#11 in my definitive ranking of David Lynch’s films.
I hold David Lynch’s Dune up as the perfect example of an adaptation done wrong. It’s too concerned with capturing moments from the book to actually tell a story, and it even misses the basic point of the book on top of all that. If you’re going to hire a surrealist to interpret Frank Herbert’s Dune, you don’t hamstring him at the script stage. You give him the money and watch to see what comes out. If you don’t want to take that risk, then don’t hire him. Keep the project on hold for a couple of years while Ridley Scott makes Blade Runner.
The first half or so of the movie, though, is relatively coherent. Beset by an overabundance of voice over from Princess Irulan’s opening monologue (that actually contains information that gets repeated twice) to little snippets from those in frame (most of which are unnecessary and captured by the performance but seem to be there in order to bring more of Herbert’s work literally to the screen), we see as the House Atreides, led by Duke Leto, is moving from their home world of Caladan to the hellish desert planet Arrakis, the sole source in the known universe of mélange, Spice, from which all interstellar travel, life extension, mind expansion are derived. It’s a hard, but well paying job that is displacing the House Harkonnen, the Atreides long time antagonist. This is all a plot by the Emperor of the Known Universe to allow Harkonnen to kill Duke Leto as Leto is becoming too popular in the Universe’s Landsraad, it’s parliament of sorts. And none of these people are the main character.
You can tell, if you’ve never read the book or seen the movie, that this is a massively dense story with a lot of politics going on, and I haven’t gotten to the ecology of the planet, the weird religious and magical cult of women called the Bene Gesserit, and the natives of Arrakis, the Fremen. There’s a lot in this story, and Lynch (probably at least partially at the behest of his producer, Dino de Laurentiis) went about the exact wrong way to capture all of this.
Every story is about a single thing at its core, and the story if Dune is about Paul Atreides, son of the Duke, and his journey from boyhood to manhood to leader to godhead. It’s not really about the squabbling of futuristic feudal lords or breeding programs or even giant sandworms that people ride. It’s about a single man’s journey to being worshiped by his followers despite being just a man. That is what you have to capture first and foremost. Everything else is just detail draped on that story. The problem with that approach to adaptation is that you’ll end up pissing off fans of the book who aren’t getting their favorite scene or part, but you’d be adapting the story for the medium while retaining the story’s thematic core and main characters.
By taking the opposite approach, of trying to stuff as much from the book as humanely possible in to a grand two hour and seventeen minute runtime, absolutely nothing gets the kind of attention it needs to grow and feel natural narratively. However, everything does work best (not particularly well, but best for this film) in the first half.
We see the pieces being laid out for the coming end of the first half as people explain things to each other, who everyone is, why everyone hates each other, and what’s going to happen. It’s kind of dull, but it works. Everything falls apart at the midway point and the attack on the Arrakeen Palace. All of the pieces have been introduced awkwardly, but they’ve been introduced. When everything starts smashing together, though, we have no emotional involvement and the pieces so tenuously introduced while the actual action is so incoherently pieced together that it’s hard to tell what exactly is happening. For instance, the Baron Harkonnen literally just shows up in the palace in the middle of a large fight between two armies. Doctor Yueh betrays his Duke based on a couple of lines about his wife. It’s also incoherently cut together on a simple technical level because it’s trying to cover so much action in such a short amount of time.
Then it gets even worse. By the time Paul and his mother Jessica escape the Harkonnens into the desert, an hour and fifteen minutes have progressed with less than an hour of running time left in the film. From this point four new important characters get introduced, Chani, Stilgar, Alia, and Reverend Mother Ramallo. Stilgar becomes Paul’s main companion within the Fremen culture. Chani is his love interest. Alia is his sister. Ramallo is the catalyst for making Jessica a full Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit. This is a lot of stuff to shove into less than the second half of the film, and it’s all competing with plot mechanics including some dense and poorly explained stuff around the Baron Harkonnen’s efforts to set his nephew Feyd up as the savior of Arrakis from his other nephew The Beast Rabban (partially covered in a single line of dialogue), the Emperor needing to micromanage the situation on Arrakis because Paul is leading a revolt on the planet that is halting Spice production while the Spacing Guild is threatening the Emperor because of the situation, and Paul needs to become a full Fremen by raising an army with the Weirding Modules (one of the only designs I don’t really like in the film) and riding the Sandworm for the first time. Oh, and of course there is a giant battle.
I have no idea how anyone who isn’t already intimately familiar with the source book could make heads or tails of this. It’s so dense, thin, and underexplained that it becomes a highlight reel of events from the book instead of an actual telling of a story. It’s incomprehensible.
