Monday, October 24, 2016

Cobalt Eyes and Dark Skin - The Real Faces of Dune

As a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), I have a love-hate relationship with the visual-media representation of the characters and styling of David Lynch’s (1984) and the Scifi Channel’s (2000, 2003) representation. On the one hand, it’s exciting to see a book come alive and to share thought-provoking content with my not-so-literate friends. On the other hand, when movies get your favorite characters wrong, your blood boils so bad that you need medical treatment from the Scary German Guy in Monster Squad (1987).

How do you say "I love your face sores" in German?
With the revelation of an unmade Dune project directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky (2013), a growing number of visual-media services capable of providing engaging multi-season adaptations of popular book series (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones), original content from streaming services not bound by demands of conventional television (see Netflix et al.), and the willingness of the eldest of Herbert’s sons to soak money out of the Dune Franchise, it’s only a matter of time before another attempt at adapting the Dune series will engage (and disappoint) long-time Dune fans.

With that in mind, I would like to focus on a few characters who I feel didn’t get an accurate representation in the 1984 movie, the 2000 miniseries, or the 2003 Children of Dune miniseries. In addition to notable representations in video games and Jodorowsky’s failed project, I will also be sharing interesting art I’ve found via trolling through DeviantArt, giving credit along the way to artists I think have more accurately captured the characters in the book.

Duke Leto Atreides

One of these Dukes is not like the other
Here’s how Duke Leto Atreides is described in Dune:

[Jessica] looked at his tallness, at the dark skin that made her think of olive groves and golden sun on blue waters. There was woodsmoke in the gray of his eyes, but the face was predatory: thin, full of sharp angles and planes.

Hmm, okay so he shouldn’t have a beard, which rules out David Lynch’s Leto (played by Jürgen Prochnow), as well as a lot of DeviantArtists’ renditions. But then William Hurt is too round-faced and light-haired to be accurate either. Leto also should have dark skin. Before you think that means he has a simple tan, consider Liet-Kynes’s description of Leto as “a tall man, hawk-faced, dark of skin and hair.” If Duke Leto is dark to even a Fremen-type who spends enough time in the desert to have gotten a solid tan, he must be quite swarthy.

Leto should not be so pale. The movie and miniseries casting light-skinned actors is likely connected to the general tendency to whitewash minority characters in film and television adaptations. This has been counteracted a bit in video games. Emperor: Battle for Dune, a game that largely echoes Lynch’s style, goes to the opposite extreme, casting Michael Dorn as a black Duke Achillus Atreides (they have different characters in this game, but the same royal Houses). 
“His black working uniform with red armorial hawk crest at the breast looked dusty and rumpled.”
 I like the effort at diversity, though I think an even more accurate Duke Leto comes from the computer game Dune (1992). Leto is rendered with no beard, dark skin, and angular features. A future adaptation should look to this Leto as a model, possibly with less pixelation.

Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch

Paul Atreides

Do you think prescience would keep you motivated to lose weight?

Paul Atreides, the son this dark-skinned duke, is never described as also having dark skin. This not only leads me to believe Jessica, his mother, to be light-complected, but that Paul must not have inherited much of his father’s dark skin. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam sees him and remarks that he has a “face oval like Jessica's, but strong bones” His hair is said to be “black-black but with browline of the maternal grandfather who cannot be named, and that thin, disdainful nose: shape of directly staring green eyes…”

Later on, Liet-Kynes thinks of Paul as “a youth with the same dark hair [as Leto], but rounder in the face.” 

So let’s compare:
One of these Pauls is more comfortable than the other
Kyle MacLachlan has dark hair and boyish good looks, while Alec Newman has light hair and stubble. It might be important to point out that Paul Atreides never passes 18 before the last page of Dune, when he becomes Emperor of the Known Universe. Paul is 15 when Stilgar refers to him as “A child who thinks and speaks like a man…”  Both actors were in their mid-20s. This doesn’t have to be too serious a problem. Casting adults as teenagers is a thing that happens so often that actual teenagers look like preteens on screen. But there is only so much give. That’s why it’s so strange that Emperor Palpatine calls Luke Skywalker “boy” before trying to kill him in Return of the Jedi (spoiler alert), despite Mark Hamill being in his early 30s at the time of shooting. Cosmic superbeing or not, stubble on a 15 year old boy really upsets a story’s verisimilitude.

If we really want to show Paul to be a super being, let’s get an actual teenager in the role.  Something like this:
Image courtesy of Deimos-Remus, whose art you'll see more of in this post.
That way, the audience gets a greater sense of the accomplishment of Paul as a master fighter, philosopher, Mentat, and religious leader.

