In 1965, “Dune” offered a daring challenge to imperialism. Frank Herbert’s classic novel tells the story of an offworlder, Paul Atreides, whose family rules the eponymous planet under the aegis of the interstellar Padishah Emperor. Dune is the only source of spice, a drug vital to interstellar travel and to the Indigenous Fremen. Paul, exploiting a myth proselytized to the Fremen, leads them in a jihad against the empire.

Herbert’s editors initially asked him to tone down the “Muslim flavor” of his book. The latest adaptation, directed by Denis Villeneuve, does just that.

“Dune” is a multilayered allegory for subjects including T.E. Lawrence’s Bedouin exploits (which Herbert critiqued, following Suleiman Mousa’s “T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View”), Caucasian Muslim resistance to Russian imperialism, OPEC and Indigenous struggles in the United States and Latin America. It is also thoroughly Muslim, exploring how Islam will develop 20,000 years into the future. While drawing on other religions, Herbert saw Islam as “a very strong element” of “Dune’s” entire universe, much as algebra or tabula rasa pervades our own — from Koranic aphorisms spoken by the Bene Gesserit missionary order to the Moorishness of a warrior-poet character (played in the movie by Josh Brolin) to the Shiism of the universe’s bible.

Rather than building and improving upon the novel’s audacious — and yes, Orientalist — engagement with these cultures and experiences, Villeneuve waters down the novel’s specificity. Trying to avoid Herbert’s apparent insensitivity, the filmmakers actively subdued most elements of Islam, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The new movie treats religion, ecology, capitalism and colonialism as broad abstractions, stripped of particularity.

Screenwriter Jon Spaihts claimed the book’s influences are “exotic” costumery, which “doesn’t work today,” when, in his words, “Islam is a part of our world.” This flies in the face of Herbert’s explicit aim to counter what he saw as a bias “not to study Islam, not to recognize how much it has contributed to our culture.” The film’s approach backfires: In justifying the film’s exclusion of Muslim and MENA creatives, it truly relegates “Dune’s” Muslimness to exotic aesthetics. The resulting film is both more Orientalist than the novel and less daring.

Take, for example, the languages in “Dune.” To create the Fremen language — often identified simply as Chakobsa, the Caucasian hunting language — Herbert mixed in “colloquial Arabic,” since he reasoned it “would be likely to survive for centuries in a desert environment,” wrote his son, Brian, in “Dreamer of Dune.” Herbert employed what he called an “elision process,” modifying “Arabic roots” to show how “languages change.” Herbert used Arabic throughout his universe, within and beyond the Fremen culture.

The film, however, dispenses with all that. Its Fremen language seems to be a futuristic take on Chakobsa, erasing Herbert’s elided Arabic. The film employs only the minimum Arabic necessary to tell the story, such as “Shai-Hulud” (the planet’s giant sandworms) and “Mahdi” (Paul’s messianic title, also a major figure in Islamic eschatology). The Arabic and Persian that does appear is pronounced poorly. When the Fremen speak English, their accents are a hodgepodge. Maybe people pronounce words differently in the future — but why do the Fremen sound like a 21st-century, Americanized caricature of a generic foreign accent? The film’s conlanger, David Peterson, wrote that Dunewas set so far in the future that “it would be completely (and I mean COMPLETELY) impossible” for so much “recognizable Arabic” to survive. Unaware of Herbert’s inspiration, he also claimed “there’s nothing of the Caucasus in Dune.” For some unexplained reason, the movie’s characters do speak modern English and Mandarin (a fact widely advertised).

Similarly, the film employs “holy war,” not “jihad” — an attempt to avoid the conventional association of jihad with Islamic terrorism. In the book, Herbert’s jihad (which he sometimes calls “crusade”) is a positive description of anti-colonial resistance — but it also describes the colonial violence of the Atreides and the Bene Gesserit. The novel disrupts conventional understandings of the word “jihad”: If popular audiences see jihad as terrorism, then the imperialists, too, are terrorists.

