“Many men have tried.”
“They tried and failed?”
“They tried and died.”
It would take generations of genetic meddling, years of neurological martial arts training, and the aid of a mind-expanding drug to produce the sort of human being who could even imagine a Hollywood influenced by Dune instead of the Jaws- and Star Wars-chasing blockbuster industry we’ve been given. Considered the crown jewel of science fiction writing, Frank Herbert’s novel has proven either challenging or outright impossible to faithfully and satisfyingly adapt to the screen, depending on how you feel about the attempts so far.
As a result, I feel like a lot of the general movie-going public probably isn’t as familiar with the story as they are with, say, the backstories of superheroes. Merely describing the plot of the thing can make you feel like you’ve shed your clothes and donned a sandwich board and tin-foil hat, but, well: In a distant, interstellar future where feudalism and monopolistic capitalism abide under an emperor, and all travel and commerce depend upon a strange awareness- and mind-expanding drug called “spice” (because artificial intelligence went Terminator earlier and humanity has outlawed thinking computers, and safely traveling faster than light requires the ability to see through time and space and crunch insane numbers) which is only available on the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Dune is a vicious, arid desert planet with an oppressed and secretive indigenous people known as the Fremen, whose adversities and dogged determination have made them the baddest dudes in the cosmos.
As the original 1965 novel opens, the emperor plans to betray the noble House Atreides to their enemies, the violent and hedonistic House Harkonnen, essentially assigning the Atreides the brutal task of overseeing spice mining on Arrakis. The novel follows the young Paul Atreides as he and his mother barely escape the feud with the Harkonnens alive and fall in with the Fremen. The wrinkle in all this is that Paul is the result of ninety generations of careful breeding and political manipulation all aimed at making him the next stage of human evolution. Unfortunately for the schemers responsible, their plan worked, and Paul comes roaring back from his presumed death with an agenda of his own.
I’m not sure if that made sense, but I hope it clarifies for you why this particular intellectual property is so resistant to adaptation. Any one part of that premise I went into above depends upon a small mountain of lore that I—or a coherent movie with a runtime of less than 12 hours—could not possibly expound upon. This is among the densest texts I’ve ever voluntarily read, but the reason I’m far more excited about an adaptation of this than another boring-ass take on Great Expectations is that Dune’s vast and weird sci-fi setting wraps around a deliciously fun plot peopled with larger-than-life characters, punctuated by love and heartache and freaking knife fights. Squint at the right parts and it’s a surefire hit.
It’s for that reason that I understand the unbearable anticipation with which the far-flung fans of this franchise await the upcoming adaptation by director Denis Villeneuve, whose recent work you might recall I found to be thoughtful and intelligent. But still, could this be the one that breaks Villeneuve? Better men have tried.
Jodorowsky glimpses a different timeline.
“I wanted to make a film that would give the people who took LSD at that time the hallucinations that you got with that drug, but without the hallucinations.” —Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jodorowsky’s Dune
Though it’s the most recent development in the history of Dune film adaptation, it’s almost impossible to talk about anything that came after without starting with the film that never was. In the 1970s, Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky, fresh off two cult hits with El Topo and The Holy Mountain, was given carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted, and on the advice of a friend chose to adapt Dune. The impossibly ambitious project never came to fruition, and at this point never will.
If you’re a fan of the novels or at all interested in Jodorowsky’s work, you can rent the feature-length documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune for a very reasonable price from various streaming services and be taken on quite a ride. Teaming up with artists like Chris Foss and H.R. Giger—before Alien catapulted him into the nightmares of generations of moviegoers—Jodorowsky produced an entire art book with detailed storyboards and concept art, all with the express goal of showing the money men that he knew exactly how he was going to go about filming every single shot of his clown-sh*t vision.
The documentary makes us privy to several inspiringly weird sequences and even runs down the various hilarious stories of how Jodorowsky secured his cast: David Carradine as Paul’s father, Duke Leto, Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Jodorowsky’s own son as Paul (a role he had the poor 12-year-old boy train in martial arts for), Mick Jagger as the violent Harkonnen heir Feyd Rautha, and even Salvador Freaking Dalí as the emperor of the known universe (who agreed for the sum of $100,000 per minute of filming, in 1975 dollars).