Duncan Idaho

As a child, I thought Duncan Idaho was a Mr Potato Head type
While Duncan Idaho dies in the first book (spoiler alert), he is important because he appears as a character in every book of the original Dune series. This makes him a sort of glue to a series that spans thousands of years. If we’re talking about adapting God Emperor of Dune and later books, we’re going to want to cast someone people will like. While Kit Harrington would be a popular choice, Jon Snow is missing some important features. Here is how Herbert describes Duncan Idaho in Dune:

Idaho's dark, round face was drawn into a frown. His hair, curling like the fur of a black goat, was plastered with dirt.

In Dune Messiah, Alia meets Hayt, the clone/ghola of Idaho who has robot eyes:

The face remained somewhat round, but darker and with slightly flattened features. High cheekbones formed shelves for eyes with definite epicanthic folds. The hair was black and unruly.

Duncan is dark-skinned and has epicanthic folds. Thus, while the dark-skinned representation by Deimos-Remus is on the right track, we would need an actor like Don Cheadle or Taye Diggs.

Gurney Halleck

Balisets: Not even once

Herbert describes Halleck from the perspective of Duke Leto:

“The Duke watched Halleck, admiring the ugly lump of a man, noting the glasssplinter eyes with their gleam of savage understanding… Halleck's wispy blond hair trailed across barren spots on his head. His wide mouth was twisted into a pleasant sneer, and the scar of the inkvine whip slashed across his jawline seemed to move with a life of its own.”

Patrick Stewart is a fine actor and a totally believable character. But he is all wrong for Gurney. Based on the description, Gurney either has patches of hair missing or he’s got male-pattern baldness and is covering it up with a combover. The 1992 Dune game does a better job of representing Gurney as ugly, though his hair is white instead of blond, and his scar is not very prominent.

I have a fondness for DeviantArtist Michael Stribling’s rendition, which feels true to form. 
A face that says “I’m disappointed in you and I’ll love you forever” all at the same time.
The scar is prominent, the ugliness feels lumpy, and there’s a yet-untapped grittiness to him. 

Thufir Hawat 

They're called "Mentats" so you wouldn't mistake them for something your cat toys with
The two major representations sort of go to opposite extremes. In the case of David Lynch, Mentats are identifiable by their cartoonishly large eyebrows, gray hair, and purple-stained chins. In the miniseries, Mentats are otherwise normal-looking people who wear a specific purple outfit that comes with an optional goofy hat. Here is how Thufir is described for the reader of Dune:

Paul looked up at the grizzled old man who stopped at a corner of the table. Hawat's eyes were two pools of alertness in a dark and deeply seamed face.
The leathered old face appeared composed in the predawn dimness as he spoke. His sapho-stained lips were drawn into a straight line with radial creases spreading upward.

When I first played the 1992 game, I wondered why Thufir was drawn like a reptilian alien. I suspect now that some overzealous artist read “leathered” as some sort of lizard-person, rather than indicating the skin of someone old. His skin isn’t literally leathery in the sense that he has scales. Rather, he’s a geriatric who might be physically frail but mentally alert. Really, if baggy-eyed Freddie Jones didn’t have those fur burgers over his eyes, he’d be a decent Thufir. But, since we’re going back to the drawing board, I say we take a lesson from Game of Thrones, which is not shy about casting the youth-deficient. I like Julian Glover’s Pycelle, who is also more than meets the eye before he is mercilessly stabbed by orphans (spoiler alert).

The best rendition of Hawat from DeviantArt comes from sillof

Hey, where my solaris at, girl? 

Sillof manages to represent the sapho stains without making it look like a sophisticated Mentat doesn’t know where his own mouth is (hint: put the stains on his lips, not his chin). The cane was something that I missed when looking at descriptions. And the use of a cane, rather than suspensors or something skiffy, is a nice contrast to...

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen

Only one of these barons knows how to dress himself

There is a treasure trove of inaccuracies with Vlad the Pederast, which is surprising, given that every description of the Baron boils down to him being so cartoonishly obese that people in the future will balk at the sizism of Frank Herbert in the same way we blush when we read Mark Twain at night:

As he emerged from the shadows, his figure took on dimension -- grossly and immensely fat. And with subtle bulges beneath folds of his dark robes to reveal that all this fat was sustained partly by portable suspensors harnessed to his flesh. He might weigh two hundred Standard kilos in actuality, but his feet would carry no more than fifty of them.

Somehow in the process of making that first movie, the use of suspensors to ease the burden of his immense fat got conflated with being able to float (at will) so that the baron is an everyday Superman. Because Lynch managed to get it wrong by having the overweight Harokonnen float, so many depictions of Vladimir Harkonnen have had him fly in the air so that it has become a mainstay of the character.

