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A planet ready, at last, for its close-up
Creative Sensemaker

A planet ready, at last, for its close-up

Thursday 21 October 2021

More than half a century after Frank Herbert’s Dune was published, Denis Villeneuve has created the movie version it deserves – and a timely parable of today’s environmental crisis

My well thumbed trade paperback copy of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965) is a 1977 edition of the science fiction classic and bears on its garishly illustrated cover the promise: “Soon to be a major film.”

Well – it all depends upon what you mean by “soon”, I suppose. A movie version of the notionally unfilmable book was indeed made by David Lynch, and released in 1984 – though it should tell you quite a lot about how things worked out on set and post-production that the director removed his name from the whole enterprise.

A truly terrible three-part television mini-series adaptation limped across the small screen in 2000, before being consigned to well earned obscurity (I bet you William Hurt regrets agreeing to that gig). In fact, before Denis Villeneuve’s stunning new movie (general release), the best cinematic version of Herbert’s book was one that was never made.

H.R. Giger with concept drawings for Jodorowsky’s Dune

If you get the chance before heading to the multiplex, do check out Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013, VOD), an extraordinary account of an inspired fever dream that never quite turned into a film. In 1974, the Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky was handed the rights to the novel and tasked with turning it into a movie. 

The miracle, as Frank Pavich’s documentary shows, is that this visionary eccentric – a wild arthouse auteur, with roots in the circus – got as far as he did: recruiting Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and Gloria Swanson for the cast; the great artists Moebius and H.R. Giger (who went on to devise the aesthetic of Ridley Scott’s Alien); and Pink Floyd for the soundtrack. It all fell apart, of course, as money and patience ran out. But Jodorowsky’s amazing plan has cast a long shadow over the efforts of those who have followed him.

William Hurt in the Dune TV mini series (2000)

Villeneuve, though, is more than equal to the mission: in one sense, his entire career has been a preparation for the creative Everest of Dune, an apprenticeship in the possibilities and pitfalls of science fiction, from the surrealism of Enemy (2013), via the alien contact drama of Arrival (2016), to the daunting challenge of directing a sequel to a stone-cold classic, in Blade Runner 2049 (2017).

It helps, too, that CGI technology has caught up with Herbert’s imagination (it is hard to erase from one’s memory the often laughably bad special effects in the 1984 version – especially the spectacle of Kyle MacLachlan riding a huge sandworm). In its sheer grandeur and cinematic glory, Villeneuve’s Dune recalls the days of Cinemascope and unabashedly pays homage to – amongst other masterpieces – Apocalypse Now, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia.

Kyle MacLachlan in a scene from David Lynch’s Dune (1984)

All the same, technology is not the essence of Dune’s particular species of sci-fi. It envisages a distant future defined not by robots and computer screens but warring dynasties, powerful cults and psychedelic transcendence. The planet Dune – or Arrakis – is the only planet in the galaxy where the fabulously valuable commodity known as “melange” or “spice” can be mined: a superdrug whose many precious properties include its centrality to interstellar travel.

To this inhospitable, drought-torn planet is sent Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) of the House Atreides, sworn dynastic enemy of the House Harkonnen, whose head, Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård), is so obese that only anti-gravity “suspensors” permit his mobility.

Leto’s son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet, turning in a nice performance as an interstellar emo messiah) has been raised by his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) in the mystical ways of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, and – it becomes quickly apparent – prepared for a destiny of the highest importance.

Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Denis Villeneuve’ new adaptation of Dune

In this context, Paul forms a deep connection with the Fremen tribes of the planet – heavily influenced by Herbert’s fascination with the Bedouin and Native American peoples. Is he their long-awaited prophet Muad’Dib, as well as the hero-scion of the Atreides dynasty? And who is Chani (Zendaya), the young Fremen woman who so captures his dreams?

The world of Dune – the “Duniverse”, if you will – is famously complex, abstruse and full of esoteric terminology invented by Herbert, using Sufi, Buddhist and Arthurian language (the original novel contains an extensive glossary and explanatory appendices).