Words like “insane” get bandied about a lot when talking about unmade films, but Jodorowsky talks about how he wanted this movie to be like a “god” or a “prophet.” Whether it would be as amazing as all the documentary’s participants claim will never be known, but at least he was approaching it with actual passion.
It’s worth it to mention that all this was going on before Star Wars or Alien or any of it. The shots Jodorowsky describes, the special effects he calls for, seem ho-hum today, when you can tell a computer to do anything, but envisioning the degree of art design with ’70s technology defies belief. Would it have changed the way Hollywood approached blockbusters?
David Lynch dies the death.
“It wouldn’t be fair to say it was a total nightmare, but maybe 75% nightmare. When you don’t have total creative freedom, you stand to die the death. And died I did.” —David Lynch in an interview about Dune (1984)
When Jodorowsky couldn’t secure the backing of a studio with enough pull to finance his mad dream, the rights eventually slipped out of his hands and made their way to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who gave the project to David Lynch. In 1984, his adaptation of Dune hit theaters, along with little note cards explaining to audience members what the hell all the jargon was.
I can’t watch Lynch’s Dune with any level of objective criticism. I understand what’s going on, but only because I’ve read the novels. Even having read them, Lynch adds a bunch of crazy crap that has nothing to do with anything from the books: The hellish spectacle of the Harkonnen world’s slaves and their “heart plugs,” the sound-based “weirding module” weapons, Sting in a metal bikini bottom.
Lynch originally envisioned a significantly longer cut that would have filled in some of the exposition necessary for the story to make a lick of sense, but the studio didn’t give him final cut and he was so dissatisfied with the result that he removed his name from the finished project.
It’s too bad, because whatever else it may be, Lynch’s Dune is wild and at times rousingly fun. Kyle MacLachlan’s Paul Atreides captures the strangeness and intensity of the character, committed actors sell their parts, and the score makes you want to summon a gigantic sand worm and go wipe out your enemies.
It is still considered one of the most infamous failures of big budget studio filmmaking.
The epic gets the mini-series treatment.
There was one more attempt to bring Dune to the screen, albeit the small one. Syfy Channel (or maybe it was still “Sci-Fi Channel” back then…) made a mini-series adaptation in 2000, one which took great pains to be more faithful to the structure of the novel itself, or at least to its basic plot. There’s very little to say about this attempt, precisely because it’s so tied up in plot that it makes very little attempt to attack the deeper themes that make Dune a world worth digging down into.
The adaptation also takes no liberties with the source material. Lynch, and Jodorowsky, too, definitely picked up on the fact that for all his descriptions of emotions and treachery and really interesting practical matters of how you’d survive on a planet with no water cycle, Frank Herbert spent little time going into the minutiae of how his world actually looked or what living in a place other than Arrakis might feel like. It’s in that vast, fertile ground on which Jodorowsky and Lynch really let their cerebra run hog wild, filling those gaps with ambitious imagery that reinforced the themes they were trying to illustrate.
The miniseries isn’t interested in going there, and the actors aren’t compelling enough to elevate the material. It’s good that it cares enough to properly explain exactly how Paul rises to the name Muad’Dib and exactly why he’s got the power to grab the entire world order by the nuts and twist, but it is also sorely lacking in Patrick Stewart charging into battle dressed to the silly sci-fi nines, years before Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The fact we’re hearing that Villeneuve has two movies to realize his vision is encouraging. This is a story of a future world so alien to us that it simply makes no sense if kept to 120 minutes. What’s more encouraging to me is Villeneuve’s track record of making films that both look incredible and expect a degree of patience and maturity on the part of their audiences when they could just as easily devolve into a series of slick fight scenes.
Dune has blood and battle to spare, but it’s in service of a deep text that worries about things like the awful nature of religious fervor that’s directed in the service of violence, how a society can revolve around an imperfect messiah figure, and what it means when all modern life depends on scarce resources that we extract by exploiting and murdering indigenous peoples.
If even a tenth of that comes through in Villeneuve’s adaptation, it will officially, finally, be the definitive one.
Kenneth Lowe is the mind killer. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.