[This Essay is A Slight Reworking of one of my first posts on this blog.]
Syfy’s Dune: How Irulan Corrino Changed My Life.
*Images in this post are courtesy of The Royal Sacrifice. There’s a more complete biography of Irulan here on the Dune Wiki for anyone not familiar with the character or the world of Dune. You can also check out the related links section for more comprehensive analyses of Frank Herbert’s work, because I’m afraid if I tried to do that I would write a 900 page book.
Irulan is my least favorite character in the Dune Chronicles, and she is one of my least favorite fictional characters ever. So, she’s the last person I ever expected to have a positive impact on me, but watching John Harrison’s Dune miniseries changed my perception of her.
While I’m not always a fan of reboots or re-imaginings, I do feel that seeing different adaptations and reimagined versions can help illuminate different aspects of a character or help me see things about them that I hadn’t noticed before.
Frank Herbert’s Dune was originally published in 1965. It’s a very well-respected work, and it has been adapted to film twice. Both adaptations have strengths and weaknesses. Both of them have a lot of problems and there’s a lot of disappointment/bad feelings among fans about the various ways they could have been more than they were.
The first adaptation was directed by David Lynch. It was released to theaters in 1984. The second adaptation was a television miniseries written and directed by John Harrison. I have some problems with both of them, but Lynch’s Dune was my introduction to the story, and I think the places where Harrison’s version could have done better were related to casting, costumes, and set production. (I won’t get into Children of Dune because that’s beyond the scope of this post.)
I had high hopes for the Syfy miniseries when I heard about it, and I was (mostly) satisfied. Someday, I’d like to be more than satisfied with a Dune movie. I’d like to be blown the hell away and turned into a gibbering fangirl puddle. But that’s another post. One of the things I really enjoyed in Harrison’s Dune was what the miniseries did with the character of Princess Irulan.
Irulan gets a lot more screen time in Harrison’s Dune than she did either in the novel or in the Lynch film. Some fans view that as a negative because Harrison added content and subplots that really weren’t in the novel. I think it’s great, because I came away from the miniseries with a very different perspective on her character. As I looked at what the miniseries did with her, I realized that everything it shows about her character is true to who she is, whether it happened in Herbert’s novel or not.
Irulan is a Princess, and that means something to her. She values her heritage, and she’s willing to do whatever she can (or whatever she has to) for House Corrino. I would prefer that she valued her heritage for more altruistic reasons, but I can respect her sense of duty and pride. I talk a lot about how I find it annoying when characters who have unique roles or important positions whine about not wanting to be special. Costumes aside, when I saw this moment in the miniseries, I got chills, because I knew, this young woman is a princess.
Irulan tries hard and has to work to be good at things. Irulan is not a prodigy or virtuoso. She is trained by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, but Herbert’s novel establishes that she is not a particularly good student. She isn’t the bad one, per se, but she’s no Lady Jessica. That always made me view her as pathetic, because she doesn’t measure up, and even teachers don’t have much hope for her, no matter how hard she tries. It took this scene to make the realize how hard she must have been working. Fiction likes to present us with virtuosos: people who are naturally the best at something, people who can do things no one else can do. It doesn’t like to show us average students or people with an average level of talent, because that’s not exciting. It’s easy to forget that accomplishments are worth more when we work for them. As a personal example, I’m not very good at math. My math grades in college were consistently lower than any other grades I got. A’s in English, History, and Computer classes came easily. I had to work my butt off for C+ grades in math and agonized over whether I would make the President’s List every semester. I had a tutor twice a week, studied like crazy, and C+ was still the best I could manage. The absolute proudest moment of my college career was when I got a 102 % on a geometry test — thus saving my C+ average.
Irulan is never intimidated by Paul Atreides. Most of the other characters are. Even his mother became intimidated by him as the story went on and Paul’s precient abilities, his mentat training, and his frightening grasp of Bene Gesserit precepts made him seem more and more inhuman. Chani, Paul’s chosen love, is not intimidated by him, but she views him as her messiah. There are only two people who are truly never swept up by Paul’s mystique: Irulan and Alia.I think it takes a hell of a woman to stand eye to eye with a god like this.
Irulan finds a way to do something awesome with her life after her plans and dreams blow up in her face. (Okay, I know I’m getting into things that happened in the later books with this one, but it’s relevant.) Irulan was trained and educated as part of a Royal House. In Herbert’s novel, she’s the oldest daughter; Harrison makes her one of the younger ones, but the principle is the same. All of her life goals were predicated on the idea that she had an important position as the daughter of the Emperor, and she had designs on political power of her own. Instead, she gets stuck in a political marriage to legitimize Paul’s claim on the throne and she watches as her family’s dynasty comes to end. Paul doesn’t trust her, so she isn’t given any direct political power, and the Atreides don’t utilize her education or skills nearly as much as they might have. She becomes a writer. The Dune Chronicles imply that writing is a “second choice” or a “consolation prize,” and being a writer certainly isn’t as glamorous as being the head of a vast interstellar empire, so I had never stopped to think about what it meant that Irulan chose to write. Writers shape history. Writers even define history, because people don’t remember what happened. People remember what is written down.
None of these things really change my feelings about Irulan. I love Paul and Chani. I can’t forgive Irulan for the part she played in destroying them. It doesn’t matter that she never meant to hurt Chani. She’s responsible for her actions. I don’t care if she grieved afterward, and I don’t think she redeemed herself just by caring for Leto and Ghani. Harrison’s film still forced me to look beyond my prejudices and see that she was a stronger woman than I’d ever given her credit for. I’ve read the Dune Chronicles several times since the miniseries aired, and I’ve never been able to dismiss Irulan the way I used to. I’ve even wondered how she might have turned out if her situation had been different.
I think that’s important because it changed the way I approach stories. I try a little harder to look for value in characters and stories that I don’t like. If I can find so much to admire in a character that I can’t stand, I have to acknowledge that maybe there are things to admire in books or media franchises I don’t enjoy.
Have you ever had a book, film, or other artwork radically alter the way you looked at something? What was it, and what made change your perspective change?