Dune (2021) vs. Dune (1984): What Are the Differences?

In the same vein, the Bene Gesserit appears radically different even while functioning the same in the story. In Lynch’s film, most of the high-ranking members lean into the visual space oddity vibe of Baron Harkonnen. Silvana Mangano’s Reverend Mother Mohiam particularly looks designed to suggest an androgynous, asexual aesthetic with the dark costume drawing attention to her starkly bald head. Even the eyebrows are shaved. Lady Jessica also adopts this look after becoming the Reverend Mother for the Fremen tribe on Arrakis. And yet, there is something regressively antiquated about this. It seems to suggest that in order to gain power, Jessica must give up her traditional femininity, as characterized by the loss of her hair. Lynch also seems to link sexuality to this trade, hence his greater focus on Jessica’s concubine status with Duke Leto and (like the book) having her rely on her sensuality as much as “the Voice” to manipulate and escape the Baron’s men after she and Paul have been captured.

Villeneuve’s Bene Gesserit, by contrast, also lean into the weird, metaphysical side of Herbert’s world-building. However, rather than relying on physical appearances or sexuality (or a lack thereof), Dune (2021) emphasizes these characters’ witchiness as understood by the folk horror tradition out of European culture. When the Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) arrives on Caladan in the new adaptation, she and her former pupil, Jessica, are clad in flowing black cloaks and headdresses which recall a faint collective memory of how the fictional concept of a witch has been drawn for centuries. Even Hans Zimmer’s score in these scenes resembles the chanting heard at the end of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2016).

And when Ferguson’s Lady Jessica uses the Voice, there isn’t anything seductive or suggestive about it. It is, in fact, quite creepy how her voice develops a scratchy demonic quality, as if her vocal cords are being stretched along a violin’s string. And when she uses it to escape from the Harkonnens’ grasp, it is with the harshness of C.S. Lewis’ White Witch that she commands her prey to “kill him… Give me the knife.”

All of which provides the world in Villeneuve’s Dune an ancient, foreboding quality, as if it’s existed for millennia with eons of history and lore we’ll never know. Lynch’s world conversely seems to only exist in the frame of the story it is currently telling; it’s operatic and melodramatic, but only makes as much sense in the moment it’s occurring. Don’t think too hard about why the Baron created an instant-kill switch on his own body, or how anyone can take these Mentats seriously. It’s meant to be a big and gaudy “sci-fi movie,” okay?

Chani as played by Zendaya and Sean Young in Dune 2021 and Dune 1984

The Fremen and Their Messiah

It is somewhat ironic that the culture which is vital to the narrative of Herbert’s literary Dune has yet to be fully explored on the big screen. In the case of Villeneuve, he left that for a potential “Part Two,” which may or may not ever come. And in the case of Lynch, the Fremen were largely left on the cutting room floor or out of the screenplay since in the theatrical, 130-minute version of the movie, they don’t even really enter the plot until the 90-minute mark.

Nonetheless, what little we see of both movies’ Fremen indicates, again, a different set of priorities. In both films, the Fremen’s presence is mostly teased out by Paul’s visions and the character of Dr. Liet Kynes. In Lynch’s film, as well as the novel, Dr. Kynes is an old male retainer from the imperial court who has gone native after living on Arrakis for 20 years. He is ably played by Max von Sydow in that movie, but due to the rushed narrative of the film’s second half, he more or less vanishes from the picture after being condemned to death by the Baron. Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s Dr. Kynes has been gender-flipped, and is also played by a Black woman, yet gets to develop more of the character’s inherent authority and compassion from the book.


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