinkle, like, some crumbled Oreos on top, like, I guess - is that an Oreo milkshake? Maybe it is to some people. It's not to me.

(LAUGHTER)

ABDELFATAH: That's a good analogy. I feel like - yeah, in the movie version, it feels like it's reduced down to what I've heard some people call, like, a caricature, which is - sounds like is the opposite of what Herbert would have wanted - right? - in terms of the depiction of Islam and kind of this, like, East-West blurring. Part of what I find so fascinating about the fact that religion is such a presence in this universe of the future, like far into the future, is that sci fi often sidelines religion altogether. And this is just a - kind of a radically different approach, radically different vision of what not only the future looks like, but what Herbert's present looked like.

DURRANI: Yeah, that is something that really stuck to me when I first read "Dune" as a kid and even when I returned to it. I remember when I first read it. I read it shortly after 9/11 because my mom, she was very much into getting me to read stories by or at least about Muslims and people of color - Pakistanis, Dominicans, whatever, right? And so "Dune" was one of those books that she had given me.

And when I first encountered it, it wasn't the first time I'd encountered a - Muslim characters in a novel. And it wasn't so much that I loved it because I was like, oh, I feel included. I'm recognize. I'm represented. It wasn't - I mean, there was that aspect for sure, but I think what was most intriguing to me was that Herbert was - as much as he was talking about, you know, these so-called battles or divisions between East and West or Islam and Christianity, to put it crudely, he was also having a conversation internal to Islam about a - about the history of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, about the mufti, about Shiism; about all of these things that are internal to our tradition and the conversations I would have with my friends and family members and community members.

And to me, that was a really weird experience because it is very true, I agree with you, that a lot of science fiction often takes an atheist or agnostic point of view. And religion, if it is talked about, usually as an object of critique, is usually from the very what I would say European - particular European Christian point of view of what religion is. And what Herbert did, he just totally exploded that where everything is religious, but it's just religious in different ways. And you even have, I would say, different approaches to Islam within the "Dune" universe, which to me is just amazing as a literary science fiction accomplishment.

ARABLOUEI: Right, because there's Zensunni, there's Zenshiite. So this gets at the - one of the critiques of the film is that it kind of plays on the, you know, white savior trope. And I think obviously some of that comes down to casting. But if you were to translate the book, it's to your earlier point. The entire universe is influenced by Islam. It's not just that one group of people, you know? The - you know, race isn't a huge part of the book in that, you know, people are described, but it isn't, like, as much of a central role as maybe it does in, you know, our world, obviously. Do you think that in light of that, the white savior trope is a fair kind of criticism? Is it really just about the way the film was made?

DURRANI: Do you mean a fair criticism of the novel or of the...

ARABLOUEI: Of both - of both.

DURRANI: Yeah.

ARABLOUEI: Do you think that can...

DURRANI: Yeah.

ARABLOUEI: ...Apply to both?

DURRANI: Yeah. I think with respect to the film - I mean, it's complicated in both respects. For the film, I would say I think a little bit of it is something that also happens with the novel - is people have certain expectations about when they see a white dude coming into a bunch of people of color and there is some kind of interaction and that - and there's any kind of heroic gloss to that. I think there's a tendency to say, oh, that story's portraying that person as a good person. I think to my mind, maybe because also I read the books - to me, the critique of Paul was very obvious; the way...

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

DURRANI: ...He treats his mother when he gets the jihad vision. The reference to the bull I think is a - that's - I mean, it's referenced only a few times in the novel, but they really amped that up. Because to me, the bull represents the precarity and danger of the Atreides bloodline. They don't really have this in the film, but, you know, when he has that first spice vision in the desert, he sees the jihad, and he says, this is the violence of our Atreides-Harkonnen bloodline. Sorry, a spoiler there (laughter).

Whereas - so I think, actually, the film and the book work as critiques of the savior narrative. I think where they both work less is in their depiction of the Fremen and Fremen custom. And I think there's a question of the agency of the Fremen that both Villeneuve and Herbert - they don't quite go as far as I would go, I think, in complicating the way that their Fremen are treated. And I think they're kind of treated...

ARABLOUEI: Can you talk more about that? Yeah.

DURRANI: Sure.

ARABLOUEI: What do you mean about that?

