A few months ago, somebody on Twitter pre-emptively criticized Denis Villeneuve’s then-unreleased Dune for casting average weight, straight Stellan Skarsgård as the overweight, gay Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Who knows how genuine the critique was—Twitter is dominated by media professionals hocking their takes, begging to initiate open air HR meetings (Instagram at this point has more charm if only because after being overwhelmed by last year’s wave of social justice infographics it now feels like a burned out, dilapidated mall for memories. And Facebook is good because it’s where I can read posts from Samuel Delany and my mom)—but it was pitched in the Representation Matters style and hastily received and retweeted as an example of the issue run ridiculously amok.

As the potential lone keeper of this minor kerfuffle’s memory, I can only assume it’s stuck with me because having seen the film, despite how laughable the concept of the Baron being a fat, gay icon is, the team behind the script and casting clearly did have some contemporary concerns about representation. Significant changes were made to skirt around some of the thornier elements of the source material. The Orientalism is bent to include Africanism. Visions of a fated jihad are swapped out for fear of a much less ideologically loaded war. And the potential problem of casting a straight actor to play a gay role is rendered null by removing the sexuality altogether. Skarsgård’s Baron is ominously fat-suited but not hideously gay.

Adaptations, of course, only articulate the adapter’s read on the material. Accuracy is never really measured against strict adherence to the text. Tone is what matters most. And the Baron as written by Herbert clearly presented a tonal problem for Villeneuve. Undergirded by a nasty conservative worldview, Herbert’s Dune is stiff, grotesque, dawn of a new empire stuff. Its heroes are as awful as its villains. Its future, miserable and claustrophobic. Only the psychologically deranged pursue sex, desire, and love without inhibition, towards no productive ends. The Harkonnen’s perverse homosexuality in this context is offered up as a direct challenge to the sexual purity of the Atreides. Making Herbert’s unambiguously, proudly homophobic depiction of the Baron more than an odd, outdated detail. It’s a foundational piece of his famed world building.

Lynch’s Dune, for all its faults, understood all this. He approached the material head on, leaning into the grotesqueries and exaggerating the space opera stuffiness. His Baron, played deliriously by Kenneth McMillan, is horny and covered in sores. And when overcome by an unhinged desire sparked by his plans for revenge, he takes flight, finding wet sloppy pleasure in the black oil showering down from the ceiling. Quick, temporary consummation comes when he passionately pulls the plug, literally, on a young male servant’s life, sending the poor victim’s blood spurting onto a bed of artificial purple roses. Real consummation comes later when he dribbles spittle onto the face of the bound Lady Jessica.

Villeneuve’s Baron is big, smooth, and hairless. Emerging from a healing pool of black oil—wet and weighty as Brando in Apocalypse Now—he’s cared for by a pair of black-eyed androgynous women. It’s sterile and asexual. Bodies disinterest him. And this disinterest is what we’re supposed to accept as grotesque. Taking flight, with no careening desires, he moves straight up. Offensively weightless, his size is offered as an affront to decent human proportions. Gluttonous excess in a land of limited resources. Satisfied by food, he does nothing but talk to the paralyzed, naked Duke Leto.

If Villeneuve’s Dune registers as the better adaptation its only because it plays to expectations and flatters the novel’s reputation as dense, austere, Old Testament sci-fi. A precursor to Star Wars’ New Testament, Dune is supposedly heavier, more serious stuff. And Villeneuve reverently treats it as such. It’s a safe, unchallenging approach. Beautifully realized, meticulously designed, in our current age of Late Stage Blockbusters, where the spectacle of the event has been stretched into a never-ending all-encompassing universe of tightly managed, committee controlled IP, Dune does manage to feel like a film made by an actual filmmaker. A gourmet hamburger, it’s less interesting and less entertaining than Lynch’s but I mostly enjoyed it.

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