The Spice Must Flow! – Why David Lynch’s Dune is a flawed masterpiece


This one is going to be a bit longer than my usual posts, but it’s a subject I’ve been mulling over writing about for a while now, and I’ve built up a head of steam in anticipation of committing my thoughts to paper (sic). I refer to the oft maligned 1984 film adaptation of  Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel Dune. Although fans of the novel remain divided over the film’s merits, personally I consider it to be the most successful attempt to capture the spirit of Herbert’s multi-layered universe on screen. And from the point of view of a film buff, I’m an unapologetic fan of Lynch’s version due to its sheer uniqueness in terms of its visual texture and otherworldly atmosphere.

First then a bit of background. It was either the fag end of 1984 or the beginning of ‘85 when I was taken to see Dune as an excitable sci-fi and fantasy obsessed nine year old. As I sat shrouded in the darkness of the ABC picture house in Leeds, what unfolded on the big screen was  the strangest big screen feature that I’d yet experienced. My vague and fragmentary memories of this time recall that the marketing of the film made it out to be the next Star Wars or Star Trek, so I’d been led to expect  a slew of the usual fast paced space battles and alien menageries. Although I remember feeling much disappointment when this turned out not to be the case, the film did leave a deep impression on me, perhaps because I found the narrative so incomprehensible, but also because the look and feel of the whole thing was so distinctive and esoteric. I’d never really seen anything quite like it, and the experience lodged itself firmly in my youthful memory.

Fast forward a few years, and age, along with several repeat screenings on late night Channel 4 (for any non British readers, this is the UK’s channel for more niche and left field material. Perfect for Dune then!) had caused me to reappraise the film. It’s disappointing box office and portentous tone had relegated it to bargain bin status and critical ridicule by the this point, and opinion among fans of the book still remained divided. Around this time, I got the urge to read the novel, in large part in order to try and fill in the gaps in the film. This happily connected all the dots and made the film adaptation a lot more comprehensible, while also having the fortuitous side effect of introducing me to the literary wonders of the Dune mythos. I’m guessing most readers of this blog are familiar with the novel; a sprawling science fiction epic encompassing themes of politics, religion, ecology and humanity’s evolutionary potential. If not,then a browse on Wikipedia will bring you up to speed, or better still grab a copy and enjoy. It’s the biggest selling science fiction novel ever for a reason (and it’s in my my top five favourite books of all time, but that’s for another blog).

I really did start to reappraise the film at this time and I still think that nothing like it has really been attempted before or since. Dune was a brave attempt to put a fictional universe of astonishing complexity on screen, and attempt to tell the story in just over two hours (Lynch’s original cut was just over three hours, but the studio demanded a shorter running time to make it more commercially viable). This was always going to be an unenviable task, and it’s a tribute to the skills of everyone involved in its production that it happened at all. So yes, Dune was a failure in many ways, but what a glorious failure! For anyone who has not yet seen it (cheap as chips on Amazon Prime), the most succinct way to describe it is as a historical epic set with science fiction trappings with a great dollop of drug induced mysticism thrown in. But given the complexity of the source material, how did the project get to the big screen at all?

The journey of Dune from page to screen was certainly a chequered one. The book’s author Frank Herbert had originally had it published in serial form in Analog magazine in the early sixties and had been turned down by numerous publishers before finally being picked up by Chilton, a publisher of car manuals, in 1965. Like Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, Herbert’s novel  benefitted greatly from the advent of the sixties counter culture, whose adherents identified with the elements of mysticism, environmentalism and trippy space drugs prevalent in the story. Publishing rights in the UK were snapped up by the left wing publisher Gollancz, and Herbert’s achievement was recognised by his peers when Dune won the coveted Hugo award.

The novel’s success inevitably attracted Hollywood, and the rights were optioned by 20th Century Fox producer Arthur P. Jacobs, fresh from his success with Planet of the Apes (1968). The project was still in development by the time of Jacob’s untimely death in 1973, and Fox let the rights lapse.They were picked up by a French business consortium that proceeded to hire the avant garde Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to  direct a feature length adaptation of Dune.

The saga of Jodorowsky’s attempt to bring his vision of Dune to the screen is worth a blog all of its own, and is covered in great detail in the excellent documentary film Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013). I highly recommend it, and also his later graphic novel series The Metabarons, for anyone searching for visual clues as to how this version might have looked.

