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Dune's Difficult Book-to-Screen History

By William Shelton • September 19, 2021

Like most fans of the novel Dune, I await with great anticipation the forthcoming film version directed by Denis Villeneuve. Some have asked "Does Dune need yet another film adaptation?" and there is reason for answering in the negative, though not the reasons that might readily be offered. Each incarnation of Dune, be it big screen or small, has proven to be highly polarizing.

In 1984 David Lynch brought to the screen for the first time, though the third attempt, a film rendition of the novel which ran long on visual pleasure and fell short on a coherent plot. The expansive weaving of stories for which Dune is famous was savaged in an attempt to meet the limitations of an acceptable run time for the film. A three-part miniseries of the novel was aired in 2000, and is a long-time contender for the highest viewed programming on the Sci-Fi (now known as Syfy) Channel.

Then there is the version of Dune which none of us were destined to see, that of the Chilean film Director Alejandro Jodorowsky. This ten-hour film, had it come to fruition, would have been a masterpiece of cinematography. The cast alone is sufficient to whet the appetite of film lovers. Salvador Dali demanded $100,000.00 per hour to take the role of the Padishah Emperor. Orson Welles was convinced to portray Baron Harkonnen by the promise of having his meals catered by his favorite Paris restaurant each day. Mick Jagger was cast at Feyd Rautha, Gloria Swanson as the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, and Geraldine Chaplin, the daughter of famed Charlie Chaplin, was cast as Lady Jessica. Pink Floyd was to record the soundtrack, and an obscure Swiss artist named H.R. Giger was chosen for art design. The entire budget for the film was spent in pre-production, and the project was cancelled. However, the question begs: what devoted fan of Dune would object to a ten-hour film adaptation of the novel? Frank Herbert, upon seeing the printed script, felt that the resulting movie would run closer to fourteen hours, however, my question still stands.

But is it true that we have never seen Jodorowsky's Dune? Dan O'Bannon, who was hired by Jodorowsky to supervise special effects for Dune, later worked as a computer animator on the original Star Wars, and took much of the pre-production work that had been completed for Dune (the experience of which left him personally bankrupt) when filming his screenplay, which ultimately became his breakout 1979 film Alien. Likewise, H.R. Giger recycled his artwork from the Dune storyboards to develop the creature design for the Alien series. Jodorowsky partnered with Moebius, who had developed starship design for Dune, on the science fiction masterpiece, The Incal.

Let's not forget the Star Wars sequels, prequels, and cannon films. Frank Herbert is on record as saying that the found the 1977 original film "boring." How much of his own creation did he recognize? A callow youth caught up in a band of freedom fighters waging desperate war against an oppressive empire. Is it Paul Atreides, or Luke Skywalker? A desert planet occupied by crawling machines and giant carnivorous creatures concealed in the sand. Is it Arrakis, or Tatooine? A highly developed villain who happens to be the father, and grandfather, of two of the protagonists. Is it Baron Harkonnen, or Darth Vader? A rogue hero who symbolizes the swashbuckling deus ex machina whenever our champions are in danger. Is it Duncan Idaho, or Han Solo? A giant slug creature who rests upon a raised dais while he exerts his tyrannical will. Is it Jabba the Hutt, or the God Emperor of Dune? The list of similarities goes on and on.

So, have we already seen all that Dune can offer in the form of visual media, or will Villeneuve challenge our imagination with his new interpretation? Regardless of which film version you prefer, I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of the novel Dune, master the tongue twisting character names, and immerse yourself in a world of technology, religion, love, magic, conflict, and the quest for a messiah. It is one of the few books which I can open to any page and read to completion, so captivating is the story, rich the characters, and page turning the desperate plight of the heroes.

Read more by William Shelton

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