Written in 1965, the late Frank Herbert’s Hugo and Nebula Award winning “Dune”, was named the best selling science fiction novel of all time in 2003, according to Variety magazine. The Dune franchise and its sequels were very reflective of the 1960s but still resonate today in Herbert’s examinations of interplanetary, geopolitical intrigue combined with warring factions, religion, personality cults, environmental concerns, mystical power and training honed combat skills, greed and commerce, and the infrastructure of governments. Herbert explored many areas of the human condition that are echoed in numerous other subsequent examples of science fiction and fantasy literature and entertainment, from “Battlestar Galactica” to “Game of Thrones”. Over the past half century, Dune and its sequels have expanded its fan cult following internationally, and this massive audience has long been a challenge for Hollywood to finally satisfy with a proper film adaptation. Therefore, it was with excited anticipation when earlier this year, it was announced in the trade press that Denis Villeneuve, director of the highly anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”, had signed on to direct Dune with the consent and participation of the Herbert estate. However, given the checkered history of adapting Dune to the screen, Villeneuve has a tall task ahead of him. Even with the help of Academy Award winning screenwriter Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”), Dune will be a massive undertaking by any stretch of the imagination.
In the 1970s, Dune was a hot book property, and its themes of mind expansion through the spice of Arrakis and the romanticization of the Bedouin like Fremen taking on the monolithic Spacing Guild through guerilla warfare echoed the post psychedelic era LSD haze and Vietnam sentiments of the Flower Power anti war counterculture 1960s.
One of the most bizarre movies of the era to capture the imaginations of many midnight film goers (who often watched while on psychedelics), was the X-rated mystic spaghetti western , “El Topo” from Alejandro Jodorowsky. Containing graphic imagery and gratuitous violence couched in a spiritual quest, Jodorowsky not only wrote and directed, but also starred in “El Topo” as the title character, a mysterious gunfighter. A talented, but egomaniacal self proclaimed auteur who lavishly spent other people’s money, Jodorowsky was hired as a director by the French led consortium who optioned the film rights for Dune. To his credit, Jodorowsky did assemble a talented visual team to help him create the worlds of Arrakis, House Atreides, the sand worms, and other integral Dune story elements. The team, which included artists from the sci fi magazine Heavy Metal, later contributed much of the visual impact to the hit Ridley Scott film, “Alien”. Although the project ran out of money and never got out of pre-production, a documentary released in 2013 on the making of Jodorowsky’s aborted attempt shows some of his vision.
Ridley Scott’s Dune
Producer Dino De Laurentiis, best known at the time for war movies, Biblical epics and Charles Bronson macho action movies (i.e., “Death Wish”), had only one previous sci fi movie to his credit: the Jane Fonda adaptation of the risque French comic book, “Barbarella.” However, De Laurentiis acquired the rights for Dune in 1976 and set about trying to develop the film adaptation with Ridley Scott, best known at the time for his 1984 esque commercial for Apple Computers’ Macintosh, which premiered during the Super Bowl. This also proved unfruitful, and Scott went on to become a household name with the aforementioned hit sci fi offerings, “Alien” and “Blade Runner”.
Dune – 1984 film – directed by David Lynch
Probably one of the most eccentric film directors to ever receive an Oscar nomination, David Lynch’s work on “Eraserhead”, “Blue Velvet” and currently on “Twin Peaks” is probably a normal indication of his unique, but quirky vision of storytelling. However, he managed to hit commercial and critical success with his version of “The Elephant Man”, and as the maxim goes, “timing is everything.” Lynch found himself in high demand and De Laurentiis decided Lynch was the man to bring Dune to the big screen, even though Lynch had never previously read the book nor ever directed science fiction.
Costing $42 million, Lynch’s Dune had some impressive visuals, especially for the pre CGI era, but received uniformly negative reviews and only earned $31 million at the box office. Lynch’s original version ran over 3 hours, and reducing its running time for Universal Pictures led to a messier narrative, compressed with voice over narration to tie up loose ends from the abbreviated continuity. The missing scenes would later show up in different video extended cut releases, prompting Lynch to remove his name from those versions. Lynch’s loss of final cut on Dune still irks him today and he refuses to discuss the movie in interviews. In retrospect, Lynch’s Dune has since acquired its own cult status, and its reputation has grown over time, much like Michael Cimino’s, “Heaven’s Gate”, another epic and costly commercial and critical flop when released, now hailed as an artistic milestone.
