TWO DUNES, A BOOK AND A JOKE
|Poster for Dune (1984)
David Lynch’s Dune is a joke.
That statement is kind of a given. If you’re enough a Film Buff to know a bit more about movies than merely what’s playing in theatres this week and have the curiosity to have read about film rather than just viewing it, you would know that David Lynch’s Dune is a joke.
There are reasons why it is considered so. It famously made just under $31 million against a production budget of $40 million. This was in spite of being released at a time where the film-going market was clearly accepting of Sci-Fi (I know, Star Wars is more ‘Space Opera’ than Science Fiction, but the distinction is blurry from a marketing perspective), and being based on a novel that was hugely popular. Audiences at the time termed it incomprehensible, too dense, and simply found much of it rather camp.
And yet, the fact remains that, where a disaster like Dune should have seen its director sink into oblivion, Lynch only went from strength to strength, and is now commonly considered one of the greatest creative minds of his generation.
Talk to any adherent of Lynch, and they will point to any of his other works rather than Dune as an example of his art. Mulholland Drive, that failed TV pilot that became a film that is routinely considered the best English film of this century. Blue Velvet, a near-perfect ode to small-town ugliness. Twin Peaks, which basically took television as it existed, threw it out of the window, and re-shaped it in its own image. Even Lynch’s idiosyncratic weather reports on radio and YouTube are more likely to be mentioned than that one time he had a massive budget and a guaranteed blockbuster on his hands.
But what about the film itself? Severed from its director’s reputation, removed by the passage of decades from its commercial failure, and given what is considered the best fan-edit it is likely to ever get from Spicediver (a faceless person, who may well just be a simple man trying to make his way in the galaxy), how does it stack, as a film and as an adaptation?
David Lynch’s Dune opens on the ethereally beautiful visage of Princess Irulan (Virginia Marsden), delivering exposition, explaining to the audience what the political system of the Galaxy is, and the central importance of the substance called ‘spice’, and the planet where it is mined, ‘Arrakis’.
|Princess Irulan explains...
A lot of people would say it only goes downhill from there.
In Spicediver’s edit, there is a lot more exposition to come, which is missing in the theatrical cut. The Head of the Bene Gesserit order, its Reverend Mother, delivers some of it. The Reverend Mother of the order of the Sayyidina delivers more. And then, the protagonist, Paul Atreides (Kyle Maclachlan) watches a film-book that delivers even more.
In fact, much of the first hour is just that—exposition.
When the Atreides family arrives on Arrakis, the story finally makes a move forward, and the events that make the core of Herbert’s novel are set in motion—assassination attempts, betrayals, daring escapes, and the harsh desert. We are shown the designated villains, the Harkonnens, played with an insane, gleeful menace by Kenneth MacMillan as the Baron, Jack Nance as Nemud, Sting as Feyd-Rautha, Paul Smith as Beast Rabban and Brad Dourif as Pitor. We see the Fremen, the mysterious natives of Dune, living a nomadic desert-adapted life. And we are shown Dr Kynes (Max von Sydow), the Imperial Agent whose true loyalty lies to the planet, not his Emperor.
Thus far, the film still holds up. But if the first hour is a slow but enticing journey, the second is fraying a little. The pace has picked up, but things; important things, as far as the story goes, are being left out.
|Paul and Chani (Kyle MacLachlan and Sian Young)
And then the last section hits. An entire half of a large book compressed into maybe forty minutes of screen time. Character arcs left out. Character development ignored. Phallic sandworms bow to a dreaming Paul Atreides. Chani kisses him, Stilgar embraces him and a lot of things happen…but yet, some of the book’s most important themes eliminated in favour of a more conventional narrative. The pace is breakneck now, and all the main characters assemble on Arrakis for the final confrontation, bringing Paul face-to-face with the Emperor and the Harkonnens, before ending in the edifying sight of Kyle MacLachlan and Sting leaping at each other with knives while Jose Ferrer as Emperor Shaddam and Princess Irulan watch, and Baron Harkonnen floats into a Sandworm.
|Paul and Feyd-Rautha (Sting) duel as Irulan watches
It is a joke.
But who is the joke on?
Denis Villeneuve directed ‘Arrival’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049’. If he did nothing else, those two would still make him one of the finest Science-Fiction interpreters of our time. ‘Arrival’ is uncanny in its ability to focus upon communication, a niche aspect of alien contact and resist, stubbornly, the temptation to devolve into something more conventional. Blade Runner 2049 is a symphony of violence and scale, somehow true to the spirit of Ridley Scott’s original and yet refreshingly different.
For him to take on ‘Dune’, then, has a sense of justice to it, like a hand fitting a glove. An assembly that must have begun years ago, his vision of Dune brings together a tight script and a cast of well-known faces into a film that is vastly more coherent than the 1984 version.
|Poster for Dune (2021)
Some of this, of course, owes to the availability of technology. 2021 affords film-makers a scope that goes far beyond what was possible in 1984.