Some have found this deeply off putting: as though Tolkien had launched his Middle Earth saga with the obscure mythologies of The Silmarillion (published posthumously in 1977) rather than the fireside adventure story of The Hobbit (1937).

Yet Dune and the five sequels written by Herbert mesh perfectly with the apparently limitless taste of the contemporary entertainment industry for huge franchises. The new film is billed explicitly as Dune: Part One, and an HBO Max television spin-off series, Dune: The Sisterhood, is already in the works. 

Herbert always felt cheated by George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise, which, with its desert planet setting, heroic saga and mystical fixation with the Force, looked, to his eyes, like an infantilised rip-off of the world he had meticulously created. Now, perhaps, 35 years after his death, that world may at last be given its full cultural due.

Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides

The sense that Dune’s moment has come is also intimately related to the anxieties and perils of our time. Though Herbert himself was a libertarian right-winger, he was still, to his finger-tips, a child of the 60s and an early convert to the cause of green activism and permaculture, hoping that his novel would be seen as an “environmental awareness handbook”. It is, as the acclaimed author Hari Kunzru, puts it, “the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius”. 

Green science fiction is now a genre all of its own (on this, see Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, ed. Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson). But Dune – which is dedicated to “dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work” – was radically prescient in its preoccupation with ecosystems, water shortage and the adversity of life on a barren planet, foreshadowing fears that have become politically mainstream in the intervening decades (Elon Musk is just one of the book’s most famous contemporary fans).

One might say, indeed, that it represents the cultural connective tissue between Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking Silent Spring (1962) and the last-chance saloon of Cop 26, which opens in Glasgow in ten days time.

Though Herbert’s story is the tale of a lone hero – a messiah-king, raised to change history – it is also, in Villeneuve’s movie, the tale of each and every one of us, confronted by the implacable forces of nature, challenged by the great moral dilemma of how to survive. 

We are all inhabitants of this planet. We all roam the sands of Dune.

Please do join us on Monday 25 October at 18:30-19:30 BST for a digital ThinkIn at which I’ll be talking to Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate and science fiction superfan, about Dune and the genre as a whole. You can book your place here.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


The French Dispatch (general release, 22 October)

“Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.” The words of Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray) to his journalists in this wondrous movie might be an act of gentle self-mockery by its creator, Wes Anderson. 

As in, say, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) or The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), the director builds cinematic tableaux of exquisite detail and formal perfection (think Peter Greenaway as a vaudevillian entertainer) and fills these scenes with surreal happenings, a carnival of characters played by a formidable ensemble cast, and stories within stories.

The French Dispatch is a love letter to the golden age of great American magazine journalism, in which Howitzer stands proxy for Harold Ross (1892-1951), the co-founder of the New Yorker, and his successor, William Shawn (1907-1992), whose roster of writers included J.D. Salinger, Truman Capote, Hannah Arendt and Kenneth Tynan. Part of the joy is trying to work out which true-life legends inspired characters such as Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) and J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton).

This being an Anderson movie, however, the action is transposed from the Manhattan of the Algonquin Round Table to the stylised French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. And within the story of The French Dispatch – an offshoot of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun – nestle three tales: the first concerning an imprisoned painter, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), whose supposed modernist genius is spotted by fellow inmate, the art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody).

The second follows the fortunes of a French student revolutionary, Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet, again), while the third is a splendidly circuitous yarn, The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, a gastronomic crime story narrated by Jeffrey Wright as an amalgam of James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling. 

It all makes for a rich recipe, full of wit, mischief and pathos; but it is a mistake to categorise Anderson as a nostalgist, for, as much as he loves the past, his true homeland is the realm of the imagination, where nothing dies.

I was lucky enough to host a preview screening on Tuesday of The French Dispatch for Tortoise members and guests – a taster of the fantastic benefits that will be available to those who choose our new Friend of Tortoise membership tier. 

Members tour a a private view of an exhibition of the props and sets used in The French Dispatch

After the screening, we walked over to the superb exhibition of props, printed work, paintings and costumes from the movie at 180 The Strand (until 14 November: book a ticket): a must-see for anyone interested in the meticulous artistry and craftsmanship that underpin a film of this quality. 