Oh, and they completely miss the point of the book. I don’t usually harp on things missing the points of source material (the source material is always there, preserved, without the adaptation), but just to pile on with the movie’s sins, I might as well note this. Paul should not be able to make it rain by his will alone on Arrakis. The point isn’t that Paul becomes a god, but that he uses force, fear, and violence to supplant one system of power with another where the main change is that he’s on top. Having him make it rain just ends up as one more incoherent choice at the end of a series of incoherent choices.
Now, having savaged this film from a narrative point of view, let me talk about what I do actually like. The designs of this film are kind of amazing. The sets are huge, ornate, and simply fun to look at. The technology takes a similar approach as Terry Gilliam did in Brazil where Lynch used modern and old technology in new and interesting ways to represent the future (my favorite being the light that shines in Thufir Hawat’s face that’s supposed to relay computer information that he can instantly decode as a living computer, essentially). In addition, Lynch is really good with actors and pulled together an amazing cast here, so while characters may be short changed endlessly because of the movie’s narrative incoherence, when individual actors are on the screen they do well.
Lynch was the wrong director for a literal minded adaptation. De Laurentiis was the wrong producer for such a large undertaking since he wanted such a short end product. Adapting the entire book was the wrong decision for a two hour film. The film’s not worthless, but it’s so thoroughly broken on so many story levels that it’s closer to a train wreck than a piece of narrative filmmaking.
29 thoughts on “Dune (1984)”
Yes it is a disaster, but one entirely worth watching.
I say all this, and I’m still eagerly awaiting Arrow’s supposed deluxe Blu-ray of the film.
This film has a very weird place in my heart.
I love this film, and watch it probably three times a year. It’s very cinematic, very operatic almost. It’s got some unique things, and one aspect I really like is that these people all behave and seem like people living in the future, rather than 1980’s people pretending it’s the future (see “Aliens”).
I’d say the worst aspect are the villains. It’s as if Kenneth McMillan and Company were told, “Sorry guys, no craft services on set, but there’s the scenery if you get hungry.”
I find it infinitely frustrating, because it’s never not interesting to look at. And I really like the performances, especially the over the top stuff from McMillan.
I just cannot follow this as a story, but I’ve still seen it like a dozen times. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a guilty pleasure for me, but it’s somewhere in that territory.
Nothing’s perfect; we enjoy everything despite its faults. Some things you just have to overlook a little more.
But always, alas, what could’ve been.
I think very little in film is perfect, an elusive term that’s really hard to apply to something as subjective as art. A story plays out well or not. Perfection isn’t really a goal.
I obviously have stepped on a small land mine with my negative view of a movie that has obviously been subject to reappraisal over the years (something I’ve known about for a while, but it still doesn’t really change my view of the movie). People have their reasons for liking it, some of which I share, but what I look for in an overall movie experience I don’t really get from Lynch’s Dune.
I love this movie and this adaptation of Dune. In fact, of all the Dune movies and tv shows (so far) the theatrical cut is my favorite. And I love it because it is an adaptation of the books and not a literal page read…as much as I would prefer a more literal adaptation.
There is a lot going on in Dune. It’s not just about one thing, it’s about multiple things, which is why it has so much resonance. So I have to start by disagreeing with your statement that the movie misses the point of the book. It doesn’t. It does take some artistic license (the weirding modules and the rain at the end) but I consider that acceptable in the adaptation from page to screen.
Because Paul IS the Kwitzach Haderach, the super-being, the culmination of the Bene Gesserit’s breeding program…but he was not what was expected. There are all these hopes and fears and prophesies about Paul, from the fake legends the Bene Gesserit seeded with the Fremen to the prescience of the Spacing Guild, to the hopes and loves of his parents. He is fulfillment of prophesy in ways not expected. Paul doesn’t cause the rain. But because of Paul, it does rain. It is a divine blessing upon him.
The other thing this movie is ‘about’ is about fathers and sons. Dune, and this version of Dune, is as much about Paul’s desire for revenge upon the Harkonens for killing his father. That is what drives the second half of this movies. He becomes a man of two worlds, Fremen and imperial royalty, fully alive in both.
I can, and would, write for a solid hour about this movie. I love the casting, the dialog and performances are endlessly quotable. I love the soundtrack tremendously.
Lynch hates this movie, probably because of what he didn’t get to do. I love it for what he did do.
