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- This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of Sight and Sound.
There should be a word for that feeling you get when you hear someone’s adapting one of your favourite novels for the big screen. If you are anything like me it’s a sudden rush of ecstasy, affirmation that you were right to love this obscure thing, a pure, pure, pure joy, followed by an almost immediate crash into dark despair, despondency and the tragic awareness that not only will the film almost definitely be terrible but it will ruin the possibility of anyone else trying again, and possibly even dilute some of the passion you feel for this fictional world. Bittersweet, with the emphasis decidedly on the bitter. I’m triggered to share this by the release of the latest big-screen version of Dune. The high-flying team of director Denis Villeneuve and matinee idol du jour Timothée Chalamet is unleashing their effort turn the spice of Herbert’s majestic space opera into box-office gold.
It’s an unwieldy, complex story that has already made it on to the big screen once, courtesy of the De Laurentiis family and David Lynch, and on to the small screen as a series starring William Hurt. It’s also one of my favourite novels, or series of novels, of all time. So in a way I am absolutely the worst person to talk about it. Any filmmaker worth their salt would know that the one group of people whose opinions should count for absolutely zero is the hardcore fans. Firstly, they will definitely go to see it anyway, so no need to work on luring them to the picture palace. But secondly, and most crucially, they will almost certainly going to hate it. Or hate enough of it to make a fuss. Or, even if they secretly love it, say they hate it so they can protect their early-adopter bragging rights.
I went on just that journey when the Lynch version was announced. My heart soared when I heard that De Laurentiis had entrusted it to him. In those days there was much less chance of anything leaking out, so a fanboy or girl didn’t have a chance to rubbish the set design or costumes or hairstyles in advance. But when the cast was announced I seized my chance. I banged on to anyone who would listen that Lynch was crazy if he thought Kyle MacLachlan could make a believable Paul Atreides (I was wrong). And that no good could possibly come of casting Sting (I was right). But I had a chance to gain a little more info than most even in those pre-internet days. I had wangled a job on a Channel 4 series televising Guardian interviews at the BFI. They mostly went with front-of-camera performers but I campaigned hard for Lynch and, as well as Clint Eastwood and Bob Mitchum, we had young David on the stage, talking about the imminent Dune. It was apparent that the production of the film had been, even by usual Hollywood standards, fraught. Raffaella de Laurentiis told me (off camera) that Lynch had spent – or ‘wasted’ in her words – much of an afternoon (while a hundred extras in Fremen stillsuits were waiting) hand-painting the inside of a cave to get the colour exactly right. Her response had been to rip an entire scene out of the following week’s schedule and tell him he had to work around it.
So, on its release, I turned up on opening night with the lowest possible expectations. I was ready to queue in Leicester Square, but here was the first sign that this was not going to trouble the Star Wars money machine: there was no queue. There wasn’t even a full house.
Predictably, I hated it. It was mainly the surface I disliked – the special effects were crude, at times amateurish. You could see gaping matte lines around the sandworms and many scenes had a murky, washed-out look. The music was bombastic and the cues heavy-handed and crude. The exposition was tacked on, even if it seemed necessary for anyone who hadn’t read the books multiple times. And, of course, Sting was ridiculous.
But today, although I have yet to revise my opinion about Sting, I’d say it’s one of my favourite films of all time. The breathtaking originality of the set and costume design; the hideous, Nabokovian coldness of the depiction of Baron Harkonnen and his court; the strangeness of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood – it’s all more or less as I now think Frank Herbert would have liked it to be. It is, for much of the time, quite ugly. It’s jarring, cruel and other-worldly. It is unlike any other film. Which is, perhaps, the highest praise you can give to a piece of speculative fiction.
I doubt we’ll be able to say the same about the new glossy Dune (part one) about to hit our screens. But, as I said, I’m a hardcore fan, so I’m the last person whose opinion they should care about.
Dune succeeds by avoiding excessive fidelity to the original novel
Denis Villeneuve does justice to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic with state-of-the art special effects and an original take on the story. But will there be a Dune: Part Two?
By Philip Kemp