DURRANI: Yeah. So for example, the very last scene of the film ends with a Jamis fight. And in the - they don't really explain it very well in the movie, but the reason that they have that fight is because - it's mentioned very briefly. Jamis says, I invoke the Amtal Rule, which means that if - for a political succession, you have to - the strongest has to lead. So if one person bests the strongest, then you have to kill the other person.

And it's kind of like a Khadi (ph) justice kind of Orientalist idea that is also central to the novel, I would say. And I think there are ways to either lean into that and, you know, show more maybe why that's important to the Fremen and why it's not just some kind of irrational concept or to just change the custom and make it - make the final battle about some other customary tradition that isn't this kind of Orientalist idea of the brutal savage, right?

And I think in the novels he's not - he wavers. Sometimes the Fremen seem to have a lot of agency, and at other times they don't. And sort of the key problem is that in trying to critique Paul as the white savior, he also has to show that everyone follows Paul as the savior. So everyone following Paul kind of loses their agency. And there - but I will say it is more complicated than that in the sense that the novels do sort of hint at other Fremen factions and disagreement among the Fremen, but it's something that's not at the surface of the novel, and I think it's even buried deeper in the film.

ABDELFATAH: I want to dig in a little more into the - you started to get at this earlier, but into the world that Herbert lived in and formed his ideas about Islam, East and West. What was the context? What was the political context in which he was writing "Dune," particularly when it came to the Middle East and North Africa? For example, what was happening in Algeria? And how did that play into his depictions of all of this? Because obviously, you know, people have, you know, cited spice as being a pretty clear metaphor for oil. And it seems like the parallels don't stop there.

DURRANI: Yeah. I mean, I think there's a tendency sometimes for people to say, "Dune" is about oil. "Dune" is about water. "Dune" is about the Caucasian Muslims. "Dune" is about "Lawrence Of Arabia." But it's really all of those things at once. And I think that's what makes it so interesting.

You know, if you want to critique Paul as the white savior and the Fremen are like the Bedouin to his "Lawrence Of Arabia," then how do you square that with the clear indication - and Herbert exactly - he says, I was interested in Jesus and Muhammad as reformers, as great reformers of their times. And so you could just as easily - and I think Herbert knew he was doing this - say that Paul is Muhammad and the Fremen are the Quraysh. Or that - or you could talk about it as a problem of succession after Muhammad and the Umayyads and Karbala, which obviously Herbert is riffing on as well.

So with respect - to directly answer your question, I think he was thinking about decolonization in the 1960s and 1950s and the decades beforehand. There's an article by Daniel Immerwahr called The Quileute Dune, where he talks about Frank Herbert's influence from the indigenous Quileute tribe in the U.S., in Washington state and how Herbert was a little - I wouldn't say he was an activist, but he was very interested in and part of conversations in the Red Power movement. And he was thinking about indigenous activism and their relationship to American Empire. And he - in his mind, he analogized that to the struggles of people in the Middle East and North Africa. And I think that's where he got some of his thinking as well.

ABDELFATAH: Now, can you...

ARABLOUEI: Wow.

ABDELFATAH: Can you say a little more about what was happening, for folks who might not know, at that time in the Middle East and Africa.

DURRANI: Sure. Yes. Oh, of course. Certainly. So - right. The mid-20th century was a period where you have a decline or defeats of various European empires, especially the French and the British, out of the Middle East and out of Africa, predominantly. And so you had several independence movements and decolonization movements across those regions against British and European empires.

I would say at the same time, Herbert was also, in the "Lawrence Of Arabia" context, was thinking about the Arabs and the Ottomans and the British and their sort of intertwined relationship as well. But yeah, he was thinking about - to directly answer your question, he was thinking about these decolonization movements where you had various populations, especially across the Middle East and Africa as a whole, who were claiming independence and self-determination against mainly European powers at the same time as America was trying to come in and fill that imperial void.

And I think what's very interesting - I don't know how much you want to get into this, but to my mind, the whole rest of the Dune novels are all about this problem of counter-revolution and what happens when the anti-colonial fighters attain the power of the state. And is that really the end of colonialism or does colonialism continue on in different forms? And I think Herbert really grasped that nuance in a very sometimes problematic way, but also a very interesting way.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. We've done a ton of that on our show, on THROUGHLINE. We've done stories about kind of what happens after the revolution. And I think that, you know, the book and - the film is basically pre-revolution, right? And we get more as the book goes on. I want to know what you - what kinds of Orientalism or problematic ways does Herbert engage with that kind of counter-revolutionary - you know, revolutionary ideas and also just basically the way that particularly the Fremen are portrayed. In what ways do you think he kind of, you know, engages in Orientalism? And can you also just talk about what Orientalism is first and then how he kind of engages in it?