I remember reading something from Frank Herbert where he said that Paul wasn’t actually the prophesized one, but it was Leto II. I can’t find it, though, so I’m going to act like it’s gospel anyway.
And I think you hit the nail on the head on the problem with adapting Dune. There’s just so much that so many cling onto as necessary to be Dune. It’s not just Paul, but the entire world around it. For many, you can’t tell Paul’s story without telling the story of the world, so you have to get as much as humanly possible into the telling in order to properly adapt the book to another medium.
I, obviously, disagree. I think the movie needs to work as a movie first and foremost. In order to make it work as a film, I think you have to distill the book down to its absolute barest of elements first and start at the adaptation process there. Starting with Paul’s journey as the main focus, I imagine you can fill about 70 minutes of run time comfortably. Expanding the movie to just over two hours from there is about dropping in the details around it give the film the greater flavor of Dune, the spice one might coyingly put. Starting from the point of shoving everything in leaves me largely cold. The film relies so much on previous knowledge that the movie can’t stand on its own while leaving such thinness of every element that there’s nothing for the uninitiated to really grasp onto other than visual design elements.
I don’t mind the weirding modules (thinking of visual elements) in general. In terms of supplanting martial arts, it’s a good replacement. I just don’t like the little microphone that sticks up from the thing around their neck. It looks weird. Cut that out and have the sound receiver part be directly on the neck, and I think it improves the look of the thing.
I can’t speak to esthetics of the weirding modules, that’s a matter of taste of course. They’re fine. They don’t look like most other ‘sci fi weapons’.
And that’s why I think all the stuff that bothers you NEEDS to be in Dune. For me, having all that world building and strangeness is what sparks my imagination. There is too much content for one movie. I have hopes that splitting it in two will work, as there are two ‘phases’ in Dune.
Paul wasn’t the ‘true’ prophesied one, from Herbert’s POV, because he rejected his visions of the future and tried to work against it. Even going so far in rejection as to put out his own eyes and abandon his throne. Paul was a generation too soon, but he was there. He was an accidental messiah. And a better one than Leto II. Paul had the morality and sense of duty (and father love) that he learned from the Atredies. Leto II was a monster even before he decided on sandworm cosplay….but the less said about the other books by Frank Herbert, the better. Dune is a masterwork and, like Harper Lee, I prefer to think of it as his sole work.
It doesn’t bother me that it’s in there, it bothers me that none of it is given any depth, room to breathe, or even a reason for existence within the film itself. There’s so much depth to every little detail of the world in Dune, without ever touching the sequels, helped heavily by the Appendices in the original novel, that fleshes out everything from the religions to the ecology to the sandworms, that trying to fit it all in a concentrated time frame was never going to really work.
If Dino wanted a two hour movie from his option, then he needed to get a script that understood storytelling within that constraint. Should Dune be told in a two-hour movie? Probably not. There’s simply too much to capture for it to fully capture what everyone who loves the book.
Can it be adapted into a two hour film? I think it could, but in order to accomplish that you have to cut…a lot. Lynch’s film still cuts a lot, even though it keeps everything in at the same time. He ended up needing to cut out scenes that establish characters in favor of single lines of dialogue. He needed to cut out scenes that explained motives in favor of single lines of dialogue. That’s why I end up calling this a highlight reel of scenes from the book, because it feels like all of these individual moments with little to nothing really connecting each other, relying on the audience’s foreknowledge of the book to fill in the gaps.
The two film approach is most likely the best way to go, if you’re going to go with a movie rather than a television series. Get us through at least the attack on Arrakeen in about 2 hours, telling that story as fully as possible, and then take another two hours to fully tell Paul’s revolution with the Fremen.
Lynch has softened somewhat on Dune in recent years. There’s a YouTube clip of him being asked “If Dune was the massive success everyone was hoping for, how would your career have changed?” He doesn’t really answer the question (going back to not having final cut) but he does say there are things he likes in Dune, “and I’m glad you like it.”
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That’s interesting and probably why novels have a challenge being adapted to screen. Especially novels like Dune often have a lot going on in them. Ask a group of fans to boil it all down to one single thing at its core and you’ll probably get a different answer from every person. Same with LotR.
And that could also be the principle division between short and long forms of storytelling. With novels, TV shows, etc you can run multiple “core” storylines at once. A movie? Well I agree with you on the principle – the shorter the story, the more it needs to figure out that single core.
Even something as vast as War and Peace can ultimately be boiled down to a single word: Russia.
