The Dune films: The Mt. Everest of SF films remains unconquered

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013 documentary; actual movie never filmed)

Watch trailer.
It was inevitable that Dune captured the imaginations of film directors, but the scale and complexity of the story made the transition to film extremely difficult. Film rights were acquired in 1971 but little progress was made until 1974, when a French group acquired the rights and Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean avant-garde film maker, writer/poet and spiritual figure most famous for his 1970 bizarro Western El Topo and The Holy Mountain. His ambitious plans for the film would have reached about 12-20 hours in length, and featured roles for Salvador Dali (lured by ego-stroking), Orson Wells (lured by food and drink), David Carradine, Pink Floyd, Magma, and even Mick Jagger. The artwork would involve the legendary Jean Giraud (of Moebius fame) and H.R. Giger (of Alien fame). Alas, such an ambitious and sprawling project was doomed to failure, and this story is detailed in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. I watched this recently, and it’s a very revealing portrait of an avante-garde artist. His vision was so wild and hallucinogenic that he said audiences would not need to drop LSD because his film could replicate that experience. His statements about his vision are quite eye-opening:

In my version of Dune, the Emperor of the galaxy is insane. He lives on an artificial gold planet, in a gold palace built according to not-laws of antilogical. He lives in symbiosis with a robot identical to him. The resemblance is so perfect that the citizens never know if they are opposite the man or the machine…

In my version, the spice is a blue drug with spongy consistency filled with a vegetable-animal life endowed with consciousness, the highest level of consciousness. It does not stop taking all kinds of forms, while stirring up unceasingly. The spice continuously produces the creation of the innumerable universes.

I changed the ending, evidently… I did that. It was my Dune. When you make a picture, you must not respect the novel. It’s like, you get married, no? You go with the wife, white, the woman is white, you take the woman, if you respect the woman, you will never have child. You need to open the costume and to rape the bride. And then you will have your picture. I was raping Frank Herbert, raping, like this! But with love, with love.

No wonder Frank Herbert disavowed any connection with this project. And despite Jodorowsky’s clear fascination with the source material, he saw no reason not to change it completely. In fact, he hadn’t even read the book when he pitched the idea, and his screenplay demonstrates a willful lack of knowledge of the actual events in the book. It’s not clear that he ever read Dune, period, and the same goes for H.R. Giger. Not a biggie when we’re talking about artists, apparently.

My ambition with Dune was tremendous. So, what I wanted was to create a prophet. I want to create a prophet… to change the young minds of all the world. For me, Dune will be the coming of a god. Artistical, cinematographical god. For me, it was not to make a picture. It was something deeper. I wanted to make something sacred, free, with new perspective. Open the mind! Because I feel, in that time, myself, inside a prison. My ego, my intellect, I want to open! And I start the fight to make Dune. 

The documentary suggests that, although the film was never actually made, its influence on other science fiction film projects is huge, probably because the pitch-book made the rounds of the Hollywood studios. The film can take credit for bringing together Dan O’Bannon (producer of The Dark Star) and H.R. Giger (Swiss artist who created the drawings for Ridley Scott’s Alien), for getting legendary French artist Moebius to make thousands of storyboard sketches and full-color character drawing, and also well-known science fiction artist Chris Foss to contribute his iconic spaceships. It ends with a series of overlays of the storyboard with actual films, frequently with astonishing similarities in costumes and images, as diverse as Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, He-Man, and Prometheus. While it’s debatable exactly how much these films were directly inspired, it’s certainly food for thought. So in the end, though it was probably not “The Greatest Film Never Made,” it was an admirably insane and unwieldy project which produced a spurt of creative energy that was simply too much for Hollywood’s commercial studios. It may have been an incredible masterpiece, or a complete and utter disaster, but it’s unfortunate that we never got to see Jodorowsky’s mind-altering vision on film.

David Lynch’s Dune (1984)

Watch trailer.

After plans for Ridley Scott to direct fell through, it was not until 1981 that Dino De Laurentiis’ daughter Raffaella approached David Lynch to bring Dune to the big screen. Wait, you mean the director of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Twin Peaks? That’s right. It’s still a mystery why Lynch chose to direct Dune, since he had not shown interest in the science fiction genre and had not even read the book (a common theme here). But to his credit, he made a valiant effort to put on film this notoriously difficult and sprawling work.

As could have been predicted, the Lynch film was severely panned by film critics, moviegoers, and fans of the novel. It was dark, confusing, and incoherent (due to excessive cutting to get it to 2 hrs 17 min in length), and the Baron Harkonnen was so physically revolting to look at that I had to turn away from some of his scenes. But it did feature a great soundtrack by Toto (especially the haunting closing credits) with the prophecy theme written by Brian Eno. And I will never forget Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides in the final climactic scene, a knife fight to the death with Feyd Rautha Harkonnen, played perfectly by Sting! Even Sean Young and Patrick Stewart have important roles as Chani and Gurney Halleck.

But this was another doomed attempt. Try to imagine cramming all the plot details, background information on the political machinations of the dozens of characters and factions, details on the complex ecology of Arrakis, the relationship of the sandworms and spice, the Fremen and Bene Gesserit, into a film just over 2 hours long. The studio’s demands for cuts were so drastic that Lynch has since dissociated himself from the film and refuses to talk about it. That’s a shame, because many have revised their initial negative views on the film and I consider it a valiant if failed attempt at scaling the Everest of science fiction films.

