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David Lynch's 'Dune:' The Controversial Attempt At Frank Herbert's Masterpiece

Entertainment | December 15, 2020

Kyle MacLachlan in 'Dune.' Source: IMDB

What was David Lynch supposed to do with Frank Herbert's science-fiction epic Dune? What is anyone supposed to do with Dune? The book series is one of the most important works of science fiction of the boomer era, and it's not exactly a breeze of a read. Herbert's first novel in a long-running series deals with the intermingling of politics and religion, technology and the environment, and the way in which power can warp someone regardless of their intentions.

The task of turning this classic novel into an "adult Star Wars" is Sisyphean, and in 1984 audiences weren't ready for the experience. Upon its release the film was maligned by critics, but it's not like David Lynch wasn't trying to make a good movie. With a cast of heavy hitters (Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, and freaking Sting of all people), music by Toto and Brian Eno(!), and just some straight up weird choices, Lynch made an interesting movie out of a story that was long considered "unfilmable."

Since the release of Dune in 1984, plenty of directors have contemplated or tried adapting this dense, allegorical novel, but none of them has come up with anything as interesting as David Lynch's film.

The journey to Dune

source: Universal Pictures

Dune, the novel, was a huge hit when it was released in 1965. It won the Hugo and Nebula award in '66, and won critical praise across the board. Even then, adapting it for the screen was a tantalizing prospect. In 1971, APJAC International optioned the rights to the film and then they sat on it for three years. When Arthur P. Jacobs, the producer behind APJAC passed away in '74 the rights were purchased by a French consortium led by Jean-Paul Gibon and the film was handed to Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Jodorowsky is known for El Topo and The Holy Mountain, avant-garde films that are closer to acid trips than they are movies, and his approach to the source material was to essentially throw it out while retaining the mind bending elements of the original story. In short, Jodorowsky's planed version of Dune was absolutely bonkers. He wanted the film to be 14 hours long, he spent $2 million of the $9.5 million budget in pre-production, and he sent Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon to a psychiatric facility. Dune, it seemed, was a killing word.

Coming in over budget without ever producing an actual movie helped cement Dune's "unfilmable" status, but the impossibilities of adaptation are apparent even in the text. Just how do you compress more than 400 pages of space witches, sand people, sand worms, mind reading palace intrigue, killing words, and a mind expanding drug into one movie? Short answer: You don't.

Star Wars for adults

Sting in 'Dune.' Source: IMDB

Before Lynch was brought on board, executive producer Dino De Laurentiis tapped Frank Herbert to adapt his own novel. That sort of made sense. Herbert wasn't a screenwriter but he knew his own material, he knew what he wanted to say, he just didn't know how to do it with brevity. After the author turned in a 175 page script (most scripts are between 90 and 110 pages) De Laurentiis took it to Ridley Scott. For a brief period of time, Scott worked on a version of the film with H.R. Giger, but after his older brother passed away he left the film to make Blade Runner.

Today, a 175 page script adapted from a novel would make for an amazing miniseries, but in 1984 there was no audience for a Game of Thrones style trip to the planet Arrakis. It's likely that De Laurentiis wanted to make a series of films about the Atreides family and their control over the spice, but first he had to compress Herbert's first novel into one movie, and it had to be a hit.

"Star Wars for adults," that's what Dino De Laurentisi pitched when brought David Lynch into the fold to write and direct Dune in 1981. Lynch had already turned down the directing duty on Return of the Jedi, an actual Star Wars movie, so why would he try his hands at a movie that was trying to be the very thing he had no interest in? Maybe he liked Dino De Laurentiis. Maybe he wanted to make his own thing. Maybe he just wanted to get paid.

The Lynch of it all aside, Frank Herbert's book is filled with hard to understand concepts and alien words like Djedida,” “Ijaz,” and “Mantene." There's no glossary of terms, no one ever stops to explain what's happening. For better or for worse Lynch left much of Herbert's prose intact. For fans of the novel it must have been thrilling to hear Herbert's exposition in the theater, but anyone coming to the film without reading the novels had no idea what was going on.

