Dune’s Bene Gesserit, Three Visual Portrayals Compared

Villeneuve’s Dune, opening night and I was there, in a seat exactly in the middle of the screen (I love that). Still, I wasn’t too excited because I expected to be deeply disappointed but – of course – I had to see Dune anyway. However, Dune took me by surprise and Villeneuve’s portrayal of the Bene Gesserit blew me away. I have always been a fan of this secretive order of women, who dare to play God with their careful planning and mixing of bloodlines to create ‘the one’, who are all drug addicts, who can do mind tricks and who fight the weirding way. A shadowy, powerful order of women! Villeneuve captures the darkness and the attractiveness of the Bene Gesserit in interesting and innovative ways. How are the Bene Gesserit portrayed by him and his predecessors?

Frank Herbert’s Dune 1965

In the novel the Bene Gesserit are immediately introduced. Protagonist Paul is visited by Gaius Helen Mohiam, a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit order, as he has to undergo her test called the Gom Jabbar to see if he is worthy to be a Bene Gesserit or if he is a mere animal; not able to control his urges. Even though the Bene Gesserit are a sisterhood, their ultimate goal is the birth of a boy who can be trained in the ways of the sisterhood and who will become the Kwisatz Haderach. The Bene Gesserit have been planning for this boy genetically for ages. Part of the Bene Gesserit training is to be able to survive the Agony, after which they can access the memories and gathered wisdoms of all their maternal ancestors, but only a boy can access the memories of the maternal and paternal ancestors and as an important bonus he will be able to see all possible futures too. So far all boys who tried have not survived the Agony ritual. Will Paul be the one? Paul was not planned by the order. His mom, lady Jessica and a sister of the Bene Gesserit, went rogue and had a boy instead of the girl she was supposed to conceive. (Bene Gesserit can control their bodies down to moleculair levels and they are also in control of getting pregnant and the sex of a baby.) Lady Jessica sensed she should have a boy. Or was it love for her man, Duke Leto of House Atreides, who wanted a boy added to her own hopes to carry the Kwisatz Haderach that clouded her judgment?

Herbert’s description of the Reverend Mother: “By the half-light of a suspensor lamp, dimmed and hanging near the floor, the awakened boy could see a bulky female shape at his door, standing one step ahead of his mother. The old woman was a witch-shadow – hair like matted spiderwebs, hooded ’round darkness of features, eyes like glittering jewels.” The eyes are mentioned a couple more times. Another visual detail in her exit: “Then the old woman swept from the room, her robes hissing, with not another backward glance.”

The lady Jessica has bronze colored hair, an oval face and green eyes.

David Lynch’s Dune (1984)

Lynch does not open with the Bene Gesserit, but the encounter between Paul and the Reverend Mother is shown at around 32 minutes in. Lynch shows the arrival of the Reverend Mother in a group setting while Jessica opens the door for her.

The Reverend Mother first talks with Jessica. The most striking feature is her bald head. In the opening exposition there are also animated pictures of the order, which make clear that Lynch chose this bald head as the general feature to recognize a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit. The sisters of the order do have their hair. The bald head gets extra attention by a black widened headgear and a black net creeping up the throat. This attracts attention, and it makes her in a way vulnerable (head shot here!) and instantly visible as a Bene Gesserit.

With the bald head Lynch shows the Bene Gesserit as a mainly mental order. Lynch showcases their mental abilities, but that is far from all they can do. Herbert’s Bene Gesserit is an order of pragmatism, fighting, and close observation. There are sisters who go for mentat training (to be a human computer) but this is not the essence of the order. It is hard to observe or to work from the shadows when you are so excessively visible. Also, the bald head might diminish the sensual attractiveness of Reverend Mothers, as they are well trained in physical seduction and intrigue as long as their individual ages permit it.

With his portrayal Lynch reduces the traits of the order to thinking qualities. The Bene Gesserits do try to breed certain bloodlines, they do involve themselves actively in politics but they definitely not only use their heads. They use their own sisters to breed. Their own sensuality to persuade. They have trained physical skills they are known for, for example the Voice or fighting the weirding way. They work from the shadows, through nudges from invisible hands and by throwing fragments of myths and stories around. All powers from the shadows, not from flaunting bald huge brains around.

John Harrison’s Dune (2000) miniseries from the Sci Fi Channel

Harrison starts his Dune almost immediately with the visit of the Reverend Mother. First a short conversation between Jessica and Paul, then they both go to meet the Reverend Mother. Harrison uses a light colored environment and the interior looks like an average space ship. The doors slide open and there the Reverend Mother sits in the spotlight, in view between Paul and Lady Jessica.

This Reverend Mother is even more strikingly visible than Lynch’s because the dark tones are switched for light ones. Not only does she have a white, big round head gear – again an emphasis on the head – and light clothes, but she is shot on a throne from a very well lit position.

During the test Harrison positions the Reverend Mother behind Paul. Whites are not the tones of innocence here, she is someone who attacks from the back. She grabs onto him with her free hand, more like a cougar than a trained killer.

The Reverend Mother is also shown with a sort of staff. This gives her a magical aura. The Bene Gesserit are portrayed here less to be an order which relies on keen observation, long training and unseen influence from the shadows, but as very recognizably out there, who are able to wield magic with a wand.