DURRANI: Certainly. Orientalism is a contested category, but to give the simple - Edwards Said - my understanding of the Edward Said definition of the category - Orientalism is - I would say most broadly appears in popular fiction, cultural artifacts, artwork that depicts, usually but not always, the Muslim, quote-unquote, "Oriental Eastern other" but in a specific way, right? So it can be as an enemy, but it's often something more. It's usually the idea that the Muslim other is romanticized or is sexualized or fetishized and usually is treated as a - one monolithic entity. So the idea of there being, you know, clear boundaries between East and West is an Orientalist idea because it assumes the East and West are these clearly fixed categories in the first place that are monolithic and so on.

So actually, in that sense, I think Herbert's novels actually are a great critique of Orientalism because there isn't a clear boundary between East and West. But I think in other ways it is Orientalist as I've just described it. I think a more interesting Orientalism in the novels is - so I mentioned earlier the idea of the Fremen customs and how Herbert sometimes portrays them as very rigid. But it's a funny thing. Every time I ask questions about "Dune," I find myself just asking more questions because...

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter).

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

DURRANI: You know, you can say that Herbert is portraying the Fremen custom as this rigid, you know, brutal thing that - you know, they are just, you know, fighting each other with knife fights. But then if you look more broadly at the Dune universe, everybody does knife fights.

ARABLOUEI: Right.

DURRANI: And Herbert is also obsessed with this idea of necessity and how sort of moral and social governance comes out of the kind of pre-rational relationship to environment, to one's self, to some - I don't know if you would say divine, but there's something mystical. And if you go further through the book, it's very clear that he actually - you know, even if his idea of the Fremen tradition is Orientalist. He actually likes that Fremen tradition, and he wants to return to a pre-colonial, pre-modern Muslim. And every novel ends with some kind of return to a, like, Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Quileute tradition before colonialism. And then the next novel is how, you know, in trying to return to it, they didn't fully return to it. So they have to do something else to try to get further back to try to - you know, you have to invent new traditions to get back at the original tradition.

And I think, you know, you can even read Paul - you know, Paul as Muhammad. But I think - in my mind, I think what Herbert is trying to say is that nobody should try to be a prophet because there was one prophet who had a connection with the divine, and you can't try to repeat that again. And it's weird because he really likes the Muslim tradition in its various guises, but he also has this kind of monolithic approach to it in some sense as well. And it's both, like, the highlight of "Dune," but also its downfall.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, right.

ABDELFATAH: So I was an anthropology major. And this makes me think, in some ways, that, like, even when, you know, you have good intentions - like Herbert may have had the intention of, you know, deconstructing the colonial kind of order, basically, that he was seeing in the world of his time. But is there an inherent problem with kind of the messenger of this message? And I guess what I mean by that is, like, in the same way that people are critiquing the film and Paul specifically because it's, you know, a white actor, there is just an inherent, like, uphill battle to trying to kind of assert this antihero, anti-colonial message when the messenger is kind of the people that would be considered colonizer. And is that partly why we can't get past it?

DURRANI: That's a great question. Is it Frank Herbert the white savior of "Dune," right?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, basically.

DURRANI: Yeah, I think I would sort of agree. I mean, I think, to give Herbert credit, the reason I personally really love the novels is that he understands that he is this white man writing this story. And so many of the narratives in the novels are - seem to be these interrogations of whiteness and sort of Herbert questioning his own views. And I think that's why the novels themselves are so contradictory - because he contradicts himself, because he's constantly questioning himself. And I think that is very laudable. And the fact that he did so much research - and I think, you know, for all of Herbert's problems, he really, clearly, put in the work. And so as much as I will critique him, I still, you know - I respect him for putting in the work.

And for me, when I see Villenueve, who's, you know, at the height of his powers, one of the greatest filmmakers of our time - he's one of my favorite filmmakers. To me, he clearly did not put in the work. He says this multiple times in interviews that he wrote this - he did the film not for every "Dune" fan. And he thinks this is praise. He says, I did this for the 13-year-old me who fell in love with "Dune."

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

DURRANI: And I think it's very different when you're writing a story for a 13-year-old white, French Canadian kid than for everyone else who is reading "Dune" in a very different way. If I were part of the film process for this movie, I would say that you have to bring in Muslim and MENA traders of color, and I would say, Quileutes, Buddhists, all these people - right? - to try to, you know, elevate what is good and change what is bad from the "Dune" novels.