The cinematic “Dune” skirts the novel’s subversive ideas, more black-and-white than its literary parent. Where Herbert challenged fixed, Orientalist categories such as “East” and “West,” the film opts for binaries: It codes obliquely Christian whiteness as imperialist and non-whiteness as anti-imperialist. The obvious Ottoman inspiration behind the Padishah Emperor’s Janissary-like military force, the Sardaukar, is absent. Instead, the imperial troops (who speak what is perhaps meant to be modified Turkish or Mongolian) are depicted with Christian imagery, bloodletting crucified victims. Meanwhile, the Bene Gesserit bear headscarves that look European Christian (with the exception of a beaded Orientalist veil).

The film dilutes Herbert’s anti-imperialist vision in other ways, too. One of the novel’s essential scenes involves a banquet where stakeholders debate the ecological treatment of Fremen. It was the only scene Herbert requested (unsuccessfully) for the David Lynch adaptation. Disgusted with McCarthyism’s bipartisanship, Herbert wrote the scene to expose corruption across political aisles: Liberals, too, are colonizers. One of them is the “Imperial Ecologist,” a half-Fremen named Liet Kynes who “goes native,” reforms the Fremen, and controls their environment. Herbert considered his death the “turning point” of the book: Swallowed by a sand formation even he cannot control, the ecologist realizes his hubris as the archetypal “Western man.”

There is no banquet in the movie; Kynes, played by a Black woman, dies in an act of triumphant defiance. The casting choice presented an incredible opportunity to explore how even subjugated people can participate in the oppression of others — a core theme of Herbert’s saga. Instead, the movie both inverts and reduces the ecologist’s character, simplifying Herbert’s critique of empire and cultural appropriation. It rests on an implicit premise: All dark-skinned people necessarily fit into an anti-colonial narrative, and racial identity easily deflects a character’s relationship to empire. The novel didn’t rely on such easy binaries: It interrogated the layered, particular ways that race, religion and empire can relate to each other.

Kynes’s depiction reflects the film’s broader worldview. It paints the Fremen as generic people of color, who are also generically spiritual. It sprinkles Brown and Black faces throughout the rest of the cast, with sparse attention to cultural or religious detail. The film does accentuate the novel’s critique of Paul as White savior, opening with the question, posed by a Fremen: “Who will our next oppressors be?” But the film fails to connect its abstract critique of messianism to anything resembling the novel’s deep cultural roots. It wants its audience to love the Atreides family and the ecologist — those banquet liberals — while keeping the Muslimness of “Dune” to a low whine.

Hans Zimmer’s score heightens the film’s cultural aimlessness. The music is vaguely religious, with primitive drums. (One hears the influence of Zimmer’s collaborator Edie Boddicker, who also worked with him on “The Lion King.”) The vocals sound like the “Lord of the Rings” hymns. The only distinctly Arab notes, during Paul’s education about Dune, are of “Aladdin” faire. These musical choices are particularly disappointing, given Villeneuve’s previous work. Over a decade ago, he made “Incendies,” a “Dune”-inspired movie that carefully explored MENA politics. Using Radiohead instead of “authentic” Arab music, Villeneuve aimed to interrogate the “westerner’s point of view” as an “impostor’s.” Imagine if Paul, Herbert’s impostor-savior, walked the desert to Zimmer’s cover of Pink Floyd?

This all feels like a missed opportunity. The film could have hired Muslim and MENA talent to lean into these influences, elevating the good and improving the bad. These artists could have developed Fremen custom further (which Herbert sometimes depicts as stereotypically rigid). What if they crafted language, dress and music, modifying traditional songs or prayers, improving Herbert’s “elisions” — or advanced this universe’s pervasive Islamic theology and eschatology?

On the planet Dune, it takes risk and creativity to cross the desert without attracting a worm’s notice: Fremen alter their regular gait to avoid being engulfed. Herbert was unafraid to explore the rich sands of Islamic and MENA histories, even if he made missteps. He put in the work. But the film usurps the ideas that shaped the novel. Seeking to save Muslim and MENA peoples from taking offense, Villeneuve — as Paul does to the Fremen — colonizes and appropriates their experiences. He becomes the White savior of “Dune.” Where Herbert danced unconventionally, the filmmakers avoid the desert entirely. But is it so hard to walk without rhythm?

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