Storyville: Dune is an Inspiring Film, and an Excellent Resource for Authors

(There will be spoilers about Dune in this column.)

“There is something happening to me. There’s something awakening in my mind, I can’t control it,” Paul says, opening the trailer for Dune. “There’s a crusade coming,” he continues.

The book, Dune, is a massive journey, and the reboot of the film is an epic saga, with so much to show us, they could only cover half of it. It’s fantastic.

I wanted to talk a little bit today about why this film is so impressive, and how it inspires me as an author. If a picture is worth a thousand words, as the old saying goes, then how many words might we find in a motion picture? Millions? More?

I often watch movies to seek out original plots, to find imagery that I can’t witness myself, to listen to scores that might move me, and be immersed in something unsettling, hopeful, terrifying, or beautiful. It’s a journey, an experience, and I soak it up like a sponge.

The film Dune, released earlier this year (2021) and starring Timothee Chalamet (Paul Atreides), Zendaya (Chani), Rebecca Ferguson (Lady Jessica), Oscar Isaac (Leto Atreides), Jason Momoa (Duncan Idaho), and Javier Bardem (Stilgar), etc., is something you need to see on the big screen ASAP. The cast is just one reason to see this film, quite a talented and passionate group of actors.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, as the old saying goes, then how many words might we find in a motion picture? Millions? More?

“A beginning is a very delicate time,” the film says, as it opens, introducing us to this year, 10,191 A.G., the Known Universe ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. We are reminded of the importance of the spice, Melange. And so it begins.

The opening instills in me an emotion, one of excitement, as the chorus and chanting continues to escalate, setting up this sprawling stage, the film rolling a camera out over undulating dunes of sand. This opening, much like what you do with your stories, or novels, sets the stage, creates excitement, and clues us in to the important elements at play here. It hooks us. In so many ways.

I’ll talk about a few narrative elements that are in play in the film Dune, and while I’ve just mentioned the score, which is very impressive, and evocative, and the opening of the film, the hook, what comes to mind next for me? Symbolism.

The blue eyes of Chani, they are shown to us early on, and they will be a symbol that reverberates throughout this film. They are both a symbol of addiction to the spice Melange, for some, but also just exposure to the element. It’s quite a haunting image, the dark, tanned skin of the locals, with these piercing blue eyes. They hold knowledge, anger, and pride. They are powerful. In his visions, Paul sees himself with blue eyes, part of his dreams.

Denis Villeneuve is one of my favorite directors, and so I wasn’t surprised that this film was so powerful. I loved what he did with Blade Runner 2049 (as Blade Runner is quite possibly my favorite movie ever) as well as his work on Arrival, a science fiction film that makes me cry every time I watch it. (It’s also based on the work of Ted Chiang, an author I love.) Enemy, released in 2013, is a masterful work of neo-noir that doesn’t get talked about enough. So going into this film, I knew that the direction would lead to a powerful story being told, via cinematography, the score, plot twists, and setting. It’s an immersive, layered, emotional ride. This is what he does.

One of the key elements in any short story or novel is tension. And I can’t think of a more tense scene than the “box” test between Paul and the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (played by Charlotte Rampling to great effect). This scene triggers so many memories of other films. I think of Seven, when Paul asks, “What’s in the box?” And when she answers, “Pain,” I’m reminded of Clubber Lang in Rocky III.

“Do you often dream things that happen just as you dreamed them?” the Reverend Mother asks him. He answers, “Yes.”

She goes on to explain why she has come to visit him. “The test is simple. Remove your hand from the box…and you die.”


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mage via Bear Alley

It’s a powerful scene, and as we’ve come to like Paul, and are already rooting for him, getting to know him, his mother, and his father, this test is tense. So by the time we have moved to the new planet, as his father is set to rule over the Melange, we care about these people. Yes, they are rich, entitled, royalty—but they are human. We see Paul’s test, his visions, sparring, learning, the imagery of the beautiful, exotic Chanti—and we want them to rule with honor, peace, and justice. The betrayal that comes is heartbreaking.

“An animal caught in a trap would gnaw off his own leg to escape,” the Reverend Mother says at the end of their secret conversation and test. “What will you do?” she asks him.

“Beyond fear,” Paul tells us later, “destiny awaits. Fear is the mind-killer,” he says. “When the fear is gone, only I will remain.”

Giant sand worms, epic battles, Vladmir Harkonnen and his bizarre, looming, supernatural abilities, betrayal, loss, fight scenes, tests, family, secrets, and fate. And this is only part one. LOL.

You can learn so much from films like Dune, so go out into the world, and watch these films, read the books they are based on, open yourself up to them, and ask yourself why they move you. I learn as much from great movies as I do from seminal books. Take in the imagery, the music, the emotion, and then use that to tell your stories. Who knows where it might take you.

Get Dune at Bookshop or Amazon 

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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