But I think the failure for Villeneuve, more than the fact that he's a white man, that he didn't put in the work. And I think there is value always that, you know, ultimately, a white person won't be able to tell a story in the same way that a person from their own subjectivity would be able to tell their story, no matter what. And there's a degree to which, no matter how much work you put in, you're not going to get to that point. But for me, the bigger problem with the film specifically is that they did not put in the work.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. When you say put in the work, I think a lot of people don't know just how much work Herbert put in. Can you talk a little bit about the amount of research that went into writing "Dune?" Because I think that has a lot to do with why it came out the way it did.

DURRANI: Yeah, so "Dune" - there are a lot of different narratives of the origins of "Dune." But yeah, the research - he claims that he read over 200 books to write at least the first two or three "Dune" novels. He was originally a journalist, so he was writing about sand dunes in Oregon, and then that became the novel "Dune." And at the same time, he was actually working for a Republican senator. And so...

ARABLOUEI: Wow.

ABDELFATAH: Wow.

DURRANI: ...That's a whole other thing to talk about. The right-wing politics of "Dune" would sometimes weirdly overlap with the Muslimness of "Dune" and the anti-colonialism of "Dune." But so he was drawing from his experiences and some of his disillusionment. So for example, he was working for a Republican senator, and his cousin actually was Joe McCarthy - the Joe McCarthy.

ABDELFATAH: Whoa.

DURRANI: And he saw Joe McCarthy and his senator and Robert Kennedy all commiserating together during McCarthyism and the Red Scare. And he was really disgusted by that, even though it was his cousin and his senator. And I'm pretty sure that the banquet scene in the novel "Dune," which is cut out of the film, is exactly about him seeing both political parties...

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

DURRANI: ...And his own family members participating in this very corrupt, disgusting project of McCarthyism, right? And he even went to Southeast Asia, I believe, and Pakistan once or twice...

ABDELFATAH: Oh, wow.

DURRANI: ...To do these documentary journalism projects.

ABDELFATAH: Wow. You know, I want to go back to something real quick, and then I think we're going to open it up to some questions from folks who are listening. I'm curious to know why you think more MENA, you know, Middle East, North African people were not cast - or really, no one. Do you think that that reflects something about our present moment, why that wasn't incorporated? It's obviously such - as we've been talking, it's such a key part of the original text. So do you think that was an intentional decision?

DURRANI: I think it probably was. I mean, I think it's a little bit hard. I was mentioning this on Twitter the other day. But it's like, where on the dumb-to-racist scale do you want to place these people?

(LAUGHTER)

ABDELFATAH: Yeah.

DURRANI: And I think there's a degree to which I think they just weren't totally aware of how Muslim and how MENA the books are, and so they thought it wasn't as important maybe. That's the - maybe the generous reading. It's clear reading interviews with these people and listening to interviews that there was some intent to it because if you look at the interviews, the screenwriters say that, you know, when Herbert was writing "Dune" in the '60s, Arabs were not our fellows, and they were not part of our world, and so it was this exotic set dressing to create this future universe that's other and weird and, you know, different. But now, you know, the Arabs are our fellows (laughter), and they're part of our world, so it wouldn't be as exotic, which is to me...

ARABLOUEI: Wow.

DURRANI: ...Just a total misreading. I mean, Herbert himself, he literally says, Islam is a very strong element of the "Dune" series, and it is part of our culture, and nobody recognizes that the - he says, the enormous debt that we owe to Islam. So to me, the screenwriters are - I think there is some, you know, benevolent intent there. It's a little bit of, you know, white liberal guilt, I think, that they're afraid that this stuff about jihad and, you know...

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

DURRANI: ...Bringing in the problematic - it's easier to avoid the problematic aspects of "Dune" than to lean into it, whereas I think if you had MENA and Muslim creatives and Quileute creatives and Buddhist, East Asian creatives involved in the process, I think when those people read the "Dune" novels, they see it in a very different way. And I think one argument that I've seen passed around is, oh, you know, Denis Villeneuve is a minimalist filmmaker. He doesn't have a lot of dialogue. You can't throw in all the terms. You know, a lot of the cuts are just to focus on Paul and Jessica's character arc. You can't do all the world building. It's too much. And sure, I get that. But I think if you have these creatives from those backgrounds that were in the room, they would have recognized how important those world-building elements were to the central fabric of what makes "Dune" "Dune." And they would have fought to try to keep that in.