Another common feature of the character is his red hair. But there is no indication that he’s a ginger. Sure, it’s left open for interpretation, but Lynch has even Harkonnen henchmen with the same orange-red hair, like he was doing a favor to the local ginger-man who sells red hair dye. But that certainly isn’t the case in the book. And it’s not like Herbert was shy about giving red hair to characters. The emperor has red hair. Chani has red hair, Ghanima and Leto II have red hair. If he had red hair, Herbert would have told us.

My favorite depiction at DeviantArt comes from Deimos-Remus, one of the few artists who depict a standing baron:
He definitely earned those medals
Another nice touch from this rendition is the baby face. As much as we might love Kenneth McMillan’s boil-infested baron, it’s also clear from Children of Dune that the evil Harkonnen doesn’t have such an unsightly face:

A face formed itself upon her awareness. It was a smiling face of such fatness that it could have been a baby's except for the glittering eagerness of the eyes. She tried to pull back, but achieved only a longer view which included the body attached to that face. The body was grossly, immensely fat, clothed in a robe which revealed by subtle bulges beneath it that this fat had required the support of portable suspensors.

Leave it to David Lynch to get everyone to misrepresent a character whose only description is his weight.

Emperor Shaddam IV

One is the leader of an interstellar fighting force, the other in his high school's marching band
If you believe the appendices, the Padishah Emperor is in his early 60s during the time of the events of Dune. So it’s understandable to desire an older actor. But it is clear from an excerpt of “In My Father’s House” (which provides a different age) that the geriatric spice has kept him youthful:

my father and this man in the portrait--both with thin, elegant faces and sharp features dominated by cold eyes…My father was 71 at the time and looking no older than [Duke Leto]…

A later description makes it clear that Shaddam IV still has enough youth to keep his same hair color:

The Emperor stood poised, waiting -- a slim, elegant figure in a gray Sardaukar uniform with silver and gold trim. His thin face and cold eyes reminded the Baron of the Duke Leto long dead. There was that same look of the predatory bird. But the Emperor's hair was red, not black, and most of that hair was concealed by a Burseg's ebon helmet with the Imperial crest in gold upon its crown.

With that in mind, I think a good representation of a young-looking emperor comes from ilya-b, who gets points for accurate coloring of his uniform. Ilya-b’s emperor is missing a helmet, though. Perhaps for inspiration, we can look at the concept art from Jodorowsky’s Dune with Salvador Dalí as the Padishah Emperor:
Dalí, of course, couldn't act his way out of a floppy clock
Or we can take a more literal interpretation
Art courtesy of Virgin Interactive

 Guild Navigator

One you take to bed, the other you take to Mom. The middle one watches
Navigators are the prime example of David Lynch’s Dune making characters, in words of Jon Hodgman, “sexy and deformed at the same time.” While nothing like the iconic Third Stage Guild Navigator (whatever that even means) appears in Dune, a “Guild Steersman” (whatever that even means) shows up in Dune Messiah and is described as swimming

in a container of orange gas…The Guildsman was an elongated figure, vaguely humanoid with finned feet and hugely fanned membranous hands -- a fish in a strange sea. His tank's vents emitted a pale orange cloud rich with the smell of the geriatric spice, melange.

Not only is Lynch’s navigator better at being “vaguely humanoid” than the strange bat creature from the Dune miniseries and Edric from the Children of Dune miniseries, but he seems more real and more alive than either of them. Herbert liked it so much that he included the v-shaped mouth in his description of Navigators in Chapterhouse: Dune. Beating the Third Stage Guild Navigator at strangeness is a tough task, but there are two problems with him. First, the hands are tiny when they should be large. And there is also this crude attempt at showing the work of the navigator. In case the YouTube link no longer works, here is the important detail: 
"It's Spacefoldin' Time"
Yup, that’s right. Light shoots out of the Navigator’s mouth. The miniseries isn’t much better. Rather than the Navigator using spice “to produce the limited prescience necessary for guiding spaceships through the void,” they are apparently able to simply fold space without any technology. In both renditions, the navigator need only float out in the middle of a heighliner and dance in microgravity to get everyone to their destination.

While the goings-on of the Spacing Guild are left secret, it is clear that one can be a “Navigator” and still look perfectly human. In Dune two of them show up and, other than having deep blue eyes marking intense spice addiction, they are perfectly normal human looking people. So, in addition to representing space travel in a more technocratic way, future adaptations might also take direction from Mark Zug, who illustrated the Dune-themed card game from 1997.
Here you see the large hands, the fish-like gills. They even put the Navigator in a reasonably sized lava lamp.

