Dune and Alejandro Jodorowski

“Here lies a toppled god-
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.”
-Tleilaxu Epigram


Lately I’ve been getting ready for a move which naturally entails going through your stuff and deciding what to keep and what not to. One hard fact of life that I’ve had to come to terms with more and more over the years is that books take up a ton of space and, as we bibliophiles know, our collections get harder and harder to move over the years. Especially if you’re like me and you love having physical copies of things. I’m even like that with music and movies- I just have to have the actual object with it’s artwork and anything else that might be packaged with it. And so…I’ve had to make some very harsh calls with my own library. One thing I decided I needed to come to terms with is that I needed to get rid of most of my paperbacks, especially the long series- beautiful hard backs excluded (and even the paperback rule had it’s exceptions, such as my Sandman comics and my William S. Burroughs and Victor Hugo collections). Since I’m only keeping the real keepsakes (signed copy of Blood Communion…a rare and out of print collection of Hugo poetry from the sixties…assorted precious vintage stuff…), I’ve had to really invest in my tablet to get digital back ups. Inevitably, I had to make a decision about my six Dune books by Frank Herbert. Would they get the paperback pass of Burroughs, Aligheri, Hugo and Neil Gaiman? Possibly. And then last night I visited a friend of mine who showed me the documentary Jodorowski’s Dune, which made the decision that much harder to make.

At a certain point in the film, Jodorowski says that he had not actually read Dune at the time that he pitched it as his next film. Nonetheless, he made certain creative decisions that seemed to indicate at least some thoughtful familiarity with the book, wild departures from the text and all. I was also charmed by how philosophically optimistic his reading(?) of the story was. The Dune novels are, fundamentally, a meditation on power. Within all of it’s other layered explorations of language, ecology, religion, politics and psychology is the discussion of power dynamics within those things. Out of all of those permutations of control, institutional power is the most common touchstone in the plot of every book.

In all fairness, Alejandro Jodorowski has not been alone in his reversal of the tone of Dune. I have to jump on a large bandwagon here and say that I think the David Lynch adaptation to be a complete train wreck for many reasons (Jodorowski thinks that as well and says so at the end of the documentary). I’m also aware that Lynch’s adaptation was the victim of studio meddling but, whether this was the fault of Lynch or the studio heads, one of the most deeply egregious errors in that film was the ending, when Paul Atreides conjures water on Arrakis.

To say nothing of the fact that it flies in the face of how Dune discusses the relationship between humans and the ecosystems in which they live (Paul terraforms Salusa Secondus, the secret home planet of House Corrino and the Sardaukar, as a way of destroying the brutal survival ethos of the Sardaukar and crippling their military might), it also introduces a truly random genre break…or perhaps world break. No in-world explanation is furnished for Paul’s ability to conjure rain- it therefore stands to reason that he did it because he was magic. Why would he be magic? Evidently, because he’s the literal Messiah- the dude is literally Jesus. Which speaks to another thing every adaptation to date has overlooked- the Bene Gesserit are after power consolidation just like everyone else.

In a way, the Bene Gersserit are the contemporary heirs of the machine overlords overthrown by the Butlerian Jihad. In the distant, nearly mythic past of Dune, humans were enslaved by artificially intelligent machines. An Islamic cleric named Serena Butler led a revolution against them and, from that point on, the creation of AI was forbidden by every religion and government. What the Bene Gersserit are doing, with their breeding program and use of the spice to awaken ancestral memories in women, is to create a human supercomputer. In essence, they are attempting to make a creature to subjugate the world, the difference is that it’s a human being. Ergo, they are the heirs of the machine overlords. Paul does not play completely into their hands, but in the end he became what they wanted him to be. In a sense, Paul Atreides is part of the same “rise of the machines” trope as Victor Frankenstein’s creation or the machines in The Matrix. The text also makes it clear that the Bene Gesserit also frequently manipulate religions on the planets owned by the inter-galactic feudal lords. Interpreting Paul as a literal Messiah reflects an appallingly lazy reading. At least, in the case of David Lynch, it seemed appallingly lazy. There were just too many other lazy decisions in the film to accommodate any forgiving context for Lynch’s ending.

What makes me prepared to distinguish between the philosophical optimism of Lynch’s and Jodorowski’s visions is the consistency of Jodorowski’s handling of the tropes. It’s obvious at a glance that Dune analyzes and deconstructs the myth of the dying and returning fertility god in the form of Paul Atreides, even if he’s not presented as a genuine god (no such thing exists in the novels). Alejandro Jodorowski was willing to break the genre consistency at least to the point of making Dune science-fantasy rather than science-fiction (high science-fiction, though it is). Jodorowski’s Dune would end with the death of Paul Atreides at the hands of Thufir Hawat (the documentary didn’t get into the nuts and bolts of Thufir’s motivation but on it’s face I’d love to see that unpacked somewhere) which would complete the sacrifice for universal redemption, ala Jesus, Baldur, Cybele/Attis, Osiris/Horus, etc. This would necessarily make Jodorowski’s Dune a standalone film. David Lynch, meanwhile, wanted to adapt more of the books at some point.