The music and the clothing and the architecture - there is a little bit of architecture in the film but not much. And sort of if you lean into the - those elements and sort of bring out the textual granularity, the MENA textual granularity of the "Dune" novels, into the audio visuality of the film through the music and the sound design and the visual cues, that would have been a great way to translate it without doing all of the obscure, you know, terminology of "Dune."

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, it seems like they tried to do some of that - like, Villeneuve tried to do some of that in the kind of imagery. But, I mean, I guess, you know, the one thing that's interesting is it is a, you know, blockbuster movie, big budget film. I'm sure there is some - and they may deny it - but there's got to be some kind of, like - what is it? What do they call those? Like, panels? Deciding, like, what would be, like, kind of maybe not legally good or what would get bad press, et cetera, and there may have been some kind of - you know? Like, those - at that level, I'm sure there's a little bit of that. And there may have been some, like, shying away from using the word jihad, for example, which is used a lot in the books. So...

DURRANI: Yeah, I mean, I think partly they just weren't looking. And then I think it was partly this fear that they don't want to - they want to avoid the issues. To me, at least, I think, clearly, the solution is, you know, try to figure out how to deal with the Orientalism instead of just - literally just erasing (laughter) the...

ARABLOUEI: Right.

DURRANI: ...Race question in the thing entirely. And I think with "Dune," there are so many great opportunities. Like, I think there's one - there's a lot - to address the great jihad debate, as it's called, I think, to me, it's symptomatic of the whole thing. It's not, like, what makes it bad as a movie with respect to representation, but it's symptomatic. And, you know, there's one reading which is the filmmakers' reading, which is that jihad is bad in the movie, you know? And we have this association with - if we put jihad in the movie, then people are going to associate it with Islam, with terrorism. Then there's the alternate reading, which is that, well, actually, in the novel, jihad is a reference to the decolonization movements and sort of Sufi anti-colonial fighters, right? And I think that's very true that Herbert was wrong on that. But if you read the novel carefully, jihad isn't even - it's partly referring to the anti-colonial movements, but he's also doing something much more complicated, which is - the first time that you really get a full description of jihad is in that spice vision in the tent.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

DURRANI: And the jihad - it's very clear that it comes from the Atreides-Harkonnen bloodline from the Bene Gesserit manipulations. And so it's - jihad really is the - in the novels, is an offspring of basically a European Christian conversion movement from an imperial force. So it's not so much that the Fremen are the jihadists; it's that the Bene Gesserits and the Harkonnens and the Atreides are the ones who are bringing the jihad to the Fremen, which is a very nuanced, interesting thing, but I think they were just too afraid to dig into that, or they just didn't see that in the novel.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. Let's move to some questions. I could go on and on about that because that's what I also find so fascinating, that everyone was doing - everyone was thinking about jihad in the book. So let's open it up.

HASIB: Can I - can you guys hear me?

ARABLOUEI: Yep, we got you.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, we can hear you.

HASIB: First of all, really thank you for doing this, honestly, 'cause being an Islamic history major in Islamic law and seeing Haris Durrani appear, I really want to thank you guys for representation. I think that's huge. Durrani wrote a beautiful article. I mean, I don't know if he's from the Durrani family, which is, you know, a famous family in Afghanistan. You know, I really appreciate the focus on Orientalism. And amongst Muslims, a lot of people are jaded. Like, I was jaded when I watched the movie because I was like, dude, this is, like, exactly what Durrani was mentioning. Like, how much of it is just whitewashed? How much of it's white savior complex? And it's just the continuous - like, hey, our narratives is continuously being, you know, pushed to the side, moved away, not listening to what actually Muslims want to represent - faith and Muslim culture, if you want to call it that, or Muslim-oriented cultures.

So my question is, how do we hold Hollywood accountable other than, you know, having spaces like this? But importantly, should we keep pushing the whole represent us, or should we say, hey, give Muslims a chance - have Muslim directors, have Muslim narratives? I don't know who can answer this question, but I really appreciate it. Thanks so much.

ABDELFATAH: Haris, do you want to answer?

