Paul Krugman on the ‘Dune’ Scene That Won Him Over

Paul Krugman Dune
Krugman: Courtesy Image

For Variety‘s Writers on Writers, Paul Krugman pens a tribute to “Dune” (screenplay by Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve; based on the novel “Dune” by Frank Herbert).

I went to see Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” with great anticipation — but also great trepidation. The original Frank Herbert novel was enormously important to me in my teenage days, but I had some sense of how hard it would be to bring it to film; the version by David Lynch just didn’t do it for “Dune” fans. Would this time be better?

The gom jabbar scene ended my doubts.

For those who have neither read the book nor seen the film, that’s the scene in which Paul Atreides, a poisoned needle at his throat, is tested with a box that creates the illusion of being burned alive. It was understated yet intense — and it showed that Villeneuve and his co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth understood the novel’s essence.

Why does “Dune” matter far more to readers than a thousand other space operas? Partly it’s the richness of the world-building, with its borrowing from many cultures and its stunning ecological prescience. Many science fiction tales are basically Westerns in space; “Dune” draws deeply on Islamic and Ayurvedic tradition instead.

But it’s also the unexpected subtlety: in Herbert’s universe the greatest power comes not from weapons or mystical talents but from self-knowledge and self-control. The gom jabbar tests whether one can override pain and fear; Paul’s ability to do so sets him on his heroic path.

To be sure, “Dune” the film has plenty of CGI- backed spectacle, all of which is rendered gloriously. It’s definitely a movie to see on a big screen, at least the first time.

But what really made the film was Villeneuve, Spaihts and Roth’s willingness to engage with what you might call the innerness of the novel, the way some of its most important episodes involve almost no physical action — and his ability to pull it off.

This was the “Dune” I’ve been waiting for since I was a nerdy 15-year-old. And I can’t wait for Part II.

Krugman is distinguished professor of economics at the Graduate Center, a core faculty member at the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality and a columnist for the New York Times.