by Peter Truax
As Virginia Madsen delivers in her monologue at the start of Dune, “a beginning is a very delicate time.” This is certainly true of transforming Frank Herbert’s novel Dune into a film. In fact, its first iteration, planned by the Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, failed completely. The film never left pre-production, leaving one crew member in a mental institution from duress, and no doubt disheartening a multitude of fans of the book, who had been eager to see Herbert’s opus put to film. What the straw was that broke the camel’s back is uncertain. Was it the run-time rivaling Wagner’s operatic Ring Cycle in length? Was it the choice to cast Salvador Dalí as the Emperor, to the tune of $100,000 an hour? Was it that the source work was simply too complex to translate off the written page? Run-time, cost, and the monumentality of Herbert’s novel combined to end a brilliant dream that now only exists as exactly that: a dream.
Director: David Lynch
Producers: Dino DeLaurentiis, Raffaella De Laurentiis, José Lopez Rodero
Writer: David Lynch, based on Dune by Frank Herbert
Cinematographer: Freddie Francis
Editor: Antony Gibbs
Cast: Francesca Annis, Linda Hunt, Brad Dourif, Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, Max von Sydow Virginia Madsen, Everett McGill, Kenneth McMillan,Sting
Runtime: 137 minutes
US Theatrical Release: December 14, 1984
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
Nevertheless, the publicity and acclaim that surrounded Herbert’s work in print acted as a siren song to Hollywood. Taken up again in the 1980s, in the wake of Alien, Star Wars, E.T. and Blade Runner, Dune looked to be the next big sci-fi blockbuster.
It made it to the theater, but many critics—and the wider audience—declared it a flop. The cost of production, length of shot film, and the task of taking the first novel in an epic trilogy—problems which grounded Jodorowsky’s attempt pre-production—would repeat themselves as David Lynch worked to get his 1984 Dune fleshed out in reality. Adding to this list of woes was a studio that cut what might’ve been a respectable five-hour film into hackneyed slosh, fitting it into a time frame long enough to allow the audience to experience drowning without actually doing so.
This reviewer happens to enjoy the film nonetheless. Yes, I can’t quite fathom the decision to deliver the intricacies of the novel’s plot in the form of successive one-and-two-line interior monologues. Yes, I think it ranks right next to Logan’s Run in its use of miniatures that aren’t fooling anyone that they were bought from a toy catalogue and spray-painted to match. And yes, I think that Sting is a terrible actor.
All the same, from the opening scene in the Emperor’s Court on Kaitan to the desolate industrial waste of Harkonnen Geidi Prime, to the monolithic landscapes of Arrakis, the novel comes alive in Lynch’s production. Dune, like all works of science fiction, is an invitation to a dream, to explore a world from the imagination of someone who has dared to look beyond the everyday.
The cast of characters is extensive, drawing in neophytes Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young (hot off her sublime portrayal of an android in Blade Runner), Patrick Stewart (who had only been in five films before Dune) and the aforementioned Virginia Madsen, alongside such veterans as José Ferrer and Max von Sydow. But what compels the reader to become engrossed in Herbert’s novel isn’t present in Lynch’s film. The cast of characters, who in the novel form rich, interconnected networks of personality, are reduced to cameos. The majority of acting talent brought to bear for the film is wasted on single-lined, quickly-killed characters who, in the novel, have rich backstories—Linda Hunt as the Shadout Mapes or Richard Jordan as Duncan Idaho. I hope and suspect they would have had a fuller, more engaging treatment in a fuller, more realized Lynch treatment, but the film we are left with leaves them painfully shallow.
The plot itself does not make much sense but it can be followed, in the same sense a fly can be followed around a house, given enough time and Adderall. The novel just does not translate well to film in under five hours. Dune was brought to the screen a third time in 2000, as a Sci-Fi channel miniseries, which more closely followed the plot of the novel. When comparing it to Lynch’s film, it becomes clear that the level of detail Herbert put into his book was just too much for even a gifted technician such as Lynch to work out on budget and at feature-length. What he does with Dune is not ugly, nor is it unwatchable. It comes across as many of Lynch’s other works do: strange, slightly disquieting, and lovely in its many shades. Consider the scene where the Baron Harkonnen kills a slave boy just to satisfy his animal passions, or the dreamlike sequence of Paul Atreides consuming the water of life and becoming omniscient. They bear the same Lynchian shades as one would find in Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge or the terrifying dream images of Lost Highway.
I think it is testament enough that Dune is not lost today because arguments about its merits and detractions still arise. The story still captivates our imaginations, sometimes negatively, sometimes positively, sometimes in between, wondering what might’ve been had circumstances changed. At the very least, it’s pretty to look at, and if you have never heard bad dialogue in a film, this is a gentle introduction. On this last note, and paired with it the near half-century popularity of the book, Dune fascinates us as a source of hope that once more some intrepid director could take it up and bring one of the most complex and compelling stories of modern fiction to life before our eager eyes.