Harrison makes the Bene Gesserit into an order of women who can be seen incredibly well as Lynch did before him. They are women in the spotlight, with light colors and a magical wand. This makes the Bene Gesserit more like magical creatures who have passive powers by birth instead of active players in the shadows who train and work to create their own fate and the fate of the universe.

Villeneuve’s Dune (2021)

Villeneuve seems to have looked closely at Lynch’s version. Like Lynch the Gom Jabbar scene comes a bit later in the movie, twenty minutes in. Unlike the others Villeneuve introduces the Reverend Mother before this scene in a political function: as truthsayer of the Emperor she is part of a political group who come to Paul’s father to hand him official control of Dune. The Reverend Mother is dressed in black, and veiled. Her head is again emphasized: her hat is enormous and towers over her.

Later a small pod escapes from the political aircraft and the Reverend Mother arrives with a group of other Bene Gesserit (like Lynch). Apparently Villeneuve wants to visually show it is a sisterhood, but this is not altogether logical. The more sisters together, the faster bystanders will know something is going on and it is not the case that they need each other, they don’t fight together in squads for example. Bene Gesserit usually work solitary and communicate only within small cells. However, it does look stunning, those dark robes on the screen. The high hats makes the human shape a bit unnerving.

Then Villeneuve introduces two things that are not in the book, nor in earlier versions. First: Paul is warned against the Bene Gesserit by a male trustee: before the meeting with the Reverend Mother Dr. Yueh quickly tells him to not entirely trust her (“I respect your mom, but…”). Apart from his parents, Paul is shown as being trained his whole life in various areas by three loyal men, among them Dr. Yueh. His mother trains him in the Bene Gesserit ways, and his mother has arranged a pre-test meeting with Dr. Yueh whose most important role in this scene is to warn Paul against the Bene Gesserit. Is this something Jessica asked him to do, or something he did on his own while checking on his vitals? So far in the movie the Bene Gesserit are introduced as openly politically active, and as not to be trusted.

The second innovation is that Villeneuve shows that the Bene Gesserit can communicate in sign language. The lady Jessica signs to dr. Yeuh and to Paul with instructions before entering the library where the Reverend Mother is, making sure the Reverend Mother cannot hear these.

The sign language adds something extra to the Bene Gesserit. In the book Herbert’s characters talk all the time, and if they are not talking they are thinking or writing things down. To be able to visually show a communication style and with that show who can understand the sign language adds to the sisterhood’s status, their ways of being, and it shows who is with them, or who knows about their ways.

Paul meets the Reverend Mother, she is shown in close-up. Lynch’s black net is back as a veil as his emphasis on the head with the high hat. However, a hat that changes your height and doesn’t show your shape in public appearances does make you less visible as soon as you take it off, and she does indeed leave without the hat. Someone else wears it at that moment.

In all versions the conversations between Paul and the Reverend Mother is cut short, as is the tear of the Reverend Mother as she leave that shocks lady Jessica in the book. These choices do create more tension between Paul and his mother versus the order. The Bene Gesserit is in all versions introduced more as an enemy than as an ally. The lady Jessica could be seen as a subversive element in the Bene Gesserit. She chose love over law! This is a trope we are very well used to: a good woman chooses love and then everything will turn out fine. But does that do justice to Jessica and the Bene Gesserit?

Where Villeneuve succeeds by far in comparison to his predecessors is to make the order look powerful. Partly because Paul is immediately warned against them, which might make them also too flat or evil but they should indeed be shown as powerful. Villeneuve’s Reverend Mother is, even though she is openly politically introduced, more darkly veiled. The introduction of the sign language adds to the secrecy and the connections of the order. As Villeneuve himself says (see video below), the scene of the Gom Jabbar is something he is sure the 14 year old super critical version of himself would approve of. My 14 year old version would too: especially his portrayal of the use of the voice; beautiful and it succeeds in convincing the Voice is an intense weapon: it disorients time and space and takes over. Villeneuve’s love for the world of Dune shines, and this scene casts myth, mystery, shadowy powers and prophecy. All Dune essentials. All Bene Gesserit essentials.

5 thoughts on “Dune’s Bene Gesserit, Three Visual Portrayals Compared

  1. Interesting point of view on the Bene Gesserit and how they have been differently portrayed in the different versions of Dune as intellects, religious politicians (that abide by their religious laws rather than love) or as powerfull. In all these versions one might say they have been portrayed with qualities that are normally considered as masculine. Masculine women are ‘unclean’ in the meaning of mingling opposite categories in order to refer to the divine and holy, thus refer to power. (That the unclean is how the divine and holy may appear to us mortals I learned from your great posts on horror and terror!). So I would conclude that the best way to portray the Bene Gesserit is as primarily powerful! Intellect is just an effect of their power and the political aspect is the effect of their intellect.

    Rahim

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. I wouldn’t say the BG abide by their religious laws: they do not get godly info over whom to breed to whom, they do have their own ideas about that, it is more about the laws of the order. Herberts BG does portray a lot of feminine qualities in the BG which most filmmakers choose to make more masculine (for example: make them less beautiful, make them operate in groups, both more masculine traits) and they choose to make them more visible. No feminine secret threat is allowed. I think Villeneuve from the three portrays the BG as the most feminine and (by that? 🙂 ) as the most powerful. (And closest to Herbert’s books.)

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