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Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel, has always been in search of its filmmaker messiah

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"A film that doesn't have a touch of madness isn't going to conquer the whole world,” says a producer in the affectionate documentary Jorodowsky’s Dune. A filmic paean to Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, it looks at his failed attempt to put together a movie based on Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune in the 1970s. Its crew included Pink Floyd as the music composers and visual effects artists like HR Giger (who later came up with the iconic creature designs in Ridley Scott’s Alien). The cast was also stacked with the likes of Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger all on board.

Not surprisingly, Jodorowsky’s Dune has been referred to as the greatest movie never made. Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming remake is a reminder of how spectacularly these past attempts to capture the spirit of Herbert’s magnum opus have failed.

Timothee Chalamet in a still from Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Dune | Image from Twitter

The 1965 novel is one of the seminal works of sci-fi. It won both the Hugo and Nebula, the highest honours in sci-fi writing, has sold over twenty million copies and boasts a devoted fandom that persists more than fifty years later. The series has widely percolated through pop culture, influencing space operas like Star Wars and fantasy epics such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Herbert followed the first novel with five sequels. The last one, Chapterhouse Dune, was published in 1985 with a number of dangling plotlines that were unresolved as Herbert died just a year later while undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. The narrative arcs were wrapped up in two follow-up novels co-written by Herbert’s son Brian Herbert whose contribution to the Dune mythos has been even more prolific, if less well received, than his father’s. The 21st novel in the Dune series The Duke of Caladan is due to release this year. Clearly, the enduring appeal of the Dune saga cannot be understated.   

Set in the distant future where noble families rule over planetary fiefdoms under the intergalactic Padishah Emperor, the novel is primarily set on the desert planet of Arrakis also known as Dune, the only place in the universe where the invaluable spice melange is found. The spice not only makes space travel possible but also possesses mystical properties with the ability to extend life and consciousness. After Duke Leto, the head of House Atreides is murdered by the nefarious nobles of House Harkonnen, Paul, his 15-year-old heir is drawn into an alliance with the Fremen, the planet’s indigenous population who believe he may be the messiah described in their prophecies.

Dune’s plot synopsis might make it seem like a standard Hero’s Journey narrative where the messianic figure becomes one with the natives against a colonising force, a template found in Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom novels and Hollywood blockbusters like Lawrence of Arabia and Avatar. The novel is Orientalist, borrowing heavily from Arab history and culture. The Fremen are akin to Bedouins. They wear Bourkas and Fremen soldier squads are called Fedaykin derived from the term used for Palestinian guerrilla soldiers. Their religious practices are Islamic-inspired (with a dash of Zen Buddhism). Meanwhile spice the production of which the novel’s conflict revolves is a stand-in for oil and opiates (Herbert was inspired by magic mushrooms while describing their drug-like effects). Modern readers might even think of those dreaded midi-chlorians.

These might seem like timeless anti-establishment themes that can be adapted into an audience-friendly $200 million dollar film and yet Dune reads like sensory oral history steeped in unfamiliar lore. Its preoccupations with feudal power relations, institutionalised religion, ecological ethics, and spiritual self-discovery makes it one of the more esoteric best-selling novels ever written. 

Predictably, making a great or even a good screen adaptation of Dune has been a daunting task. The novel doesn’t derive its appeal from the heroic staples of the genre such as gladiatorial shield fights and Paul taming a giant sandworm but from its frequently baffling mysticism including a matriarchal order known as the Bene Gesserit. It’s no wonder that filmmakers have faltered at reproducing so much of what makes Herbert’s work so mesmeric.

Franchise potential is also limited because the Dune sequels exorcise the first book’s more crowd-pleasing elements. Plot in the two direct sequels moves at a glacial pace. Dune Messiah which is largely concerned with Paul’s visions and his crisis of faith brings to mind an alternate history of Prophet. Children of Dune centers on Paul’s children and the political machinations in the wake of his disappearance into the desert at the end of the second book. Philosophical inquiries on consciousness and prescience and beings that can view the world in four dimensions might be riveting on the page but inscrutable on the screen.     

Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides in David Lynch's 1984 film | Image from Twitter

It’s no wonder then that David Lynch’s big budget adaptation of Dune was a colossal misfire. The movie has an intriguing opening, a memorable musical score by the rock band Toto and a striking visual design for the nobles that borrows from the aesthetics of Italian Renaissance and Italian fascism. It condenses the novel’s plot making it incomprehensible to everyone except fans of the novel. The adaptation also falters with exposition-heavy dialogue and awkwardly retaining the characters’ inner monologues from the novel. Starring Kyle MacLachlan in his film debut (years before Lynch resurrected his career in Twin Peaks), it released in 1984 with a $40 million budget (higher than Return of the Jedi which set box office registers ringing just a year earlier). The movie was critically reviled and became a notorious flop. 

Alec Newman in Syfy's miniseries Frank Herbert's Dune | Image from Twitter

 A three-episode television adaptation on Syfy aired in 2000 to better reviews. Despite noticeably greenscreened backgrounds and amateurish performances, it satiated Dune purists. Yet, the miniseries is also a primer on understanding what constitutes an accurate adaptation. Its kitschy appeal aside, it barely manages to represent what makes Herbert’s book so enthralling despite dutifully translating the novel’s plot and characters on to the screen.

Any adaptation of Dune needs to rework the novel’s byzantine plot and pare down its dated references. One of Dune’s most incongruous elements is its villain — the queer coded Baron Vladimir Harkonen. The character’s name points to the American public’s fixation on the Soviet Union, in the decade after the decline of McCarthyism and the ramp-up of socio-political tensions marked by the Space Race. A morbidly obese hedonist who covets Paul (his own grandson) the Baron’s sexual sadism is hinted at in the novel. “’I'll be in my sleeping chambers,' the Baron said. 'Bring me that young fellow we bought on Gamont, the one with the lovely eyes. Drug him well. I don't feel like wrestling.'

Lynch’s adaptation exacerbates the novel’s homophobic elements. The Baron played by Kenneth McMillian sports red hair, painted toe nails, and a theatrical manner. His face is filled with pus-filled boils that conjure up images of a venereal disease at a time when the AIDS epidemic was sweeping across America. In one disturbing scene in the movie, he moves towards a terrified young man in a sheer body suit and pulls out his heart plug. As the camera moves away, the quiet and shocked reactions of the others strongly imply sexual brutality. Villeneuve’s adaptation which stars Stellan Skarsgård as the Baron will hopefully tread carefully with his character especially in an age where queer activism has reshaped Hollywood’s portrayal of queer characters. 

Fans have always been on the lookout for their own messiah who will metamorphose Herbert’s indelible imagery into big screen magic but a faithful adaptation requires alchemy. In Lynch’s Dune adaptation, Duke Leto (played by the great Jürgen Prochnow) has a touching conversation with Paul before they leave for Arrakis. “Without change, something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens,” he says. It’s one of the movie’s best scenes and it doesn’t exist in the book. Villenueve might prove to be successful at making an adaptation that manages to win over the legions of readers for whom the book is sacred. Yet, as Jodorowsky himself points out in Jodorowsky’s Dune, “When you make a movie you must never respect the novel.”    

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