Frank Herbert’s novel Dune is a sprawling epic, crossing planets and decades and centering on a messianic figure who breaks most of the universe’s rules through his very existence. It’s characterized by introspective internal monologues and depicts a world where science and magic are virtually indistinguishable. It’s also very long.
It is, in short, a difficult work to adapt for the screen.
But the novel’s success and lasting impact on the science fiction and fantasy genres meant that many people gave it a shot. Among other failed projects, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to film Dune is so famous that it has its own documentary. The SciFi Channel (now SyFy) launched its own moderately successful adaptation, a miniseries, in 2000, and Denis Villeneuve’s crack at the work will appear in 2021 (probably). Almost every decade, it seems, someone takes a run at Dune.
So far, no one’s managed to pull it off.
David Lynch didn’t either.
Lynch’s rough cut ran over four hours long; Lynch’s intended cut ran close to three hours, a running time that would barely draw attention now but was unacceptable to the film’s producers. The theatrical cut landed at 136 minutes, and while Lynch has reportedly declined offers to make his own director’s cut, it’s hard to know if a restored version would fix some of the movie’s greater problems. Lynch was savvy enough to recognize that the story of Dune had to be more than a series of action sequences and betrayals stitched together with plot; he digs deep into the characters, mostly through using some of those dense monologues that characterize the novel. His choice of Kyle MacLachlan, who was, even in 1984, a master of combining boyish innocence and strength with something darker and stranger, as Paul Atreides might never be matched. The look of the desert planet Arrakis is both alien and oddly familiar, echoing Paul’s own recognition of the planet as his fated home.
Unfortunately, the very things that made the book a natural fit for Lynch — and some of the elements that continue to give Dune, the novel, its singular strength — make it most resistant to adaptation. Those monologues aren’t just about character; they reflect the novel’s dense worldbuilding, with competing royal houses, family rivalries, betrayals and backstabbing, and the basics of time travel and magic. Dune has a lot to say about gender, heredity, love, faith and more, and stuffing it all into a little over two hours might be the undoing of any potential hero.
Lynch avoids the trap of making the movie a series of somewhat related events — a surface-length description of Dune’s plot would be a lot of “and then THIS happened, and then THIS happened’ — but doesn’t quite manage to form into a coherent whole. The dream logic that characterizes so much of Lynch’s best work is perfectly suited to Paul’s spiritual awakening but falls short when trying to explain why House Harkonnen has decided to strike at House Atreides or just exactly what the Kwisatz Haderach is.
Dune is, on its surface, a story of revolution — the planet Arrakis seizes control of its own fate and priceless natural resources, defying the royal houses that have warred over its fate, with the aid of the deposed son of one of those very royal houses. (It’s all very Lawrence of Arabia, through that lens.) But over the course of the original Dune trilogy, it’s increasingly evident that Paul is not an uncomplicated savior; he is, instead, responsible for mass murder throughout the known universe, and his descendants wreak still more damage. (Herbert would write in 1985, “Dune was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.”) Anyone adapting the novel has to choose how, and if, to foreshadow this transformation. Lynch, at least in the theatrical cut, keeps the foreshadowing minimal and ends the movie with Paul bringing rain to his new home. It’s a powerful image, and MacLachlan’s performance gives hints of what’s to come, but it’s still a bit too pat.
But the movie is certainly not without its pleasures, or its strengths. Herbert’s magical sisterhood, the Bene Gesserit, is presented as a mysterious (and sometimes terrifying) force without resorting to misogynistic cliché, and MacLachlan’s confrontation with their leader is famous for good reason. When Paul and his mother Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis) flee to the surface of Arrakis and are taken in by the native Fremen, we understand their fear, confusion and hope. The cast (including Virginia Madsen, who considered the film her big break, Dean Stockwell, Max von Sydow, Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, and yes, Sting in a metal codpiece) gives it their all. And the appearances of Dune’s famous sandworms are genuinely thrilling.
Dune is something of a “go big or go home” prospect, and Lynch certainly chose to go big. But in the end, Frank Herbert’s novel proved to be as challenging as controlling the universe was for the Bene Gesserit. What we’re left with is compelling and well worth seeing, but not quite what the original architect had in mind.