DURRANI: Sure. Yeah, no, thank you, Hasib (ph). Thanks for that great question. And by the way, yes. I don't know how directly I'm related, but my family does originally come from Afghanistan. And actually, in the later "Dune" books, the Tleilaxu, which is a whole other group of people - it's very clear that they're referencing the, like, SFAAT area of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, which is where a lot of my family is from. I mean, he's referencing stuff that if you start looking up the terms that he's using, you get all the Durrani Afghanistan stuff in there. So I am - I consider myself a Tleilaxu in the "Dune" universe, as well as...

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter) But they've got such a bad rep.

DURRANI: I know. But Jacurutu as well, because I'm also Dominican. And the Jacurutu tribe is a reference to the Arawak-Mura battles in the - in Brazil.

ARABLOUEI: Yes.

DURRANI: And the Arawak are partly from the Caribbean area. Anyways, to answer the - sorry, I just had to nerd out there for a second.

But, yeah, to answer that really great question, Hasib, I mean, to me, it's really hard. It's a structural problem. When I try to write about "Dune," I'm talking about representation. To me, it's not just that I want Denis Villeneuve to represent me and my communities on screen. But it's also a matter of saying, represent us behind the camera as well, in the writers room. Involve us in the process. I would love to be - I'm a science-fiction writer. This is a callout to Denis Villeneuve. Hire me (laughter). I'll work with you.

(LAUGHTER)

DURRANI: And, yeah. But I think, you know, part of the other solution - this isn't really a structural issue. But part of the other solution is to just, you know, try to write our own stories. And it's not a matter of one person writing their own story that's their story. But if you have a lot of people from all of our different communities that are producing their own work, that itself can be a very powerful thing. I don't - I think that's kind of a cheap answer because there are these deeper structural issues that I don't really - I don't know the ins and outs of Hollywood to really answer that part of it. But that's the part that I can answer.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, should we go to another question? Thank you for that, Hasib.

PETER: So my question is a little bit more geared toward the movies, and thanks so much for joining. This is awesome. Live audio taking off. So, you know, a lot of the critiques of the film are, like, plot and, like you were saying, like, the not having enough Oreos in your cookies and cream shake. But I wonder if you could critique, say, the mise-en-scene, the, like - the visuals. Because it seems like a lot of critiques - like, they're - it's a visually appealing movie. They - there's not as much critiques on that. But I think that's an opportunity, as well, to really show, like, what you're talking about - like, doing the work, especially showing the different - the cultural representation visually. And I wonder if you have any critiques on, like, the visual elements of the film rather than, say, the plot elements of the film.

DURRANI: That's a great question, Peter (ph), thanks. Yeah, I think - well, I will say, to their credit, Arrakeen - it seems like some of that architecture is - they're trying to base it off of some kind of Islamic architecture. But you're right. The other aspects of the film - the visual aspects - to me, at least, are lacking.

I would say one crucial element is the way the Bene Gesserit are portrayed, which is primarily as sort of very European Christian clothing. And yet when Jessica comes on to Arrakis, she's wearing this typical kind of Orientalist beaded veil thing, which to me is like, come on. There are so many cool, like, hijabi fashion designers.

PETER: Yup.

DURRANI: Like, you couldn't get someone to do this - some kind of, like, future punk, you know, hijab fashion or something?

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, yeah.

DURRANI: And. then there's a lot of other - I would say - it would be cool to bring in, you know, Islamic - different elements of Islamic architecture and artwork. Like, there's a very prominent painting in the film of the sandworm. But at least to me, it seems like a - kind of like a Christian, European, medieval rendition where you see the worm and there's lines coming out of the worm. But it would be so cool to do a kind of - one of those, you know, typical geometric Islamic architecture things with that. That would have been very interesting. Lost promise. Lost promise.

ABDELFATAH: Well, there's going to be a Part 2. So, you know, maybe some of this will be incorporated into that one, is my optimistic...

DURRANI: I hope so.

ABDELFATAH: It's just been such a pleasure talking to you, Haris. Thank you so much.

DURRANI: Oh, it's an honor. Thank you so much for taking me on. I could talk for hours about "Dune," clearly (laughter).

ABDELFATAH: We'll definitely have you back for the...

DURRANI: Yeah, yeah, we could...

ABDELFATAH: ...Once Part 2 comes out.

DURRANI: Yes, thank you again.

ARABLOUEI: And thank you everyone for joining us. This was a lot of fun.

DURRANI: Great, thank you.

ABDELFATAH: That was Haris Durrani. He's a sci-fi writer and doctoral student at Princeton University.

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