But far more of it comes from things that have nothing to do with technology. Villeneuve’s ability to conceptualise a world like Dune, to execute it in stark greys and brutal whites, is what makes his vision of Dune work. It’s a perfect fit for the times we live in, it’s dramatic shots of sunlight and shadow, its framing of the characters in the screen in a manner reminiscent of paintings.
In this vision of Dune, the story begins not with an ethereal Princess, but with washed-out visuals of the sands, and Zendaya, as Chani, delivering lines that are less exposition and more a mystical statement of conditions on Arrakis. The Atreides family then becomes the focus of the almost the entirety of what’s left of the film, from their homeworld of Caladan, where we see Timothee Chalamet’s Paul sleep in melodramatic poses and get snippets of training from his mother.
The story steps are, naturally, similar to Lynch’s film, with more details and scenes that could be included here, due to the luxury of having two films to fit the story in. The attention to detail in sound mixing is evident and Vileneuve’s attention to detail and the clarity and sheer ‘cool’ of his conceptualisation makes for an at-time exhilarating experience.
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The war scenes are grand, the camerawork making for a battle that has a sense of urgency and reality to it that surpasses the forced grandeur of superhero CGI-fests. The escape of Paul and Jessica is true to the novel, and Dr Kynes gets her (the gender is swapped in this version) moments to shine.
The film’s final confrontation, settling in at about the half-way mark of the novel, is brief but effective, without any forced drama. When the titles roll, one knows one has seen a piece of serious cinema, a film that might have even, as some analysts put it, saved the concept of watching films in theatres for an industry ravaged by Covid lockdowns.
If that is even partly true, the world owes more to Denis Villeneuve and Frank Herbert than we can quite conceptualise right now.
But what of Frank Herbert’s novel? Dune is not just a science-fiction novel, after all, it is in many ways THE science fiction novel, codifying many tropes and taking the genre beyond Asimov and Clarke into a world where a Duke’s son with a Greek name can lead a jihad with desert-based warriors against a Slavic Baron with a nephew named Feyd-Rautha.
|Book Cover for Frank Herbert's Dune
It is not a book for Tolkein’s lyrical flights or Asimov’s esoteric robot-rules or roman-history-disguised-as-the-future. It’s dense, it riffs on history, of course, but it’s not a history we know well, and its parable to real life is somehow more obvious but also less clear at the same time. There are myriad ways it is off-kilter, disorienting, and intensely uncomfortable.
In many ways, Dune follows a conventional hero’s journey, but this does not account for the many ways it does not, or the continuous self-reflection that inhabits its pages. The characters of Paul and Jessica, and even the likes of Stilgar and Gurney Halleck, are unlike most fictional characters. The Bene Gesserit are an order akin to both the Japanese Geisha and the Amazons, the Fremen are at once the Bedouin of Lawrence of Arabia and the Myrmidons of Homeric Greece, and Paul is as much ‘reluctant Frodo’ as he is ‘avenging Achilles’.
That’s also why it’s been called ‘unfilmable’.
And yet, we have two versions of the film, taken on by two directors propelled by heavy doses of courage and quite possibly also alcohol.
|Timothee Chalamet and Kyle MacLachlan
A comparison between the two would seem to be redundant. Villeneuve’s is superior on almost every metric. The acting is more natural, more believable, the pacing is more coherent, the CGI far superior, and it has stood the most pertinent test—of being commercially successful. Dune (2021) may have saved an industry; Dune (1984) almost killed a career.
The joke, it would seem, once again falls on the 1984 film, and it’s undeniably messy treatment.
Or does it?
Talk to lovers of Science Fiction, and a strange affection for Dune (1984) emerges. It’s not just from the Lynch-ists, the die-hards who watch Twin Peaks every year and write scholarly essays on the significance of Ronette Pulsaki. Those who love the other-ness of the novel Dune, those who revel in the minutiae of the Sci-Fi works, who have experienced the sense of it being a ‘movement’ before it was more a part of mainstream entertainment, point to David Lynch’s Dune as doing something just as significant as Villeneuve’s version—they say it saved Science Fiction.
To understand that claim, one needs to look at cinematic mood in the the year 1984. Coming off the stupendous success of Star Wars, the idea of Sci-Fi was poised to enter the common language of the world. But Star Wars was also intertwined with melodrama—its good guys and bad guys were painted in shades of black and white (they would become greyer with time, but back then, not so much), and it was ultimately commercial, a vehicle to sell toys and comics and make money. But when Lynch made Dune, he fashioned it in his image; with phallic sandworms and psychedelic space travel, fish-men spitting beams of light to fold space and wars fought in pressure-suits. In one stroke, he de-commercialised Sci-Fi while leaving Space Opera intact.
|Dune (1984) action figures
Had Villeneuve’s Dune been the outcome, in 1984, one suspects that would not have happened. Though the outlook of the 2021 Dune is as serious as could be, it has the ingredients of the Hollywood Epic that Lynch does not even try to replicate. There’s every possibility that we could then have had Gurney Halleck dolls and Duncan Idaho action figures and Princess Irulan sex-pillows. But we did not, because Lynch did not make that sort of film at all. He made a David Lynch film.
