Dune is a phenomenal story. The tale of a messiah figure who comes to a desolate planet to free its native people is epic in the classical sense of the word. It’s a sprawling story that has bloomed into a fascinating fictional universe. Naturally, creative people have found Dune – and its subsequent books – to be inspiring and many have tried to recapture it in other mediums.
And it has never, ever really worked.
The Road Not Taken
Dune famously was going to be adapted by surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky in the mid-1970s. Jodorowsky’s reputation for bizarre and metaphorical imagery might have been a great fit for the more metaphysical elements of Dune, but it would have strayed away from the source material in a significant way. The in-depth documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune follows the troubled production and the films it would eventually go on to inspire.
Though it’s always fun to imagine what an unmade film would be like, it’s likely that Jodorowsky’s version of the story would have been far too weird for Frank Herbert’s tale. Granted, there are certainly strange elements in Dune but its mass appeal clearly means that it taps into something universal. Jodorowsky’s version might have been a boon to film fans but Dune fans probably would have been left wanting.
David Lynch’s Dune
In 1984, David Lynch was brought on to direct the long-gestating motion picture adaptation of Dune. Legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis had the rights and was hoping to make a film that would rival Star Wars. Lynch was an apropos choice as he’d been approached to direct Return of the Jedi at one point. While Lynch had exploded onto the scene with the nightmarish masterpiece Eraserhead, he’d also blown audiences away with the powerful drama of The Elephant Man.
Lynch’s Dune isn’t necessarily a bad movie. The production design, scale, and casting are all pretty damn good. Taken on its own merits, Dune is a flawed but fascinating sci-fi epic. But, it still doesn’t quite capture the power of the original story. The pacing of the film is bizarre and languid – typical for a Lynch film – and Lynch doesn’t quite know the best way to handle the enormous cast of characters. Plus, the production was a troubled affair and the budget guaranteed the film would never be successful from a monetary standpoint.
Personally, I enjoy Lynch’s Dune as a twisted and extravagant ’80s sci-fi flick, but it doesn’t have the heart of Herbert’s story. There’s something cold and inhuman resting in the core of Lynch’s Dune and that prevents it from really clicking with a wide audience.
The Sci-Fi Channel Duology
Back when Syfy was still the Sci-Fi Channel, a miniseries adaptation of Dune was released at the tail end of 2000. The series was a huge success critically and with viewership. It seemed like Dune had finally gotten the adaptation it deserved. Sci-Fi was so enamored with the response that a sequel, Children of Dune, hit TV screens in 2003.
As far as TV miniseries go, Dune and Children of Dune are landmarks. They reached for the stars in terms of scope and even talent. The ambition on display is undeniable. But, they have not aged well. The effects look pretty silly today and you can tell where the production did have to keep things scaled down due to the TV budget. And for all the pomp and circumstance behind both miniseries, they don’t have a strong cinematic flair. There’s a flatness to a lot of the direction that keeps the story from ever feeling as momentous as it should be.
The feeling of intent behind the miniseries is commendable but Dune is not a story that needs to be relegated to the confines of television. Maybe that could change today with epics like Westworld and Game of Thrones setting a cinematic standard, but the chances of that happening are slim to none.
The Epic That Could Be
Now we know that Denis Villeneuve will be guiding a new film based on Frank Herbert’s original novel. This is the best chance for the story to finally be the blockbuster hit it deserves to be. Villeneuve is perfect for the job and the time is right for audiences to get swept up in a weird and wonderful sci-fi world. With genre stories becoming the norm, general audiences might have finally caught up to the majesty that Frank Herbert’s world offers.
No matter what, Dune will always exist as one of the great pillars of science fiction. Numerous adaptations can’t take away from the story’s power. Here’s hoping they get it right this time, but if they don’t, it will be just fine. Pick up the book and transport yourself to that world whenever you want.