Sci Fi Channel Miniseries (2000; Director’s Cut: 295 min)

This is, by far, the least well-known version of Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece. In fact, it’s not easy to get a copy as it’s not available for sale new on DVD or download. That should have set off alarm bells, but what the heck, I had to see for myself. I finally had to order a used DVD copy on Amazon. Big mistake.

What can I say other than, “Oh, the humanity!” I’m fully aware that a TV miniseries does not have access to the same budget resources, A-list actors, top-notch special effects, and artistic talent. But what a disaster this was. Within a few minutes I knew I was along for a long and painful ride. Every frame is amateurish, the amount of inept fight scenes and obvious blue-screen work made me suppress chuckles, but that was only topped by the hopelessly wooden acting of a cast of unknowns expect for William Hurt, who must have deliberately toned it down not to make the others feel bad.

Stillsuits of the Fremen

Stillsuits of the Fremen

The entire production is clumsy through-and-through, and the only redeeming feature is that the costumes in the film are SO OUTLANDISH that they provide entertainment of a different sort. For example, the stillsuits of the Fremen, which looked believable in the Lynch film, have become flimsy green-camouflaged rain jackets found in the discount bin.

Harkonnen soldiers' armor

Harkonnen soldiers’ armor

And the Fremen themselves are just low-rate extras from a different back-lot set filming Middle-Eastern marketplace scenes. Even more gut-busting were the blatant samurai armor rip-offs that passed for Harkonnen soldiers’ armor.

If that wasn’t enough, the Imperial Sardaukar storm troopers, supposedly the most lethal and feared fighters in the galaxy, had silly black headgear.

Finally, I have to give a special mention to the ridiculous outfits of the Guild Navigators’ representatives.

Imperial Sardaukar storm troopers

Imperial Sardaukar storm troopers

It’s easy to ridicule film-making this bad, but I have to give credit for one thing. One of the fatal flaws of Lynch’s Dune was that it tried to cram an incredibly complex science fiction epic into just 2 hours+ of film (unwillingly, I know). So anyone familiar with the book could lament the wholesale destruction of the plot to force the story into that timeframe. It’s no surprise that most critics and viewers unfamiliar with the book were completely lost. Well, the mini-series does put back in dozens of story arcs to make it much more faithful to the book, and that was appreciated. It’s easier to recognize the source material in this version, but the poor production and acting quickly torpedo this.

In fact, the Dune miniseries essentially re-shoots almost the entire Lynch film, scene by scene, in an attempt to do it ‘better’. There are hardly any scenes left untouched, but I couldn’t help thinking I preferred the actors and cinematography of the Lynch film in almost every case. I can imagine the producers pitching this project as “let’s do Dune again, and get it right this time.” Well, I second those feelings, but this was not it, not by a long shot.

Guild Navigators representatives

Guild Navigators’ representatives

Judging from the recent prominence of big-budget cable TV productions like Game of Thrones, Man in the High Castle, the 300, the Expanse, and the vast improvement in special effects, it strikes me that Dune is ripe for another adaptation, and could easily fill several quality seasons in the right hands. Imagine the creative team of GOT getting behind this project — it could be amazing. Because Dune the book has yet to be done justice, so there’s a great opportunity here for a skilled team. Any takers?


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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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6 comments

  1. So many thoughts…

    Jodorowsky viewed his artist process as rape, but “with love.” No surprise to anyone who has seen (I haven’t) or read about El Topo (which I have). So very relieved that this film never got made… but this documentary sounds fascinating, if a little disgusting too.

    (And that description of the Emperor living in a made-up up world, with a robot that’s a perfect reflection of him… a tad autobiographical,no?)

    You touch upon my favorite thing about the SciFi channel’s mini-series when you talk about costumes; my husband and I referred to it as the “hat wars” version of Dune, especially the women’s hats. I one scene, Princess Irulan is sporting a chapeau that could have taken her airborne in a strong wind, just like The Flying Nun.

    • Marion, Jodorowsky is truly an artist in the best and worst of ways – no compromise in his idiosyncratic craziness. You’re right, the film would have been a disaster, but what a glorious mess. It might have been a classic of bad film-making!

      And yes, the “hat wars” is a perfect description for the Dune Miniseries. I could not believe my eyes throughout – an amazing costume design bonanza, but what dreadful acting.

  2. It confuses me that film adaptations of Dune always look so strange, since Frank Herbert approved artwork by John Schoenherr for Omni magazine back in 1978, and Herbert referred to Schoenherr as “the only artist who has ever visited Dune.”

  3. Jana, I didn’t recognize Schoenherr’s name offhand, but his artwork is definitely more toned-down than all the wild and crazy movie adaptations. I’m just impressed by the sheer amount of creative activity the book has spawned, though I doubt I ever want to read the sequels again or all the spin-offs.

  4. Sarah /

    I saw the David Lynch version in the theater when it came out. I give it props for being visually stunning and if viewed as a series of vignettes from the novel it is well done. Some perfect casting in that version. I have a copy of the miniseries, but just can’t make myself watch it. Now I may have to just to check out the hats.

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