Dune 2 Needs To Make Timothée Chalamet The Bad Guy
If Dune 2 wants to avoid the mistakes of the past, it has to understand that Paul Atreides is not the hero of the story.
Dune is one of the great science fiction epics, but it has resisted adaptation more than most. Unlike Star Trek, it was not created with the small screen in mind and utopian principles (as long as it’s being led by a square-jawed American, of course). Unlike Star Wars, it is not overtly based on boys’ own adventure stories, though it does have a lot of similarities in terms of desert planets, family lineages, and hand-to-hand combat in space. Dune has historically been difficult to adapt because it uses the tropes of science fiction action adventure and thus seems like it should translate to the big screen. However, any adaptation of it has to deal with the inevitable fact that what is happening in the narrative does not really square up with the idea of a hero’s journey, even though it has all the steps. All this to say: Dune 2 needs to take the bull by the horns and realize that Timothée Chalamet is not a hero. He is the bad guy.
That is slightly reductive, of course. There are more than enough bad guys to go around in Dune, and Dune 2 will definitely up the stakes there. But however overtly evil and twisted House Harkonnen is portrayed (which is a lot, considering they’re basically goth vampires) and however pragmatically destructive House Corrino (led by Christopher Walken) will prove to be in Dune 2, it needs to be shown that Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is at least as much of a monster as them, in his own way. The story of Dune deliberately sets us up to see Paul as a hero, using all the tropes of a mysteriously powerful youth who undergoes tragedy and trains in the wilderness to overthrow his oppressors (just like one Luke Skywalker) but also indicates the entire way that this is a ploy, a set of tools put in place to justify grander, less benevolent ends. Just as the Fremen are essentially hoodwinked by the Bene Gesserit’s long-term seeding of religious propaganda to be turned into a tool of violence, the audience is conditioned to see Paul as a hero.
Dune 2 has the opportunity to take a step where David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune stumbled, and commit to the narrative fact that Paul Atreides is not a messianic figure come to liberate the Fremen. Instead, Paul Atreides is a person who utilizes deep-rooted cultural conditioning to manipulate an entire people into becoming his leverage for political dominance and personal revenge. In the sequel to Dune, Dune Messiah (which filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has already expressed interest in adapting), it is made clear that Paul’s harnessing of Fremen power for his and his mother’s initial survival and subsequent revenge against the Harkonnen results in a universe-wide religious slaughter that causes the deaths of literally tens of billions and the sterilization of entire planets. Thanks to Paul’s spice-aided presence, he is fully aware of what his actions will cause, but does them anyway.
It is hard to square the idea of Paul being anything but a villain when you realize he is prepared to destroy entire worlds in order to ensure his family’s vision of the path of humanity. Dune 2 has the opportunity not just to show the consequences of Paul’s decision to utilize the Bene Gesserit’s Missionaria Protectiva (the propaganda arm of their generational eugenics program), but to show that he makes them as a flawed human rather than the rain-bringing demigod that the Fremen think he is (and David Lynch’s film portrays him). Frank Herbert himself said that the purpose of his books was “showing you the superhero syndrome and your own participation in it.” That is true both in the narrative (the Fremen who have been trained to see Paul as a messiah) and outside of it (the audience/readers who are trained to think of the protagonist as a hero).
If Dune 2 wants to be faithful to the full depth of the original book, and not just create another popcorn science fiction epic, it needs to fully commit to showing what Paul becomes. By the end of the story, he is willing to commit genocide on an unimaginable scale, marry his enemy and put his lover aside, who treats the death of his own child as an acceptable casualty of war, and knowingly use tools of manipulation against an entire people. Sure, Paul thinks he is committing these acts in service of the greater good, but what bad guy doesn’t?