Frank Herbert’s Dune and Children of Dune – SyFy Channel – 2000-2003
The mini series format on TV is one tailor made for cinematically depicting the world of Dune. “Frank Herbert’s Dune” released in 2000 on the SyFy Channel, was met with high ratings, Emmy Awards for cinematography and visual effects, and critical adulation, spawning a sequel, “Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune”, culled from the Herbert novels, “Dune Messiah” and “Children of Dune.”
Denis Villeneuve – The Muad’Dib Fans Have Been Waiting For?
Hailing from Quebec, Canada, Villeneuve’s directing career has been rapidly accelerating since his 2010 French language feature, “Incendies”, was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. He followed that up with the Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal crime thriller, “Prisoners”, the psychological suspense of “Enemy”, military drug war action with “Sicario”, and science fiction with “Arrival”, which garnered Villeneuve a Best Director Oscar nomination. With the anticipation surrounding Villeneuve’s forthcoming “Blade Runner 2049”, sci fi fans may have finally found their Muad’ Dib – the young visionary to lead and realize and manifest the Fremens’ prophecies, which for Dune fans – the big screen definitive version.
Unlike David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky, Denis Villeneuve is a very commercial director who can work equally well with major Hollywood stars aesthetically while satisfying the professional business demands of studio executives who want to sell tickets and garner Academy Awards. He is multilingual and at home directing big budget films in different genres, with the ones that he has done so far – science fiction, gun blazing action, life and death thriller, and psychological suspense – all uniquely compatible with the storytelling demands of Dune.
Even some of the subsidiary themes of Villeneuve’s films have equivalency with parallel ones that can be found in Dune:
- The fight over drugs in “Sicario” and the battle over the spice on Arrakis;
- The demands of communication with aliens in “Arrival” and Paul Atreides’ need to connect with the sand worms;
- The theme of conflicting loyalties vs one’s innate sense of justice – echoed in “Prisoners” and “Sicario” – define the alter ego conflicts of Paul Atreides to House Atreides and Muad’Dib to the Fremen.
- Intense mano a mano confrontations, both physical and psychological, abound in “Prisoners”, “Enemy”, “Sicario”, “Arrival”, and “Blade Runner 2049.” What better training to handle the mind games of Lady Jessica, Duke Leto, Baron Harkonnen, Reverend Mother Gaius, et al, as well as the combat scenes with Paul, Feyd, Duncan Idaho, and the Fremen?
Perhaps Villeneuve’s biggest asset in taking on Dune for a finally successful big screen adaptation is the instant credibility he brings to the project to attract good actors. As much as Dune is a science fiction story, the complexity of its characters demands skilled actors of depth who will do justice to what will hopefully be a top notch script from Eric Roth. Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Hugh Jackman, Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Jeremy Renner, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, Forrest Whitaker, Jared Leto…a long list of A rated talent with many awards among them – and all have worked with Denis Villeneuve to good critical and commercial acclaim.
From a technical perspective, the phenomenal advances made in digital technology and Computer Generated Imaging (CGI) have made it possible for the huge success of comic book adaptations from Marvel and DC to become billion dollar franchises. This cutting edge visual capability will add the necessary realism to some of the other worldliness of Dune without the excessive costs that were incurred in the Lynch interpretation or that would have been wasted on the Jodorowsky version.
Dune has legions of fans spanning the globe, and while the SyFy channel mini series did justice to the Dune stories, the definitive theatrical film version has yet to be realized. Several generations of Dune readers have been hungering for the right combination of vision, talent, and technical cinematic expertise to make the notion of the movie manifest into reality. With the Herbert estate’s approval of Denis Villeneuve, Dune’s time may finally have arrived. If the fans and critics respond to the release of “Blade Runner 2049” with the same enthusiasm as they did for the trailer, this should give Villeneuve the clout for even greater flexibility to make his world of Dune into the movie Frank Herbert would have wanted.