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

By | December 14, 2020

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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

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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.