In the Le Sans Blague Cafe that awaits the visitor at the end of the exhibition trail, it was great to see familiar faces from the Tortoise family and to make new friends. Only a year ago, it seemed quite possible that UK cinema would simply collapse under the commercial pressures of the pandemic. Now, we look forward to many more such special previews and real-life cultural adventures: please do sign up.

The Outlaws (BBC One, 25 October)

Community service has been a useful backdrop to television drama in the past (the super-powered Misfits kept going in their orange suits for five seasons, all now streamable on Netflix). What you don’t expect to see in the usual rogue’s gallery of characters – an Oxford-bound girl caught shoplifting, a boy trying to keep himself and his sister out of Bristol’s gang life, a middle class bigot, a dippy reality TV star – is… Christopher Walken. But so you do in episode one of this new six-part series, scripted by Stephen Merchant and Elgin James, and directed by Merchant (who also plays the hapless Greg, always saying the wrong thing). And this is not a celebrity cameo of the sort Merchant and Ricky Gervais made the heart of Extras, their two-season follow-up to The Office. The 78-year-old Walken plays a regular character, Frank, a charming wrong’un who arrives, tagged and officially ready to redeem himself, on the doorstep of his daughter, Margaret (Dolly Wells): “Greetings and felicitations! Marge! Did you change your hair?” It’s hard not to do a double-take… The Deer Hunter… “more cowbell”… True Romance… FatBoy Slim… yes, it really is Walken. Surely one of the greatest casting coups in modern British televisual history, and a tribute to Merchant’s gentle powers of persuasion. Even better, the series is pretty good, too.

Ali’s Comeback: The Untold Story (VOD)

Just when you think that no more plot detail or fresh disclosure can be squeezed from the legend of Muhammad Ali, along comes a documentary that sheds new and fascinating light on how, exactly, the Greatest came back from this three-year exile. Stripped of the heavyweight crown in 1967, sentenced to five years in prison (he was not, in fact, incarcerated), and fined $10,000 for refusing the Vietnam draft, Ali was out in the cold at the height of his powers. As Art Jones’s film shows, his return to the ring against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, Georgia on 26 October, 1970, was far from inevitable, and depended entirely upon the ingenuity, determination and political cunning of a group of dedicated individuals: notably Georgia state senator Leroy Johnson (1928-2019), in alliance with Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, Governor Lester Maddox, and the New York attorney Bob Kassel. The fight went ahead, and reignited Ali’s career. It is remarkable to think that, without this mostly accidental coalition, there might never have been a second act to boxing’s most extraordinary story: no “Rumble in the Jungle”, no “Thriller in Manila”. What we choose to call destiny is more often the operations of luck.


Orwell’s Roses – Rebecca Solnit (Granta)

In the pantheon of English letters, George Orwell is a figure of clear-sighted austerity: a remorseless truth-teller who bequeathed to the world unparalleled fictional warnings of the totalitarian threat, as well as an extraordinary body of memoirs, mostly written in conditions of hardship or war. Yet Rebecca Solnit’s boldly counter-intuitive exploration of the author’s life and sensibility is inspired by his remark in 1940, that “outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening” – and off she goes, in search of the sensualist and pleasure-seeker within the severe seer of literary legend. In 1936, Orwell planted some roses in his Hertfordshire garden, and more than 80 years later, Solnit finds them, a flourishing, organic connection to the past. 

She is absolutely right that Orwell was a man of emotion, earthiness and experience as well as a cerebral observer and rapporteur on the human condition. Nineteen Eighty-Four explicitly proposes that Winston and Julia’s sexual relationship is the ultimate celebration of human defiance against authority. In Coming Up for Air, George Bowling’s love of fishing is a rebellion against the hellish suburban routine into which he has sunk. Some may find Solnit’s exploration of the modern rose industry a distraction – but there are good Orwellian reasons for her journey into the flower factories of Colombia. The greatest compliment one can pay Solnit is that, by the end of the book, you will definitely see this most familiar of 20th Century authors with fresh eyes. (I was reminded, too, of Ruth Scurr’s tremendous recent book on Napoleon, understood through the prism of his love of horticulture; see Creative Sensemaker, 13 May 2021).