Dr. Wellington Yueh

Is he even a real doctor?
Herbert describes Dr. Yueh as having “up-angled cheeks, the dark sequins of almond eyes, the butter complexion” and a moustache, which Dean Stockwell would present pretty well, if this moustache were not one of those stringy kind “hanging like a curved frame around purpled lips and narrow chin.”

Yueh is probably the best lost opportunity for Dune adaptations. Here we have the treasonous doctor who gains the trust of the Atreides royal family but overcomes his imperial conditioning to bring the house down. Before he even takes action on his betrayal, though, suspicion arises that there is a traitor close to the Duke. Could it be the Lady Jessica, a Bene Gesserit with conflicting loyalties and Harkonnen blood? Or could it be the guy with an oh-so-twirlable moustache standing in the corner and (maybe) laughing maniacally. Attama13 knows what I’m talking about:
Muahahahaha! I will avenge my torture-killed wife (spoiler alert)!

The Planet Arrakis

Try watching Dune without swallowing. You can't do it!
David Lynch shot on location (in Mexico, not Arrakis) and then filtered the sky to look orange for some reason. The miniseries shot everything in a studio, augmenting shoddy backdrops with crude CGI. We can do better than this. Arrakis is largely desert, but it is also an alien world. Based on some descriptions in Dune, here are the ways Arrakis and its deserts should be depicted:

  1. The sky should be dark in the day. Perhaps gray or blue depending on time of day or latitude.

It was still early afternoon here, and in these latitudes the sky looked black and cold -- so much darker than the warm blue of Caladan.”

Hawat's attention was caught by a flash of sun on metal to the south, a 'thopter plummeting there in a power dive, wings folded flat against its sides, its jets a golden flare against the dark silvered gray of the sky.

2. The sun should be white, rather than yellow, since Arrakis orbits Canopus an A type star.

The too-dark sky hung over the slope like a blot, and the milky light of the Arrakeen sun gave the scene a silver cast--light like the crysknife concealed in her bodice.

3. At least some of the sand should be gray or yellow-gray, rather than orange or yellow

This one is a little tricky, since there are variable descriptions and it could be in part because of the lighting. Still, there are quotes like:  They crossed a shallow basin with the clear outline of gray sand spreading across it from a canyon opening to the south." Later on, there is mention of “Patches of yellow-gray sand" stuck on people. At another point Jessica sees “biscuit-colored landscape of rocks and sand.”

4. Sunrises should be green, rather than pink or blue

Paul crawled through the sphincter opening, stood on the sand and stretched the sleep from his muscles. A faint green-pearl luminescence etched the eastern horizon.

Eyes of the Ibad

Spend an afternoon in the uncanny valley by photoshopping real eyes onto marble statues

I know this isn’t a character, but this is important, since the blue eyes are the most iconic feature of the Dune franchise and it bothers me that nobody has come close to accurately capturing the blue-within-blue eyes that represent melange addiction. Nobody. Here is how Frank Herbert describes the “eyes of the ibad” in Dune’s glossary:

characteristic effect of a diet high in melange wherein the whites and pupils of the eyes turn a deep blue (indicative of deep melange addiction).

To be more explicit, Fremen are said to have “totally blue” eyes with no whites in them.” Even Piter de Vries, the offworld mentat is described as having “shaded slits of blue within blue” representing his own spice addiction. So, how does this “deep” blue get muddled? Here is how 1980s special effects technology represented spice addiction:

She's like an inverted Smurf
It kind of looks like her eyes are glowing. But maybe we can ascribe that to the limitations of the time. But here is how the SciFi Channel thought to improve upon that representation

Look closely. Closer. Do you see the slight blue tinting of the whites?
Even Deviantartists fail to provide a true “deep blue” eye for Fremen or any characters from Dune, either repeating the mistake of light-blue whites or making them glow. I think the reluctance to represent a deeper shade of blue relates to Lady Jessica’s reaction to the Shadout Mapes, an elderly Fremen, whose “wash of deepest, darkest blue without any white” fills Jessica with an uneasy feeling. To her, the Fremen is “secretive, mysterious.” That is the effect we want to have and are missing by avoiding the deep blue color? We certainly don’t want to provide the sense that those addicted to spice are all filled with mystical powers or on their way to becoming an Aryan aristocrat.

What would I consider accurate? How about something like this:
Image courtesy of Oddee
That is an eyeball tattoo. There are various shades people do and, from what I hear, it's the most excruciating pain known to prisoners and body-modifiers. It’s a little unnerving, but that’s kind of the point with Fremen.


So that's my take on how these characters should be represented. What do you think? Should Duke Leto be black? Should casters try for extra diversity in the face of whitewashing? Would you accept some license to give set and costume designers some creative freedom? Let me know in the comments

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