Frank Herbert’s Dune is an early pinnacle in the genre of science fiction. It is a work as involved and layered as The Lord of the Rings in its depth of supporting information – it has several appendices, a terminology index, cartographic notes, and a map. Its narrative tends to rely on implication and subtext more than explicit explanation to inform the reader of the world of Dune. I have had conversations with readers who have felt “tossed in” to its world without any guidance except a vague epigraph. While this makes reading Dune rewarding – as it is a fully formed secondary world shown to us through complex and engaging characters – Herbert’s approach to leave the reader high and dry on the desert planet may come off as overwhelmingly esoteric to potential readers. In the case of Dune, the film adaptation shows that drastically changing the story to fit a different medium does not make it more appealing either.
Dune’s adaptation to film, directed by the always weird David Lynch, was widely regarded as a failure both by those who had read the book and by those moviegoers who were merely wanting the friendly science fiction promised by the success of Star Wars. Roger Ebert described it as “a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time” (Ebert 1), and he is certainly right. However, the first half hour did manage to convey the spirit and tone of the story, at which point Lynch simply ran out of time. He also lacked narrative space. The success of Herbert’s tale relies on much more than dialogue and set pieces. The changing perspective in first person narration gives a level of insight into the world and story of Dune that is unattainable in the medium of film. Also, Sting was in it. I would now show a picture of Sting but for the questions of copyright and his wearing a quasi steampunk speedo. Instead, here is a picture meant to show how deep the rabbit hole goes.
The more successful remediation of Dune into a full cast audiobook has brought a wider audience to a story which in its first form repelled the more casual science fiction interest. It is presented in this medium like a radio drama, with none of the pitfalls of that genre (episodes, advertisements for the radio station). Perhaps then it is more like the modern podcast, with none of the pitfalls of that genre (advertisements for online audiobook providers). The cast has a narrator who also handles inner dialogue, and individual voice actors for the main characters. This gives a depth to each character, and the performances are an extra layer of interpretation which changes the way the listener experiences the story. However, this change from reading as a visual and physical process to a more passive listening process does raise questions about what kind of media one experiences in an audiobook. The lack of physical reading support undoubtedly changes the experience of a work, as the medium of text is much more solid than the more ephemeral and fleeting medium of sound. Yes, one can simply rewind the tape to listen over again, but this is a lengthy process compared to the sweep of a page through the flick of an eyeball. The reader’s interaction with the work is changed in the physical aspect of her relationship with the work, which influences her relationship with the story and thus her interpretation. An important difference here being the passive nature of audiobook “readership”.
Does an audiobook have readership? It certainly has an audience, and that audience is getting an unabridged reading of the text. Whereas the film adaptation leaves much of the original work out and drastically changes what is left, the audiobook presents a faithful presentation of the work – for it is simply the text – while completing the physical aspects of reading for the audience. That physical aspect is lost along with any independent interpretation of character voice by the reader, as well as any idiosyncrasies in the presentation of the text that cannot be expressed through sound. For Dune this means one does not get the maps, the indexes, the appendices, nor the cartographic notes – all parts of the work which contribute to its depth and involvement.
However, the medium does allow the audience to experience the work in new ways: one can read along with the narration; one can merely sit and listen; one can listen while completing tasks which need minimal concentration; or one could take the entire thing in on a nonstop road trip from Saskatoon to Chicago (if one obeys the speed limit). The first example is certainly “reading” in its traditional form, albeit augmented, but for the others the answer is less definitive. They are the kinds of media interactions which Walter Ong calls the “secondary orality” (Ong 10) of the modern era. Where primary orality is of cultures with no writing or print, secondary orality in high-technology culture is “a new orality … sustained by telephone, radio, television and other electronic devices that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print” (Ong 10-11). This is precisely Dune‘s audiobook – a performance of a text which layers themes from scientific, religious, political, and historical traditions of writing. Nevertheless, this text is being told to the audience, rather than interpreted primarily by the reader.
Dune. Directed by David Lynch, performances by Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Francesca Annis, Sting. Universal Pictures, 1984.
Ebert, Roger. “Dune Movie Review and Film Summary”. 1984. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/dune-1984. Accessed 23 October 2016.
Herbert, Frank. Dune. 1965. Penguin, 1987. Print.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 1982. Routledge, 2002.