As a longtime sci-fi cult classic, Frank Herbert’s 1965 space opera Dune is ranked with The Lord of the Rings as a cornerstone of its genre. The size and scope of the two are similar and led many to believe that they were both unfilmable.
Now, nearly twenty years after The Fellowship of the Ring’s release, which struck the mold of multi-film franchises that have been the mainstay of American cinema in this young century, Warner Bros. has released a proper adaptation of Herbert’s novel. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the picture is intended to be the opening of a new trilogy, with Part II covering the second half of the gargantuan source novel and Part III adapting the much tinier but far more frightening sequel Dune Messiah. Set 8,000 years hence in a neo-feudal galactic empire, the story follows the young noble-born Paul Atreides as he begins a life-changing journey on the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of the all-important geriatric spice melange, which allows space travel and prolongs lifespans. To say the story is laced with analogies about the Middle East and fossil fuel geopolitics is an understatement.
This was the third time that the book was adapted and considering each of these attempts is a fascinating exercise in cinema history.
Prologue: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Aborted Attempt
The first major attempt at adapting the novel actually began in the early 1970s when several producers collaborated with Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who was both ingenious and mad as a hatter. It is difficult to determine whether he actually read the novel but his proposal was jaw-droppingly audacious. He wanted to cast Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí, Amanda Lear, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, and Geraldine Chaplin. The soundtrack was going to be written by Pink Floyd and the design would feature artwork by legendary European artists Moebius and H. R. Giger. And it was going to be 13 hours long!
The studios, understandably seeing a financial calamity in the making, pulled the plug in 1976. However, it left behind a massive trove of screenplays and concept artworks that resemble some of the most popular sci-fi films over the next decade, such as Star Wars and Alien. But as the documentary points out, the film was fundamentally an impossibility because audiences would have been unable to process its scope or depth.
David Lynch’s 1984 Film
After striking commercial and critical gold with Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980), David Lynch was seen as a kind of wunderkind whose talent could take him in any direction but end with success. Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis, responsible for producing multiple cinematic epics during the previous four decades, including Bible films, Spaghetti Westerns, and sword and sandal stories based on works like The Odyssey or the legend of Spartacus, seemed like the key to a winning strategy that would mint another hit.
Lynch is probably one of the most opaque filmmakers in American history, the complete opposite of what an audience in the decade of Star Wars and its bevy of rip-offs were looking for. The film’s score seems to embody in microcosm the dueling impulses of the entire project. Written by the rock band Toto and featuring a theme by Brian Eno, it bashes together at high velocity two wildly different notions. The Eno tune and much of the symphonic portion are contemplative, haunting, and spiritually anchored, as if John Williams’ Star Wars score was slowed down on a record player during a heavy New Age seance trying to commune with the dead authors of Golden Age pulp sci-fi. Then Toto roars in during the action scenes with electric guitars and synthesizers blasting as if this was a coked-out Van Halen concert.
Sting makes his first appearance in the film wearing a skimpy Speedo and spiked flaming-red hair straight out of a CBGB’s mosh pit. The alien creature puppets have an extraordinary level of Freudian subtext in their design. The rococo sets could have been recycled for a mega-production of Shakespeare’s Henriad. The homophobia and body shaming of the obese villain seems to have been written in the fever dreams of Jerry Fallwell. It is the anti-Star Wars par excellence.
Geeks were infuriated by how Lynch diverged from the novel. Novices were likewise peeved by how utterly imperceptible the basic notions like plot and characters were, with Roger Ebert saying in his one-star review “This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.” I for one disagree with The Thumb, instead seeing it as a wild trip that Lynch fans need to rediscover and reconceptualize as one of his critiques of Americana.
The Television Miniseries
The Sci-Fi Channel made great hay in the 1990s by screening a recut version of the 1984 film, which Lynch publicly disavowed and had his name removed from. The acclamation for this “Alan Smithee Cut” led the channel to partner with Hallmark Entertainment to produce two miniseries adaptations of Herbert’s first three books. With the extended breathing space granted by television, they were able to realize the novels almost page-for-page, quenching the fan thirst for a literalist rendition. Dune and its sequel Children of Dune were huge hits, winning awards and Nielsen ratings. Brian Tyler’s score for the latter production is an astonishing work, demonstrating that it is possible to create an epic’s musical bed without having access to a full orchestra.
