Dune’s Litany Against Fear
Three Versions: Herbert, Lynch, Villeneuve
Frank Herbert released Dune when Golden Age masters were still delivering their best work and New Wave masters were giving the genre new inflections. As a kind of sci-fi Seven Pillars of Wisdom dedicated to “dry-land ecologists,” it bridges the hard and social sciences. An example in psychology is the beloved Litany Against Fear. Herbert introduced it one way, director David Lynch brought it to the screen another way, and director Denis Villeneuve delivered its most recent and emotional representation.
The litany appears early in the book. The emperor is appointing House Atreides on Calladan to assume control of spice mining operations on the desert planet Arrakis. The emperor’s delegation arrives with Reverend Mother Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit, an order of women dedicated to breeding a powerful being known as the Kwisatz Haderach. Mohiam wants to test the training of young Paul Atreides. The boy’s mother Jessica, herself a member of the Bene Gesserit, has taught her son well and sends him equipped with the Litany Against Fear.
The scene is unforgettable. The Reverend Mother places a poisonous needle known as the gom jabbar against Paul’s neck and orders him to insert his hand into a box. The box causes immense pain, but if he removes his hand, she will prick him and he will die. Paul uses the litany to focus and pass the test, thereby proving himself not an animal, but a human being able to control his instincts. Hard-core fans know the litany by memory, but the setup for the scene and the litany can be read on Penquin Random House here.
David Lynch’s version is dark. As Mohiam, Siân Phillips drips cruelty and authority. Kyle Machlachlan plays Paul, the pure-hearted young man, as he would for Lynch again in Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990–1991). When Mohiam uses the Voice to command him to approach, he obeys even as he resists, stumbling forward without the aid of special effects or fancy cuts. The setting may be 20,000 years in the future, but reminders of Earth are abundant. The costumes are 19th- to 20th-century militaristic, and the enclosed, dim setting is organic — wood is everywhere — and Gothic. These people and places feel real.
The film includes the litany as internal monologue. As Paul undergoes the test, his face contorts in agony, and we see, through old special effects, what he thinks is happening to his hand inside the box, which is a perfect O. Henrian shade of green signifying, whether Lynch intended or not, Paul’s crossing of the threshold to adventure and the mysterious workings of fate. His hand bleeds, burns and smokes in a void. “The pain!” he shouts, as Mohiam appears to climax. To many, this film has become a classic, but Lynch himself has disavowed it and many reviewers have panned it.
Villeneuve’s version has found a warmer welcome. Its scores on Rotten Tomatoes far surpass the older film’s, with critics scoring it almost double (1984 / 2021). Lynch’s vision of the future was antiquarian, claustrophobic and dark, whereas Villeneuve’s is sleek, spacious and bright. The cast is stacked — How can it be possible that Oscar Isaac and Zendaya equal Jürgen Prochnow and Sean Young in the roles of Duke Leto Atreides and Chani? — the visuals are stunning, and Hans Zimmer won the Acedemy Award for Best Original Score, as reported by Entertainment Weekly. Even the trailer’s music, different from the movie, got people talking. Dune was a clear success, and ET says the sequel is scheduled for release next year.
The film is not without significant flaws. Many big names fill rather than own their roles. Javier Bardem is the worst offender as Stilgar, at times making the character silly. Jason Momoa has yet to convince in any role but Khal Drogo. Josh Brolin merely fills Gurney Halleck’s shoes. And Timothée Chalamet is again an odd fit for grim gravitas. Villeneuve’s direction, while virtuosic, pales in comparison to Lynch’s idiosyncracies. Even worse, a common failing with Villeneuve from Sicario to present, the film wanders toward the end. What was gripping suddenly isn’t anymore.
Before the film strays, however, it delivers a powerful portrayal of the gom jabbar scene. Rebecca Ferguson plays Jessica with emotion, often subtly. During Paul’s test, however, she almost falls apart. She clutches her hands and sobs in fear for her son — a son she conceived in love with the duke against Bene Gesserit orders to bear a girl — and it is she not Paul who recites the Litany Against Fear. Through this mantra, she masters herself, but when she sees her son is alive, her relief is palpable. In a franchise with a glut of superhuman and thus unrelatable characters, Ferguson’s Jessica is sympathetic and a highlight of the film.
Personally, I’ve never found the Litany Against Fear to be effective. Instead of fear passing, I’ve had more success (but not much) just shutting it off, and when the litany reaches the end, leaving only the self, I feel like there should be a state of no-self. The latter, however, is more Eastern religion and 21st-century meditation. By contrast, Herbert populated the Duniverse with iron egos paradoxically dedicated to causes larger than themselves, spanning the Known Universe and millennia. Perhaps his litany reflects the ethos of that fictional milieu or his own personal philosophy.
Other adaptations of the gom jabbar scene do exist. The miniseries Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000) is interesting for the way the box turns transparent, so it seems as if Paul can actually see the damage he feels happening to his hand, and director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune has become an obsession among fans as the masterpiece that never was. As much as I would love to have seen Jodorowsky’s film, the versions we have do justice to the Litany Against Fear and have embedded it in popular culture.
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