Where, outside the Lynch-ian vision, would you find Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck rush into battle with a pug (yes, the Vodafone pug) in one hand? Paul Atreides’ visions taking the forms of floating skeletal bodies? A furless cat as a poison-antidote? A floating Baron Harkonnen whose Doctor speaks only in rhyme? And a hundred other things that make a viewer pause and wonder ‘Did that really just happen?’
The aesthetic, the ethos, the vision of Lynch doomed his version of it, perhaps, from ever being a blockbuster. Perhaps that is for the best. A blockbuster-director Lynch would never have been able to make Mulholland Drive. And Villeneuve might not have got the opportunity to make Dune had that version been successful.
But which vision is truer?
There’s no easy answer. So much that is in Lynch’s film is not in Herbert’s novel, and yet it feels true to the novel. So much is in Villeneuve’s film that is better than in Lynch’s , but the question niggles at the back of the mind—is it meant to be this way? Is it meant to be better? Or is the very ‘wrong-ness’ of what Lynch came out with, integral to Frank Hebert’s Dune.
Lynch’s actors ham endlessly; Ferrer as Emperor Shaddam chews the scenery with great gusto, Stewart’s Halleck delivers his most ridiculous lines with the cadence of a Shakespearean thespian, Kyle MacLachlan’s Paul Atreides wanders about the film like (very handsome) Harry Potter on weed. And let’s not forget Lynch’s skill at capturing women on film—Marsden’s Princess Irulan looks like a Goddess of beauty, Francesca Annis’ Jessica is absolutely regal and endearing, and Sian Young’s Chani is a poet’s dream. By contrast, there is no Shaddam in Villeneuve’s version; Josh Brolin’s Halleck is thoroughly professional, Chalamet’s Paul feels like a sincere student in his freshman year. There is no Princess Irulan at all, Rebecca Ferguson’s Jessica is too spare, too intimidating to be believable as a Bene Gesserit seductress, and Zendaya’s Chani is barely seen at all on the screen. Both Jurgen Prochnow and Oscar Isaac do justice to their Duke Leto’s, of course, and Stellan Skarsgaard’s Baron is certainly rather terrifying, as much if not more than Kenneth McMillan’s. Dave Bautista’s Beast Rabban is hardly seen, though, and there is no Feyd-Rautha. No Sting, glorious as Feyd-Rautha, in an absolutely Lynch-ian scene, emerging naked except for a wing-shaped speedo from a steam-bath, exists in Villeneuve’s vision.
One thing both films have, though, are soundtracks that are memorable. If Hans Zimmer delivers a desert-infused rhapsody, Toto’s soundtrack was a rock-and-roll symphony.
Which version of them is the right one?
We might actually never have the answer. For Lynch’s vision was never brought to screen. Executive meddling famously led to the release of a film that he never intended to release. Six hours of film, intended to be made into a four-hour, maybe a two-part film, was released clocking in at two hours and fifteen minutes. Even later, after he spoke of making a Director’s Cut, the studio had another insult to deliver Lynch, by making a TV movie of it with no inputs from him at all. Lynch would have his name removed from the credits and never speak of Dune again.
In short, the joke was never Dune (1984) at all. The joke was on us, perpetrated by the producers.
Remember that Virginia Marsden was contracted for three films; which meant that the entire series was at least vaguely planned to be brought to film by Lynch. Remember that Frank Herbert himself said that Lynch’s version, which he saw before the producers got to it, was very close to how he had imagined it. Remember that every actor on the film swears that the output they expected was so much different and better than what it eventually became. And consider that a world could have existed where the madness of Lynch could have truly embraced the madness of Herbert and think of what might have been.
But we do not have that. And there were times that Villeneuve’s Dune, superb as it is, felt just a little colourless, a little devoid of that uniqueness that Lynch had brought.
And yet…and yet…we never got those sequels from Lynch. Perhaps we never even really got a single Lynch film, given what we know of its history. What we do have, is a Villeneuve film that is absolutely grand, and I, for one, am grateful for it.
A vast vision has been brought to life, at last, and we are all the richer for it. For that, we should thank Frank Herbert, the man who had the vision in words, David Lynch, the man who gave it the flavour but had it taken from him and shown only in a flawed way, like seeing something through a stained glass, and Denis Villeneuve, the man who looks like he will, finally show it to the wider world as it should be, in stunning contrast and clarity.
But some of us will miss that flavour.
And that’s the real joke.