I don’t know how Lynch would carry out his reversal with Paul being a literal divine being, but I don’t see it going well. This may seem like a fine point, but for me that matters because Jodorowski’s rendering, while wildly divergent, would only take enough from the source material to make itself complete- Lynch, on the other hand, wanted to carry his inversion further into the rest of the series. Alejandro Jodorowski doesn’t make any bones about having a huge ego in Jodorowski’s Dune, but I think keeping his adaptation as a standalone story demonstrates a certain confident reserve, as if his vision is complete in and of itself and can exist alongside Frank Herbert’s original story. The standalone version is also neat because it covers the scope of the mythic arc and nothing else, which was what Jodorowski was fundamentally interested in.

It’s the specificity of this focus that I think gives Jodorowski’s vision of Dune more credibility than the version of David Lynch’s movie that we ended up with. The archetypal nature is established early on with a scene invented entirely by Jodorowski, involving the immaculate conception of Paul. This version of Leto Atreides is a eunuch, castrated by a bull. Jessica, meanwhile, is a witch, who pricks his finger and turns his blood into semen, with which Paul was conceived. Later on, Leto is dismembered by Piter DeVries, Osiris style, with Jessica and Paul disappearing into exile and completing the mythic parallel. While complication can be messy, simplicity has it’s own challenges and can often be trickier. If you like rock or pop music, think of your favorite rock or pop song: a rock musician often only has three to four minutes with which to capture your attention. Direct riffs on mythology need a similarly deft handling, however simple or abstracted an archetype may appear. When I read Dune for the first time, it occurred to me that Frank Herbert was one such talented person, particularly during the scene where Leto dies from his suicide capsule. The haunting legacy of a father felt by a son is something we’ve seen many times in many different stories, and at that moment I realized I was believing it, that Herbert had succeeded in bringing it to life. Tolkien had a deft hand at this as well, but that’s a subject for another entry. This delicate familiarity with myth would have made an Alejandro Jodorowski Dune film a very compelling meeting of the minds. Jodorowski and Herbert would have meshed as perfectly as David Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs had through the Naked Lunch film.

While it would have been a rich meeting between two scholars of religion and world history, Jodorowski’s different approach to the archetypes within Dune had a sharp contrast to Herbert’s. Along with the true nature of the Bene Gesserit and the fearful examination of power, Paul’s adherence to the arc of the tragic hero is also frequently overlooked. Tragic in the classical literary sense: the story is about a central weakness that eventually destroys the main character and turns him into a monster. Often, while reading the Dune novels, I was reminded of a line from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: “Coriolanus has turned from a man to a dragon.” The first novel traces Paul’s journey as a young man vulnerable to manipulative forces beyond his awareness into a super-human theocratic precog. Over and over again he desperately searches for ways to escape the Jihad that he sees himself leading and ultimately succumbs to his own prophecy. Of all things, Paul Atreides frequently reminded me of Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII. Paul’s dread of this destiny is what gives the duel with Feyd-Rautha all of it’s dramatic weight- Feyd-Rautha’s death seals the confirmation of Paul’s worst nightmare and his ugliest transformation. It’s also hard to overlook the role that Paul’s firstborn son played in this: while his infant son was definitely killed, he had every reason to believe that both his son and his wife were dead for much of the ending. As far as he was concerned, he had lost his roots on Arrakis and had nothing left but revenge, which propelled him to the imperial throne and the Jihad. He was only reunited with Chani after this fatal step had already been taken.

Another part of Frank Herbert’s handling of mythic tropes is his tendency toward deconstruction. The Bene Gesserit knowingly manipulate religions across generations and Paul is frequently reminded of the fact that he is walking into an artificial prophecy that’s been designed as a step toward consolidating power. The Dune novels also frequently use lengthy internal monologues and in-world texts that reflect specific, in-world interpretations rather than objective facts. This is something that either lures the reader further into the book or turns them off. This is complicated by the fact that in Frank Herbert’s fictional universe information literally exists. Ancestral memories are past from generation to generation. Our perspective on Paul’s prophetic abilities also speak to this. Other than the generations of selective breeding before he was born, the essential ingredient in Paul’s psychic awakening was his mentat training. Mentat computation can happen in the blink of an eye and often subconsciously. This ability is even more powerful and even more subconscious in someone like Paul, who was bred to be a human supercomputer. Some of his prophecies are clearly the result of powerful, subconscious information processing that can only consciously express itself as apparent prophecy. This, however, does not account for how Paul and other precogs can receive specific fragments of sense perception, a sight or a sound, from the future. Evidently, the information exists out there to be grasped by precognitive minds. As the ancestral memory phenomenon tells us, one’s subjectivity exists objectively, but that doesn’t make it any less subjective.

I hope I’ve made it obvious that I don’t think that the version of Dune that Alejandro Jodorowski wanted to make would have been a cinematic equivalent of the first novel: merely that the deviations that Jodorowski planned on making revealed an interesting awareness and perspective on the book’s subject matter. Later in Jodorowski’s Dune we learn that many of the concepts from the film were recycled later on for Jodorowski’s comic series L’Incal, which I am now determined to read. Diverse interpretations are also an inevitable part of how a book continues to live on after it leaves the mind of it’s creator. Sometimes, by force of contrast, a different interpretation can create different readings of the book by people who encounter the original text after experiencing a derivative. While Jodorowski’s reading of the mythic tropes threaded within Dune were starkly different from Herbert’s own rendering, it is something of a natural sequential echo, as Frank Herbert himself was very much concerned with the nature of myths and their ripples throughout culture and history.

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