After Jodorowsky’s project collapsed due to burgeoning costs, a few years elapsed before the project was handed to the British director Ridley Scott, then enjoying the success of his second feature Alien in 1979. The massive box office returns of Star Wars in 1977 had signalled to the studios that science fiction was a potential goldmine. Paramount studios had been encouraged to reignite its moribund Star Trek property, and the hunt was on for the next big thing. The Dune project was thus resurrected, however Frank Herbert was reportedly unhappy with Scott’s treatment of his novel (several major changes to the story in the script reportedly included an incestuous relationship between the central protagonist Paul Atreides and his mother the Lady Jessica) and Scott struggled to come up with a satisfying adaptation, quickly moving on to the project that would result in Blade Runner (1982).

By this time the rights  to Dune had been acquired by the Italian born movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis, a producer of several hits and just as many misses at the box office including a number of collaborations with the director auteur Federico Fellini. De Laurentiis and his daughter Rafaella chose the young American experimental filmmaker David Lynch to adapt a screenplay of Dune with Lynch also attached to direct.

Lynch had previously directed the surrealist nightmare Eraserhead (1977), and his first major studio feature The Elephant Man (1980) had gotten him noticed.  George Lucas had offered Lynch the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi (1983), but the director had turned it down in favour of Dune. On December 14th 1984 Dune was released theatrically in the US. It’s budget was $40million, and the North American box office took $30million. The film was considered a massive flop, and Lynch, who had not had final cut stated that the experience nearly caused him to walk away from the film industry. Unsurprisingly Lynch rarely mentions Dune in interviews, but stated years afterwards –

I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it’s no one’s fault but my own. I probably shouldn’t have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in, there was so much room to create a world. But I got strong indications from [producers] Raffaella and Dino De Laurentiis of what kind of film they expected, and I knew I didn’t have final cut. And little by little – and this is the danger, because it doesn’t happen in chunks, it happens in the tiniest little shavings, little sandings – little by little every decision was always made with them in mind and their sort of film. Things I felt I could get away with within their framework. So it was destined to be a failure, to me.

Despite Lynch’s unhappy experience, I genuinely think that he managed to craft the best adaptation of Dune that was possible at the time, given the twin constraints of technology and interference from above. Frank Herbert was on record at the time as being generally happy with the film, with a few quibbles (the film implies that Paul has developed the powers of a god by the end, whereas in the novel, he is merely a man playing god, still at the mercy of events over which he has little or no control over). One gets the impression that Herbert was just happy to get a half decent version of his story on the silver screen given the amount of development wrangles it had been through since the early seventies, and who could have blamed him?

So why do I love Dune? I‘ve already stated that the film has a unique look to it, a visual texture that evokes the interplanetary feudal society and its fear of technology (specifically artificial intelligence, or ‘thinking machines’ as they are referred to in the narrative.) The production design by Anthony Masters (2001: A Space Odyssey) is superb, and does so much to immerse the viewer in the Dune universe. Whenever I read any of the Dune novels, the look of the setting in my mind’s eye is that of the 1984 film.

Likewise with the cast. Every actor and actress is perfectly suited to their role. Even the Harkonnen’s, who are transformed into true Lynchian grotesques in the film as opposed to their more one dimensional baddie personas in the novel don’t feel too out of place, given the sheer weird inventiveness of Lynch’s visuals in the rest of the film.

The synthesiser score by Toto perhaps dates the film for some people, but again, for me it just seems to suit the otherworldliness of the material so well, especially when accompanied by Brian Eno’s ‘Prophecy’ theme. Although Dune is a human-centric universe, these are humans with very different attitudes and outlooks to our own, so different in fact, that they may as well be aliens from another planet.

In our current world of Netflix and Amazon Originals along with sci-fi and fantasy extravaganzas like The Lord of The Rings and Hobbit trilogy’s, not the mention the penchant for ‘extended universe’ franchises, perhaps the tragedy of Lynch’s Dune is that it arrived way ahead of its time. In 2000, the Sci-Fi Channel produced a three part mini-series adaptation of Dune, which, while a fair effort, and also being a more faithful adaptation of Herbert’s novel, lacked the visual majesty and atmosphere displayed in Lynch’s version.

The mini-series was generally well received though, and at the time, was Sci-Fi’s most profitable production, spawning a sequel;  Children of Dune (2003), that adapted both Dune Messiah, and the eponymously titled story.

With modern audiences now a lot more sophisticated and arguably open to more challenging material, rumours of a Dune remake have been doing the rounds for years on the internet. The project seems to have been stuck in development hell (a familiar story!), but the word around the campfire is that Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival) is attached as director. Given that Villeneuve has helmed the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, this bodes well if the footage released of this film is anything to go by. Time will tell if the French Canadian director can deliver a version of Dune that can exceed David Lynch’s quirky eighties masterpiece.