Despite the fact that it has been adapted to the screen twice now, Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece ‘Dune’ is still considered one of the great un-filmable books. It’s a story whose scope and sheer amount of plot and characters does not lend itself well to being adapted into a single feature film and yet that same epicness seemingly prevents it from being a viable prospect as a television series.
David Lynch’s much maligned, giant budget feature film from 1984 tried in vain to pack an almost literal adaptation of the book into a commercial running length of 2 and a quarter hours but does, in its defence, retain to this day a completely unique production design incomparable to any science fiction movie before or since, not to mention an excellent cast. On the flip side, the television mini-series probably provided a better adaptation of the source material (because it actually did ADAPT it) but was unable to deliver any of the grandeur the story deserves and topped it off with some awful mis-casting and some horribly gaudy costumes. Apparently the director of that show thought the best way to convey to the audience that a character is a mysterious alien was for them to wear a funny hat.
Now we hear news that director Peter Berg has left the ‘in development’ remake but don’t believe for a second that this is the last we have heard of Dune. Myself and my podcast cohorts recently discussed whether Dune could be successfully adapted into a profitable, affordable, commercial film. My comments at the time suggested this was just not a possibility. Dune deals with themes of repression, tyranny, ecology, technophobia, revenge, in-breeding, religion and prophecy wrapped into a science fiction cocktail of the usual heroes and villains, spaceships, clashing armies and warring planets. But, in my opinion, Dune is not a particularly human story. It really boils down to a bunch of rather unlovable characters all trying to fuck each other over for their own selfish purposes. This is not a story of friendship and sacrifice like Lord of the Rings and as such, I think it would be extremely difficult to make a film that a mass audience would warm to, embrace and watch multiple times. Given this, maybe it would be a good idea to abandon the article right now. But I won’t because, regardless of how successful any Dune film could be financially, I still think the book can be adapted into a fantastic science fiction epic up there with the very best and at the end of the day, don’t we care more about getting a great film than a successful one?
Some of you might be in the dark as to what the story of Dune is (and that may very well include people who saw Lynch’s version) so let me try and summarise why it is such a tricky bugger to condense into a coherent film. Dune takes place many centuries into the future in the aftermath of a universal purging of the sentient machines that humanity created to make their lives easier but led to their eventual enslavement. The human race is now scattered over many planets, divided not by race but into royal houses, and all of them under the leadership of the Emperor of the known universe Shaddam IV. With thinking machines outlawed, the three greatest powers in the universe are the Spacing Guild, which controls space travel, the Bene-Gesserit sisterhood, a mental training school for females, and the Choam company which mines the precious commodity which keeps everything spinning; the spice Melange.
For what is essentially a trippy little drug, the spice is able to do anything Frank Herbert needs it to do in the story. It prolongs life, heightens senses and intelligence and, through the Guild’s monopoly on it, makes space travel possible. The desert planet Arrakis, a desolate place completely devoid of water, is the only source of spice in the universe and a tempting target for those who would seek to gain a foothold in power, not to mention a good source of bait for those who would seek to stop the powerful in their ascension. With this in mind, the Emperor devises a plan to destroy the house of Atredies, whose regent Duke Leto’s popularity within the other houses is beginning to have no equal. The Atredies have also developed a secret combat technique involving high frequency sound as well as a secret army to wield it which makes them a serious threat to the Emperor’s power. Shaddam IV secretly conspires with the Atredies’ long standing enemies the house of Harkonnen to vacate Arrakis (which they were overseeing spice production on), allowing the Atredies to take the reigns only for the Harkonnens to launch a surprise attack later on and grind them into the dust.
In the midst of this, the Guild, through the clairvoyance they obtain from their use of spice, have foreseen that it is not Duke Leto Atredies who is the threat but his son Paul. The Bene-Gesserit sisterhood have been interfering with the marriages and resultant children of the great houses in the hope of selectively breeding the individual who will become the Kwisatz Haderach, the super being who will change the face of the universe (but will be under their control if all goes according to plan). Jessica, the concubine of Duke Leto and member of the sisterhood, was given orders to provide only daughters to the Atredies (she can control that sort of thing apparently) but for her lover’s sake gave birth to Paul who it seems may very well be the super being they seek.
Thanks largely to a traitor in the highest ranks of House Atredies, the Harkonnens and their corpulent leader Baron Vladimir Harkonnen carry off their surprise attack, take back control of Arrakis, kill Leto and Paul and Jessica are driven into the deep desert of the planet to survive; an almost impossible task given the lack of water, the force with which the desert sands blow and the hostile life forms which inhabit it, most notably the giant worms which live under the sand and are attracted to all rhythmic vibration (which makes spice mining a constant problem). They are rescued by the underground natives of Arrakis, the Fremen; a highly spiritual sect of warriors who settled on the planet long before the spice miners came but now live in the constant shadow of oppression because of them. With the coming of Paul Atredies, the Fremen believe their messiah, their Kwisatz Haderach, has arrived and the time to take back Arrakis for themselves has come. Paul meanwhile, with an army at his command and the secret weapon of the ‘weirding way’ (the sound combat which House Atredies was developing) to teach them, is determined to get bloody revenge on the Baron and the Emperor by stopping spice production on Arrakis and luring them to him. The eventual cost of his actions will turn out to be astronomically high.
It’s not exactly G.I.Joe is it? My ‘movie moan’ colleague Lou said that the best way to adapt Dune’s massive plot on film was to tell it as several films but frankly, I don’t think that would work. Dune’s plot is the traditional three act structure with set up in the first, everything going to hell in the second and pay off (not to mention the majority of the action) in the third. It would be dramatically and creatively unsatisfying to sit through a two to three hour ‘Dune part one’ that accomplishes nothing but set up names and concepts that we’d sure as hell better remember in the next film lest we drown in confusion.
