WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Dune, streaming now on HBO Max and playing in theaters.
Roger Ebert, the famed film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, referred to David Lynch's Dune as "an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time." Encompassing everything presented visually, the dialogue, plot, characters and premise were all major issues for him, and he was not alone. A consensus exists that the film is one of the biggest missteps in cinematic history, a sentiment shared by David Lynch, who once said, “I’m proud of everything -- except Dune.”
Author Frank Herbert, on the other hand, was very pleased with how Lynch handled the vast amount of source material. Dune's original manuscript was passed over almost two dozen times, and the initial critical reception was horrendous, so the author was accustomed to negative analysis. The only regret he mentioned was the omission of the banquet scene that appears in the book. However, Denis Villeneuve's latest adaptation also declines to include the scene. Comparisons between the two films aside, the moment Herbert longed for could have added something valuable to both films.
The scene takes place directly after the ornithopter rescue of the spice miners led by Duke Leto, the newly arrived Lord of Arrakis and Gurney Halleck, the warrior poet given charge of the military readiness of House Atreides. This moment defines the Duke's character in direct juxtaposition to his Harkonnen predecessor by demonstrating that the men's lives that work for him are more important than the almost full load of spice sacrificed to secure their safety. It also sharpens the clarity of just how tenuous their position on Arrakis is because it is clear that rescue was only necessary due to sabotage.
The next chapter is entirely dedicated to a dinner planned by Lady Jessica, the Duke's concubine and a Bene Gesserit adept. She is acutely aware of their precarious hold on power and produces a guest list that she thinks will engender stronger relationships that will prove necessary for their survival and procure vital information that they will need to leverage the right alliances and prepare them for inevitable betrayals. Thufir Hawat, the Duke's devoted mentat and Master of Assassins, did not attend and was adamant that the Duke abstain as well, in part because he has made it a poorly kept secret that he thinks, erroneously, that Lady Jessica is a Harkonnen spy.
The table is dressed in silver, crystal and a wealth of water with a poison detector secreted away in the ceiling above a dangling chandelier. Leto is watching the preparations take place, absently wondering if anyone will try to kill him tonight in his own manse, as he notices a servant preparing a bowl of water and towels for a custom instituted by the Harkonnens. Guests would arrive, dip their hands in the bowl and wipe them dry with the towels. The wringings from the sodden rags would then be sold to the desperate at the compound's gates by whichever lucky servant was tasked with the duty. Leto abolishes the practice on sight, only fueling the simmering anger from the carryall debacle. He then greets his guests.
Duncan Idaho, the champion of House Atreides, is there to spy on Lady Jessica for Thufir Hawat. Lady Jessica is there hosting and manipulating: A water oligarch named Lingar Bewt makes it quite clear he has no fondness for the Duke or his changing of customs and is more than willing to remind any and all about his leverage over the planet; An unnamed agent of the Guild Bank who serves as an adviser to the Water Peddler's Union and is a secret Harkonnen spy; Esmar Tuek, a renowned and well-connected smuggler. Jessica thinks it prudent to acquaint themselves with someone that may be able to get them off-world quickly. Liet Kynes is there, the Judge of Change and prominent planetologist. Lastly, the ducal heir Paul Atreides, who -- like all of whom aforementioned -- is surrounded by various mercantile and economic stakeholders, both legal and illicit.
The Duke gives a brusque toast while a bevy of rich foods, imported sparkling wine and coffee spiked with melange grace the table. The Duke then drinks half of his water and pours the rest on the floor. Custom demands that his guests follow suit, and many display obvious discomfort at the waste of it all. Kynes, however, casually pours his into a hidden container.
Trepidatious conversation bubbles up, camouflaged political posturing circumnavigated rehearsed pretense and subtle threats, while Jessica and Paul herd the various players to their spots on the stage without the performers realizing that their parts have been recast. An exchange between Kynes and the banker indicates to Jessica that the Judge of Change is completely comfortable with killing the man over an insult, and the man knows it. She determines that this must be a Fremen cultural conscious that Kynes has assimilated. On the whole, Jessica is impressed with Kynes, and Kynes, in turn, is impressed with what he has seen of House Atreides and divulges something controversial. The planetologist believes that Arrakis could be successfully terraformed into a place where water would be abundant.
An agent of Hawat interrupts the dinner and steals the Duke away to some pressing security matter, and Paul takes his place at the head of the table. Almost immediately, the cowed banker brazenly insults Paul and all of House Atreides' guards stiffen in preparation for bloodshed. Paul responds with an effective counter that causes the banker to push his chair back from the table. A signal from Kynes brings the smuggler into the fray to deflect the tension for most but increasing the fear for the banker, realizing now that Kynes has sided with the Atreides in all but oath, though Jessica is confused by the source of Kynes' power since it can't just be his administrative position of Judge. The meal ends with Jessica reading a note from the Duke delivered by a servant, detailing an encrypted message concerning Harkonnen plots.
The scene provides an immense amount of world-building for Dune by laying out the tentacles of bureaucracy, as well as showcasing Paul and Jessica's effective and nuanced diplomatic partnership, something that they will build on during their time with the Fremen in the years to come. This banquet also foreshadows Kynes as a mysterious, powerful and dangerous figure. Given that Villeneuve divided the book in half for his adaptation, it is interesting that despite Herbert's desire to have this moment produced on screen that there was still presumably no room for it in the film. Considering that Part One was almost entirely expositional, it seems like this would have been a singular opportunity to display the power brokers vying for their portion, the loyalty that the Duke inspired in his men and add depth to the paradigms that both the Harkonnens and Atreides have influenced with their colonial apparatus, for good and ill.
To check out Denis Villeneuve's interpretation of Frank Herbert's world, Dune is now streaming on HBO Max.
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