DUNE: PART TWO Understands That Paul Atreides Is Not a Hero

“All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.” –Chapterhouse: Dune

Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune understands something about the character of Paul Atreides that the 1984 Dune adaptation by David Lynch did not: Paul is not a hero. Paul, as envisioned by Frank Herbert, the author of the Dune novels, was meant to be a warning against messianic figures. In a famous quote, Herbert said that charismatic leaders should come with the warning label, “may be dangerous to your health.” 

Timothee Chalamet saluting with a knife in Dune
Warner Bros. / Legendary Pictures

Frank Herbert’s Framing of Paul Atreides vs. David Lynch’s Dune Portrayal

However, Herbert’s intention of Paul being a warning against the type of person who is able to bend populations and nations to their will by force of personality was often lost to those reading the book. And, as it turns out, in the first attempt to adapt the book to film. David Lynch’s Dune (1984) is a cult classic and beloved by many fans of the book. However, the way that Lynch chose to interpret Paul in his film goes directly against Herbert’s intentions.

After the climactic duel with Sting’s Feyd-Rautha, Paul causes the ground to break and crack under the body of his slain opponent. Paul assumes the mantle of Emperor, and the music swells as the narrator triumphantly states, “Where there was war, Muad’dib would bring peace. Where there was hatred, Muad’dib would bring love.” Paul then makes it rain on Arrakis. 

There is no precedent for this. Paul’s powers are impressive, but they are not supernatural. He cannot crack the ground with the power of his voice. And he certainly cannot control the weather by will alone. (A slight book nerd note: water kills sandworms. While Paul does begin the process of terraforming and greening Arrakis in subsequent novels, an unmanaged rain storm would likely result in the mass death of the worms, ending the production of spice and grinding space travel to a halt.) 

This tells the viewer that Paul truly is a supernatural Messiah figure who is worthy of the power he assumes. It suggests that it’s a positive development to replace the corrupt secular ruler with what is essentially a God-Emperor (shoutout to book four of the series).

Paul Atreides’ Characterization in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two

Paul screams in Dune: Part Two
Warner Bros./Legendary

In Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, the framing for the rise of Paul is vastly different. Following the defeat of Austin Butler’s Feyd-Rautha, this version of Paul demands that he be wed to Emperor Shaddam Corrino’s daughter Irulan, claiming the throne for himself. The other Great Houses of the Imperium do not recognize Paul’s ascendancy, which is when Paul tells the Fremen, “Bring them to paradise.” 

One of the final scenes of the film are legions of fanatical Fremen warriors boarding transports to bring holy war to the galaxy in the name of their Mahdi. While not mentioned in the film (though it might be in Villeneuve’s anticipated adaptation of Dune: Messiah) this holy war in Paul’s name kills over sixty billion people. 

While some details are smoothed over, this is roughly what happens in the books. However, one large change is in how Chani reacts to Paul’s marriage to Irulan. In the books, Chani is understanding of the need for a political marriage. She knows that she will be Paul’s true love as his unofficial concubine. The film changed her role to be the voice of opposition to the religious fervor that has gripped her people. 

She storms off into the desert, and the film ends on her face as she calls a worm. Anger and sorrow dominate her features. She feels both emotions for a couple reasons. First, it is for the man that she loves abandoning who he was. And, it’s also for her people abandoning their way of life at the behest of a religious leader. This is a far cry from bringing peace where there is war and love where there is hatred. 

Zendaya looks worried as Chani in Dune: Part Two
Warner Bros./Legendary

The religion that Stilgar and the other Fremen so fanatically follow was not native to Arrakis. Rather, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood (basically the space Illuminati) seeded myths and prophecies across the galaxy to aid themselves and their plans. The manufactured nature of the prophecies that Paul fulfills in order to become the Messiah of the Fremen is entirely absent from Lynch’s film. In 1984’s Dune, Paul simply is a supernatural figure who was the destined Mahdi of the Fremen people. It does not portray him as an opportunistic foreigner who manipulated people into believing that he was more than a man. 

Paul’s corruption of the Fremen culture through exploitation of their religion is seen in Dune: Part Two through Javier Bardem’s Stilgar. Stilgar acts as somewhat of a comic relief through the first half of the film. In a scene somewhat reminiscent of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, Stilgar is impressed when Paul says he is not the Mahdi that Stilgar believes him to be as only the Mahdi would be so humble as to not say that he is the Mahdi. 

But, as the film continues, the comedic undertone of Stilgar’s religious devotion is stripped away. He goes from a well meaning leader with an air of humor to a wild eyed fanatic gleeful at the prospect of bringing death to the enemies of Muad’dib. Though Paul’s story is framed in the classic “Hero’s Journey” format, there was always a sinister undertone to his actions. 

Paul Atreides Is Not a Hero But He’s Also Not a Villain

Paul Atreides salutes the Fremen with a crysknife in the Dune: Part Two trailer
Warner Bros./Legendary

All of this is not to say that Paul is the villain of Dune. He does have good qualities, and is certainly not sadistically evil in the way that the Harkonnens are. Despite his manipulation, he does truly fall in love with the Fremen culture. He is horrified by the visions of the future that he sees of a future drowning in blood. But, ultimately, he chose the path that led to that outcome. 

When push came to shove, Paul wanted revenge against House Harkonnen for killing his family. To get his revenge, he was willing to manipulate the indigenous people of Arrakis using the religion that was implanted into the culture by the Bene Gesserit. He was willing to cause the death of billions, claiming that he had no choice and did everything he could to limit the number of people slaughtered as a result of his rise to power. He says that the other paths were worse. But were they worse for the galaxy or just worse for him and those he cared about? 

Ultimately, Paul Atreides was meant to serve as a warning that scores of people die and entire cultures are destroyed when men become Messiahs. We should never put out trust and faith in leaders to save us, as they are just as fallible as those they lead.

If you want to understand that aspect of the character and the Dune series as a whole, then you should look to Dune: Part Two.

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