Hollywood loves itself a good trilogy. Before the MCU, Hollywood tried to turn everything into a trilogy. We can probably thank the immense success of Star Wars for that. Hollywood loves money more than anything, and a devoted fandom turning in droves for the epic finale of a climactic closure to a three-part saga brings in the big bucks.
The format of the trilogy also works amazingly well on a narrative level- the beginning, middle, and end, each wrapped in their own movie to properly flesh them all out. The perfect example outside of Star Wars is Lord of the Rings.
Ever since the MCU became the most profitable enterprise since sliced bread, and Avengers: Endgame became the most profitable movie of all time, and Ripper Casino became, well, you know… Hollywood now tries to make franchises out of everything- even for things that were never made with sequels in mind, like Independence Day or productions that have been done and settled for decades now, like The Matrix.
Dune 2021 was very, very good. The director actually seems to care about making both a good movie and a faithful adaptation, which is rare enough these days.The director, Denis Villeneuve, was aware enough to realize that the novel contained too much for a single movie to cover adequately, but also not enough to cover a trilogy (this is the mistake that was made with the Hobbit trilogy- there just wasn’t enough content to be stretched over two films, much less three).
Thus, part 2 for Dune is scheduled to release in 2023, which will finish the story, and that’ll be that.
However, unlike The Hobbit or Game of Thrones, there actually IS more source material to work with. Frank Herbert followed up the story of Dune with a significantly smaller novel called “Dune: Messiah”. Now, unless you’re an avid Dune fan, you probably haven’t heard of it- or even knew that there were sequels. In fact, there are none other than six additional novels in the series written by Frank Herbert himself, and no less than 15 in total if you include the works of his son, Brian Herbert, and co-author Keven J. Anderson.
Now, I have to admit, I initially balked at “Dune: Messiah” and put it down in favor of other books I was more interested in reading in at the time. However, after having watched the film, I came back and gave the book a second chance. The question is, was it worth it? And if so, should Dune get a part 3?
Dune Summary (with spoilers)
The first novel is a complex story of intrigue and murder. Its protagonist is the teenage Paul Atreides, heir to House Atreides, which is led by Duke Leto and his concubine Jessica (who is his wife in all but name). Jessica is a member of the enigmatic organization known as the Bene Gesserit, who are trained to master control of their bodies so precisely, they can read body language perfectly, command people to perform actions by intoning the command to certain frequencies, and other such abilities that technically aren’t magic but come really close to being magic.
Then there’s the Spice. So if the Bene Gesserit aren’t really doing magic, throw that out the window because the Spice is 100% magical. It enhances the mind and the senses and gives people who consume it the ability to see into the future to an extent.
For various lore reasons I don’t feel like getting into, computers have been outlawed. In order to travel through space, you need a person capable of computing flightpaths in their heads so that the faster than light ships don’t crash into asteroids as they travel from one solar system to another.
Such a person can only do this by consuming Spice, which makes this magical substance one of the most valuable products in the universe. Oh, and it only comes from one single planet called Arrakis.
In a shifting political sphere of allegiances and rivalries, House Atreides has been gifted the planet Arrakis by the Emperor, and the previous rulers, House Harkonnen, have moved out. As his family moves in and attempts to reign the world and its Fremen residents into a galactic superpower, Paul begins having visions of the future as threads of several plots start getting knotted together.
First is the revelation that Paul is none other than the Kwisat Haderech- a superhuman messiah and prophet produced by eugenics and the machinations of the Bene Gesserit.
Second is the betrayal of the Atreides family doctor, which allows both the Emperor and the Harkonnens to successfully lead an assault on the entire house. Paul and his mother, Jessica, flee into the desert, and only a handful of others survive. Leto, Paul’s father, does not.
Paul is eventually taken in the wild Fremen, and his foresight plus his skill with the blade quickly allows him to rise to a role of leadership. With his newfound power, he leads a gorilla campaign against House Harkonnen and the Emperor to take back what was rightfully his and more.
Unwittingly, however, Paul realizes that by doing so, he is leading the Galaxy into a future far worse than the present. His powers and abilities end up building a religion around him, and no matter what he does, he will be unable to prevent the Fremen from leading a galactic Jihad across the stars, which will depopulate planets and result in the deaths of billions and billions.
Eventually, he succeeds at destroying House Harkonnen and forces the Emperor to marry off his daughter Irulan to him, thus securing Atreides as heir to the galactic throne. Also, Jessica has a daughter whose powers of foresight are almost equal to Paul’s. Thus, Paul takes the throne, knowing that he’ll be unable to stop the inevitable Jihad across the stars.
Few, that was a lot to cover.
The sequel to Dune takes place twelve years after the first. The Jihad has come and gone, and Paul has united the Galaxy under his regime.
It’s a bit anti-climactic, really. I mean, sure, Paul says that he turned planets to glass in a Jihad that resulted in billions and billions of people dead… but as Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.”
Nevertheless, there are a number of characters plotting Paul’s demise- although none of them are actually motivated by this mass slaughter. Instead, there’s the Princess Irulan, Paul’s “wife”, who is determined to produce an heir (something that Paul has 100% denied her, even the act of).
There’s the Reverend Mother, head of the Bene Gesserit, who despises that her eugenics plan worked but produced a messiah that wasn’t under her control.
There’s the enigmatic shape-shifter Scytale, who wants Paul dead for his own ends.
The final member of this cabal is Edric, one of the Guild Navigators who lives, drinks, and breathes Spice in order to pilot ships across space. His limited oracular powers are enough to block Paul from directly seeing what the group is up to.
However, Paul isn’t blind. He sees a future that’s somehow even worse than the Jihad he’s responsible for and has to navigate the waters of time in order to circumvent it. This novel almost entirely revolves around these five characters pulling the strings of one another until we reach the climactic conclusion where… Paul just has them all executed and walks out into the desert to die, as is the Fremen custom for the blind. Oh yeah, Paul becomes actually blind at one point.
Actually, scratch that: Irulan survives, confesses that she apparently really loved him the whole time for some reason, and that’s the end of that. Paul’s sister Alia takes the throne as Regent until Paul’s children are old enough to rule themselves.
What I think
So, Dune: Messiah is a strange book. On the one hand, it wraps up Paul’s story with a nice tight bow. On the other, it feels… over-engineered. I doubt that that’s the right term. Allow me to explain:
Like its predecessor, Dune: Messiah is a story of intrigue and machinations. Each character has a plot within a plot while our protagonist Paul works his plot around their plots to counter the plots the plotters have plotted.
And it all goes plop because it’s really hard to see how Paul’s “victory” at the end is related to stopping the villains or preventing the future he so fears. Sure, it results in Paul being removed from power and dying- but that only would cement his legacy as a messianic figure to the Fremen who worship him as a living god. A tragic hero who finally succumbed in a war of attrition against his enemies but has still won.
A really important character ends up dying as a result of this plot within the plot going on, and it really baffles me to see why. Paul seems to try negotiating a way to save this character but then says that he has to choose this person’s death in order to prevent a greater of two evils.
It’s confusing, I probably missed something, and that’s an inherent problem with writing complex stories. It just feels like a lot of the problems could have been avoided if Paul swept up the conspirators (because he knows at a certain point who they all are) and had them executed in the first place, and then worked on saving the character and the future separately.
In my opinion, it’s a bit of an unsatisfying resolution. I hope that Denis Villeneuve decides to leave Dune in two parts only, and that would be that. It’s an epic that doesn’t really need to be continued, and from what I’ve read, the books only get weirder and weirder from here.
But with Dune’s success, I doubt Hollywood will let it go so easily. Sigh.