Despite the incredible source material and the spectacle of the films, Dune can’t seem to get one media type right.
When Frank Herbert published Dune in 1965, science fiction was changed forever. While he’d built upon tropes and themes established in other science fiction works of the time, his unique inclusion of esoteric language and spirituality created a saga that authors have been trying to replicate for decades. Sadly, his intended seventh book of the series was never completed in his lifetime.
Upon his death, the rights of the series were passed down to his son, Brian Herbert. Despite using notes left from his father, Brian’s extended Dune novels are widely considered to have reduced the quality of the series to children’s literature. The recent Dune graphic novel (by Brian Herbert, Kevin J Anderson, Raul Allen and Patricia Martin) and its spinoff comics could have been excellent opportunities at giving the series another literary avenue. Unfortunately, they’ve suffered from the same problems as the extended novels, as well as having a few issues uniquely their own.
Herbert’s novels used Shakespearean-esque dialogue to bring the reader into its setting, but most of that setting comes from characters’ immensely provocative inner monologues. Since computers are banned in the setting of Dune, humans have tackled higher mechanics of thought to solve logic problems. The prose reflects this, and the written thoughts and feelings of Dune’s cast will make readers feel like omnipotent geniuses, even if they aren’t. In Brian Herbert’s books, however, nearly all information is conveyed in dialogue.
Somehow, this problem has carried over into the comics. Comics have the limitless potential to display thoughts, poems and countless forms of additional text simultaneous to the moment of the present. Despite this, in the prequel comic Dune: House Atreides (by Brian Herbert, Kevin J Anderson, Dev Pramanik and Alex Guimareas), an adaptation of the Brian Herbert book of the same name, the characters simply tell each other everything. Nothing is shown to the reader like in the original books; instead, everything is force fed through speech bubbles, in exposition.
One of the things that makes the original Dune novel unique is its extensive appendices. Rather than just reading the book from beginning to end, readers will find themselves flipping to the back of the book in order to have the same depth of knowledge as the characters. By the end of the story, they’ve learned not just from the material plot, but also from the essays and histories that flesh out the galaxy into a living environment. Even the latest movie by Denis Villeneuve found a way to translate this feeling, frequently cutting back to Paul as he studies filmbooks covering a wide breadth of subjects. The graphic novel adaptation, however, has none of this. Scenes play out in featureless backgrounds, no additional insight is granted, and the facial expressions are nearly nonexistent.
Some might suggest books just won’t translate into comics without feeling uninspired. Dune, especially, is considered a very tough story to adapt. This doesn’t mean a comic version of the story can’t be both faithful and effective, however. The trouble with the Dune comics, it seems, may be a problem with the adapters. Brian Herbert is a novelist; so is Kevin J. Anderson. Without some proper research, one skill does not necessarily translate to the other, as talented as the practitioners may be in one medium.
Kurt Vonnegut’s groundbreaking absurdist science fiction novel Slaughterhouse Five received an excellent adaptation from Boom Studios (by Bryan North and Albert Monteys). It would’ve been easy to just display what literally happens and rely on the book’s dialogue. Instead, its creators used an innovative and impressive variety of visual tools to convey the book’s motifs in brand new ways. If Herbert had been given the same amount of love and respect as Vonnegut in comics, perhaps there would be a Dune graphic novel that would transcend in the same way his books did. Though the odds seem slim for Dune getting a second chance at comics someday, we must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.
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