Renegades: Born in the USA – Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen (Viking, 26 October)

If you have enjoyed the Spotify podcast collaboration between the President and the Boss, then this book will be a treasure trove of delights. With more than 350 photographs, well-edited extracts from their dialogues and plenty of additional material, it combines the best of their discussions on the state of the American republic, race, family, masculinity, rock and roll and the nature of belonging, with an authentic sense of the friendship that has arisen between the two men. Their conversations are not, of course, enough to banish the demons of 6 January, or the restless, persistent spirit of Donald Trump; but they do act as a powerful reminder that the idea of America contains multitudes and a resilient glory that has not succumbed to the season of fear, division and political poison.

When Fishes Flew: The Story of Elena’s War – Michael Morpurgo (HarperCollins)

The magus of children’s literature is in magnificent form in this tale of migration, myth and ancient deities swooping into the modern world to reconnect us with the past (“dream-makers, dream-fakers, dream-breakers”). Nandi leaves Australia in search of her Great Aunt Ellie, who has gone missing from the island of Ithaca – home, of course, to Odysseus and Homer. Help is at hand from the god Proteus, son of Poseidon, assuming the form of a flying fish to guide Nandi towards the truth. The book is itself a Trojan horse, smuggling Aeschylus, Sophocles and The Odyssey – not to mention Mikis Theodorakis’s Zorba the Greek – into the action. Though the story is anything but didactic, it reflects the author’s long standing environmentalism and sense that the world is not doing anything like enough for its refugees. (You can watch Michael Morpurgo in conversation in the Tortoise newsroom here.)


The Lockdown Sessions – Elton John (22 October)

You can’t keep a Rocket Man down – especially one who has had at least one top ten hit in the UK charts in each of the last decades, and has sold more than 300 million albums globally. So here are 16 tracks, quarried from the collaborations on his Apple Music show Rocket Hour, and recorded via Zoom or in strictly Covid-secure conditions. At 74, Elton John is not afraid to confront the challenges and paradoxes of ageing: “As an old man, I’m a young man, ‘cause I’ve not been old for long,” he sings on ‘Simple Things’, his duet with Brandi Carlile. On ‘Finish Line’, he joins forces with Stevie Wonder for the first time in 35 years, while ‘I’m Not Gonna Miss You’ is a moving re-recording with the late Glen Campbell, deploying the latter’s vocals from 2014 to emotional effect. At the same time, John revels as much as ever in the new, and there are terrific collaborations with younger artists, notably Dua Lipa and PNAU on ‘Cold Heart’, Young Thug and Nicki Minaj on ‘Always Love You’, Charlie Puth on ‘After All’ and Miley Cyrus (a great version of Metallica’s classic ‘Nothing Else Matters’). “I’m more excited about music now than I’ve ever been,” he said earlier this week – and this album shows quite how much he means it.

Inner Symphonies – Hania Rani & Dobrawa Czocher

Fellow students at the Feliks Nowowiejski Music School in Gdańsk and then the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw, the pianist Hania Rani and cellist Dobrawa Czocher are longtime collaborators and have now released their first album of original joint compositions. “Here ‘inner’ means something little, private, intimate,” says Rani, “while the ‘symphonic’ means something huge. It’s a new adventure for us.” The ten track sequence, mostly developed at Rani’s parents’ house in Gdańsk as soon as the pandemic permitted, is nothing short of dazzling, evoking Hans Zimmer at his most spiritual, jazz improvisation in ‘Demons’, Radiohead in ‘Malasana’, Eastern music and many other influences. Even the titles are part of the artistry – ‘Scream’, for instance, being very far from an outburst or musically clamorous. This is a classically inspired album of gentle magic that deserves as wide an audience as, say, Mike Oldfield’s original Tubular Bells (1973). You can see the duo perform live on Thursday 28 October at 7pm at the Union Chapel, London.