I think this is why I prefer film over television in general. Television can hold onto a single story for a while, but if it continues, the story breaks out into a bunch of different tangents while the original central idea ends up getting lost somewhere. It’s hard to tell a single story over hours and hours of screentime while keeping the audience interested. It’s been successfully done before, but it’s just really hard.
Well… not sure “russia” proves the point you want to make as it contains multitudes as well. But also not exactly my point.
Let’s take Dune because I’m more familiar with it. Boil it down to one word and what do you have? Manhood. Desert. Spice. Arakkis. Politics. Family. Prophecy. Religion. War.
My point being that any one of those would be completely applicable as a summation of the book. You can say “Paul’s journey is the essence” all you want (I would probably agree with you) but there’s no way to settle or decide that your summation is “better” than anybody else’s (assuming summations could even be graded). This is then the challenge of adaption. Director 1 takes one core idea and builds their movie around it, while Director 2 takes a different core idea and Director 3 takes a third one etc. And all of them can be completely right and accurate.
And the audience will be divided between those who agree with the core selected by the director and those who don’t.
(Also a thought: Never watched any David Lynch, but from things I’ve heard, he seems like a director who would expressly reject your “core idea” philosophy and tries to explore as much as he can on the screen.)
You actually found my point exactly as I intended. War and Peace is a huge story, but it can boil down to a single word. However, that word is big and filled with multitudes, implying history, people, and systems with just a couple of syllables.
You’re right, that my summation is just mine, that others have their own. I think my larger point regarding Dune is that the adaptation has to chose one, and only one, central idea to pull through and anchor the whole story.
If it’s the Bene Gesserit breeding program, I could imagine a movie around that that would be interesting. If it’s the sandworms, the same, and on and on. The problem with this is that Lynch ended up choosing nothing as the core.
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Oh yeah, I quite agree a movie would need to pick a focus for it to work. Thus 2 conclusions: 1) larger meditation that some fans will never be happy with the focus chosen and would have preferred a different one, 2) Does Lynch EVER choose a focus? Is Twin Peaks his peak art form because the longer-form TV series is better suited to his chaos style than movies?
I’m legitimately curious because like I said: I haven’t watched any Lynch, just heard others talking about him.
I wouldn’t really consider this a Lynch film since he had to compromise so much from the start in the scripting phase. However, he does have an overall focus problem.
He loves creating characters and just seeing where they go. His movies, ever since Dune really, have hours of deleted scenes. The original cut of Blue Velvet was 4 hours long, and it apparently worked. There’s a whole alternate movie of Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me called The Missing Pieces that’s 90 minutes long made entirely of deleted material. Wild at Heart was a solid hour longer. There’s a behind the scenes document on Twin Peaks: The Return where he complains about the shooting schedule and how he could have spent a week at a certain location exploring what he could get from his actors in the place.
He hadn’t really exhibited these behaviors before the making of Dune, but it just makes the choice of having Lynch as the main creative force behind a supposedly faithful adaptation of an unwieldy book condensed into two hours. I remember one story from a producer on Dune where the woman was talking about a moment where Lynch was spending far too much time trying to get the shot of an actor’s eye just right while a thousand extras were waiting off screen for instruction on what to do.
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“I obviously have stepped on a small land mine”
Dude, we value your opinions even if we don’t share them. It’s what art is all about–reaction. The fact that your opinion differs from mine just means that there is a lot to unlock from pretty much every work offered as entertainment. You can despise my top ten favorite movies ever and it’s not going to stop me from liking them.
It’s all opinion, and it all evaporates when the sun comes out.
I’m actually prizing this conversation. This is all great. I suppose phrasing it that way made it sound more negative than I wanted, but I’m enjoying this greatly.
Gordon Cole: “You say you’re enjoying the grating? I’m glad, because I had it wrought special, just so it would keep out the things I wanted kept out. It’s a special kind of iron, made from ironic ore. What?”
I had been a sci-fi fan since my teens but had never read Dune when I saw Lynch’s movie on its initial release. All I can say is it entranced me and for years afterwards I would literally go into a kind of trance during the ‘folding space’ scene if I was watching it in a cinema. The ‘incoherence’ never bothered me, quite the opposite. As you know, the ‘Judas Booth’ cut has a narrative prologue which explains everything and it’s terrible. “We have just folded space from Ix…many machines on Ix…new machines, better than those on Richesse or Bene Tlylax”. Where is Ix, what are the machines? I think it’s great that this is not explained. Favourite line”: “Oh Thufir, I see they’ve installed your heartplug. Don’t be angry, everbody gets one here.” But no matter how devout the audience, the one moment where they always crack up is when the drums start beating during the final knife duel.