Filming the unfilmable

source: Universal Pictures

Nothing grows or lives on the surface of the desert planet Arrakis. Its sand drenched expanse offers nothing but emptiness, where do you go to capture the vast beauty of nothingness? If you're Dino De Laurentiis you go to Mexico. Throughout the better part of 1983, the crew holed up at Churubusco Studios, utilizing its eight studios and proximity to the desert.

If nothing else, 1984's Dune captures the endless desert of Arrakis. Using Mexico as the harsh stand in for an out of the way planet was a smart move visually, but it was a nightmare for everyone on set. According to the New York Times, there was an issue getting food to the set, and everyone on the production was sick. Francesca Annis, who plays Jessica, moaned:

You do not meet anybody here who isn't ill, about to get ill, or just over being ill.

The production stretched on for months, with sets and visuals provided by Academy Award-winning artists who turned the sound stages in Mexico into living breathing ecosystems, each one so lifelike and real that to call them sets would be rude. According to the De Laurentiis family this all came from Lynch, who utilized everything in his toolbox to create a specific visual aesthetic for the film. Production designer Tony Masters explained:

If David sees anything that looks in any way normal, he wants to change it. He hates anything that looks like Star Wars or any other movie ever made. He comes up with weird ideas that make no sense. When we put them in, they do make sense in the overall scheme. That's what people like Picasso do.

Visual artistry aside, the question remained: How do you squeeze a story the length of Dune into one movie?

Incomprehensible, ugly, and unstructured

source: Universal Pictures

Two hours and sixteen minutes. That's all the time that 1984's Dune has to adapt Frank Herbert's story of decaying empires, gender dynamics, and the politics of humanity. Compressed through Lynch's aesthetic, the story becomes chaotic and flawed, but he still manages to create moments that bring the pages of the book to life. It's not a perfect adaptation by any means. It's bloated and strange, at times it's incomprehensible, but like all of Lynch's work it feels like there's a current running through the picture that's intangible. It begs to be unearthed.

Critics hated the movie. Roger Ebert called it "a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time." Other reviewers keenly observed that it looked as if the film was missing about an hour of footage even though it clocks in over the two hour mark.

Lynch's films are dreams within dreams, filled with imagery meant to unlock something in the viewer's subconscious, but at the time there was no such thing as "Lynchian." There wasn't a Criterion box set offering visual comparisons between Dune, Blue Velvet, and Fire Walk With Me. Today, Dune is an outlier in Lynch's oeuvre, but its visuals don't feel out of place with those in the latter part of his career. None of that mattered in 1984. In 1984, Dune was just another big budget science fiction flop.

David Lynch was the perfect person to film the unfilmable

source: far out magazine

David Lynch claims that he "sold out" on Dune. He didn't receive final cut, and it wasn't the movie he wanted to make. That may be so, but it still manages to be a fairly straight forward adaptation of Herbert's work and a film that was very clearly made by one of the most surreal filmmakers of the 20th century.

The lingering conversations and myriad sub plots feel like an outer space version of Twin Peaks, while Paul Atreides' journey to join the Fremen, one that renders him unrecognizable to the Harkonnens parallels Lost Highway, while Alia dancing over the fallen body of Barron Harkkonen while ships burn in the distance is savage and meditative, something that only Lynch is able to achieve.

Is there failure in making something so strange that it has to be seen to be believed? If Lynch failed at anything it was addressing the multi-layered story of politics, religion, ecology, and technology that Frank Herbert was obsessed with in his fiction. Lynch mostly pushes that aside in the same way that he pushed aside the idea of making Star Wars for adults in favor of telling a story about a journey with no end, one that's filled with abstract sights and sounds. In 1984, Dune was a failure. But watching it today it's clear that David Lynch was thinking as a painter, and using film as  his canvas.

Tags: David Lynch | Dune | Frank Herbert | Kyle MacLachlan | Science Fiction

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.