In my opinion, you tell Dune as one film and you do what any great literary adaptation does, you adapt it for the screen, to make it work as a piece of cinema, and if that means condensing several characters into one or losing them entirely them so be it. If the Tolkien fans can stand to lose Tom Bombadil or Old Man Willow from Lord of the Rings then the Herbert fans can stand to lose Shadout Mapes (don’t even ask if you don’t know). There are so many themes being dealt with in the story that trying to make a cinema hodgepodge of them all (as Lynch did) is going to fall flat on its face. Whoever finally has the balls to take on this project and see it through needs to find the concepts in the story that appeal to them directly, that really inspire them to tell the story, and then to focus on those concepts exclusively. For me, the most enticing element of the book is one of the things that Lynch’s version omitted entirely. Paul Atredies may very well be the messiah the Fremen are waiting for, but he is not a believer in their religion. He sees the opportunity before him to use and manipulate their faith to rebuild House Atredies power in the universe, enact his revenge and dethrone the Emperor. Through taking the spice, Paul sees visions of the future and even before he goes down the path, is able to see that should he do all he aims, he will have his revenge but will have also fulfilled the Fremen prophecy beginning a jihad on the entire universe. Paul (foolishly you can argue) takes that path and by the end of the book, he has destroyed the Harkonnens, supplanted the Emperor and controls the spice but his legend has grown so exponentially among the Fremen that he is powerless to stop them as they continue their own purge across the universe, resulting in the deaths of over six billion people.
This is the thread which separates Dune from so many science fiction stories which, for their complexity and themes, often do boil down to the white hats versus the black hats, the irredeemably good versus the irredeemably bad. It’s important to embrace the moral ambiguity of the characters in Dune. Don’t make Duke Leto out to be some kindly upstanding gentleman hero like the first film did. It makes the Emperor look like an imbecile from the perspective of the audience if they know that Leto has no intention of dethroning him. It legitimises the Emperor’s character and his fears of being overthrown if Leto is actually thinking of doing it. It’s not that Leto is a tyrant, he just thinks he can do a much better job at running the universe. The fact that he has such popularity with the other houses only validates this.
Another aspect you can play on, since the story really boils down to the clash between the houses of Atredies and Harkonnen, is that the royal families of both are very similar. In the book, the Baron Harkonnen has two nephews by his side; Feyd and Rabban. Rabban is left in charge of Arrakis after the Atredies are practically wiped out and then totally fails to stop Paul and the Fremen from stopping spice production, resulting in his execution. Feyd on the other hand gets very little to do until the end of the story when, after the Baron is dead, faces off against Paul in a duel and promptly gets a knife through the skull for his trouble. I really believe it will serve the story better on film to combine Feyd and Rabban into one character, who acts as a mirror image of Paul; both of them are the proud sons and heirs to an empire and both are forced into a confrontation only because of the aspirations and greed of their fathers and the manipulation of the Emperor.
While we are on the subject of combining characters, it would probably help the story on the Atredies side if it could combine some of their supporting players. The traitor who helps the Harkonnens destroy the Atredies is Doctor Wellington Yueh, the royal physician who has supposedly been conditioned to prevent him every taking human life, which puts him beyond suspicion. However, his reasons for betraying the Atredies are all part of an attempt to assassinate Baron Harkonnen to avenge the death of his wife by equipping Duke Leto with a poison tooth which he can use while being gloated over near death by the Baron. It’s a nice idea but is a typical example of the over-elaborateness of the plot. Besides which, it all amounts to nothing as the attempt to kill the Baron fails and Doctor Yueh is killed by the Harkonnens pretty soon after his betrayal.
I think it would be interesting to give the role of the traitor to a different character, which may just allow for a greater pay-off; the Mentat Thufir Hawat. Mentats are beings who drink a red juice by-product of the spice which increases their mental capacity to the point that they function as human computers, replacing the thinking machines that have been outlawed. In the Lynch film specifically, Thufir is captured rather than killed during the Harkonnen attack so the Baron can make use of his services, but is injected with a poison (which requires him to milk a cat every day to get the antidote it produces) and a heart plug, making his life very easy to take. It would make it especially potent for Hawat, having served House Atredies for three generations and being the one told by Leto to find the traitor, to be that person. Rather than vanishing from the story after the deed is done, Thufir comes face to face with Paul in the climax and is given orders to kill him. Just as in the book, rather than cutting him down, Paul thanks Thufir for his many years of service to House Atredies and grants him anything he would ask. The resultant scene is actually my favourite in the entire story as it is one of the few which displays real humanity and pathos and I would love to see it play out with the added element of Thufir being the one who brought House Atredies down in the first place, the one who Paul should want to kill more than anyone. With appropriate irony, it never made it into any version of Lynch’s film but you can watch it here:
And if the hard core Dune fans reading this strongly object to changing the text, well first of all thank you very much for reading. Secondly, if want a film version of Dune which keeps all the characters and tried to give them all something to do, stick with the David Lynch film, because that’s what happens when you’re stuck with that many supporting players. I see no reason why (except that it could very well be about $200 million dollars down the proverbial drain) to take these sort of liberties with the story and have another crack at Dune. If it doesn’t work, well nothing will have changed. Dune will just remain un-filmable.
Another director will eventually be attached to Dune and the project will start to gain momentum again, you mark my words. After all...........