No More Games – Zdot (22 October)

The opening, reggae-infused bars of ‘Problems’, Zdot’s collaboration with P Money on this 14-track album, tell you that you are in for more than a routine collection of West London grime – though there is plenty of that to be enjoyed. ‘Hands & Feet’ (feat. Stickz & Perm) is testosterone-charged gangsta rap, while ‘Winner Stays On’, featuring the Leicester MC, Kamakaze (previously a professional footballer on Luton Town’s books), reveals a much more playful side to the producer-performer, whose passion for music stretches back to his discovery of African drums at the age of ten. One of the most enduring and respected grime artists of the past decade, and justly so, Zdot brings wit, energy and seriously excellent production to this infectious collection. 


Many thanks to Xavier Greenwood for this recommendation of The Tragedy of Macbeth (Almeida Theatre, until 27 November).

Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle took Kim and Kanye as inspiration for their roles as the murderous Macbeths, but there’s nothing very Hollywood about this production. The set is sparse, the light hazy, and the cello complement melancholic. All this gives the play a stillness that feels a little flat – even when Banquo is murdered before the interval. But then the banquet comes and the rest is extraordinary. A feast replete with funny and anxious horror, it pitches the play headlong towards madness – the register at which McArdle and Ronan are at their very best, one at full volume, the other always on the edge of a scream. Guilt floods the stage as literal water from the tap, with both Malcolm (Michael Abubakar) and Lady Macduff (Akiya Henry) treading through the plashet with performances that deserve far more recognition than this short review can give.

… and to Mark St Andrew for this review of The Shark is Broken (Ambassadors Theatre, until 15 January 2022): 

Since 1975, generations of children and adults have been terrified of swimming in the sea. Thanks to Jaws, our fear of a lone dorsal fin breaking through the water has become practically genetic. I first saw Jaws at an inappropriately young age (I thought the shark’s name was “Jaws”, a notion I’m reluctant to let go of). 

In reality, the collection of mechanical sharks in Jaws were collectively nicknamed “Bruce” by the production team. As a working prop, Bruce was a failure – a constraint which undoubtedly forced Steven Spielberg to make a better film, relying on tension and the idea of a shark, rather than on seeing the monster on screen. Bruce’s breakdowns, dents, and an alarming inability to float turned the expected 55-day filming schedule into a five-and-a-half month ordeal. 

For the actors, this meant a lot of hanging around. And it’s in this production purgatory that The Shark Is Broken is set, playing out a series of conversations and arguments between the film’s three human leads: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw. Bruce the broken shark is the Godot they’re all waiting for, which gives writers Ian Shaw (son of Robert, also playing his father) and Joseph Nixon time to explore themes of masculinity, fame and frustrated ambition. 

The results are hugely entertaining. Scheider, uncannily captured by Demetri Goritsas, is the voice of reason. It’s his professionalism that prevents his two co-stars from spiraling completely out of control. Dreyfuss (Liam Murray Shaw) is the brash young actor full of insecurity and hungry for recognition, a weakness which Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw) delights in exploiting. The comedy, and there’s a lot of it, largely comes from Shaw. He’s the gruff, loud alpha of the trio, but he’s also coming to terms with his own alcoholism and what he regards as his unrealised potential as a writer. He describes Spielberg’s masterpiece as “the witless offspring between Enemy of the People and Moby Dick.” He should be a tragic figure, but despite how awfully he behaves, you can’t help but love him. 

The Shark is Broken is more than just a hilarious love letter to the best shark film ever, or study of masculinity. It’s all of these things, but it’s also a celebration of the craft of filmmaking in a time before CGI and endless reboots. “One day” says Shaw, “it’ll just be remakes and sequels, and remakes of sequels, and sequels of remakes!”

Jaws would famously get the sequel treatment. Jaws 2 – which was largely the same as Jaws but with teenagers (and the shark got to eat a helicopter). I can also highly recommend the magnificently bonkers Jaws 4, in which “Jaws” (as I still call him) is psychic and terrorises Michael Caine in the Bahamas. For all his flaws and sequels, give me broken Bruce over The Meg any day. 

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs courtesy Chiabella James/ Warner Bros, Andrew Testa for Tortoise Media, Highline Pictures/Alamy, Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios, James Pardon/Big Talk/Four Eyes, Marc Brenner, Helen Maybanks