Regrettably, the flaws become sharper with age, with special effects resembling a Windows 95 screensaver being the most painful. Some of the performances, most notably William Hurt’s, might be easily mistaken for nature photographs of oak trees. And because of the heavy emphasis on melodrama mandated by the television format, the scripts inadvertently eject Herbert’s imperfectly subtle postmodern critique of the space opera genre. Much like Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, this page-for-page, scene-by-scene literalism is far too reverential for its own good, negating the ultimate moral about how calamitous a messianic superman would actually be for humanity.
The 2021 Film
With all of this cinema history behind it, trying to view the newest film solely on its own terms as an isolated work of art is absurd. Villeneuve even subtly winked at this when he released the first film trailer with a cover of Pink Floyd’s Eclipse, nodding towards the proposed Jodorowsky soundtrack from all those years ago. It ironically exists in direct relation with films like Star Wars, particularly because of how George Lucas liberally borrowed plot points from Herbert’s novel, something the author had a kitten over. Dune was a cinematic impossibility for over half a century but hundreds of films were happy to pay homage to it. But as a result, this film will sink or swim based on comparison with imitations that people will say were superior.
The core of the challenge is rather simple: The book is utterly humorless on the superficial level. George Lucas hit a gold mine because he threaded plenty of jokes and pratfalls into his screenplays. Space opera is by its very definition an absurdity, combining a Devil-may-care regard for astrophysical truisms like gravity in outer space with the most well-known storytelling elements in human history. But more than 45 years after Lucas set off the frenzy, nobody laughs at that irony anymore. Instead, they want script with punchy dialogue and sharp barbs that punctuate the seriousness. Lucas abandoned that part when producing the Star Wars prequels in the 2000s and his fans never forgave him.
Herbert’s major jest has been lost to history by people who are too young to remember what are now the obscure and forgotten pulp novels that the author was skewering. Indeed, many readers today mistake these subtle satirical barbs for endorsements, an understandable conclusion due to the author’s political conservatism. In 1965, E.E. “Doc” Smith, who almost single-handedly created space opera with his Skylark and Lensman serials, had become a reactionary dinosaur. Smith’s novels are adamant manifestos of Aryan fantasia, loaded with story-lines dependent upon heroes bred by eugenics programs and valorized in a misogynist society of the future. Dune subverted these genre norms and archetypes, arguing that the victory of these “heroes” would be nothing more or less than an apocalyptic nightmare and that devotees to both the hero and the genre itself are little more than crazed fanatics. Herbert’s own idiosyncrasies, indebted to his proto-Libertarian politics, lead the storytelling to pivot like a metronome between postmodernism, critiquing the genre archetypes, and mid-century American Romanticism, reifying some of the same problematic norms he sought to repudiate.
Dune is a cinematic property that serves as a vehicle to examine the history of literary and cinematic space operas. The success or failures with the audiences over the decades has reflected their attitudes about our ongoing imperial crimes in the Middle East. After 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are war-weary, they have seen through many of the lies we were told about Islam in the past century, and the scars borne by veterans are embedded deep in our society. Unlike 1984 and the early 2000s, when the country was high on Reagan-Bush triumphalist blood lust, audiences can process this anti-hero’s journey and understand how the protagonist is the Satanic Skywalker, incapable of following George Lucas’s redemptive arc. The ultimate indictment of Hollywood is how they have fostered this widespread lack of comprehension by serving as the Pentagon propaganda agency.
The success or failure of any adaptation of the novel is its verisimilitude to the postmodern element and the ability to slough away from the Romantic stereotypes. Does Villeneuve reach this level? Or, in trying to establish yet another space opera trilogy, does the director miss the mark? That lack of certitude for me is part of the postmodernist lens that yields the richest analysis of these texts and compels me to leave it as an open question.
This column was originally published at Washington Babylon.