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Dune is in UK cinemas now

Notoriously, the 1984 screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 mega-hit sci-fi novel Dune proved the first major flop of David Lynch’s career, trashed by Roger Ebert as “a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time… Dune looks like a project that was seriously out of control from the start.” Few critics dissented and audiences stayed away in droves. Lynch, denied final cut, maintained the film was ruined by inept editing and remains reluctant to talk about it.

Lynch, though, wasn’t the first casualty of the Dune project. A decade earlier, the Chilean-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, 1970; Santa Sangre, 1989) had planned a massive 14-hour adaptation, with sets by H.R. Giger and a score by Pink Floyd, which would feature (inter alia) Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Salvador Dalí and – according to Frank Pavich’s beguiling 2013 documentary on the project – 2,000 defecating extras. Not surprisingly, this hyper-ambitious behemoth foundered in pre-production.

So can this be third time lucky, with Denis Villeneuve in the driving seat? The Canadian director has form in this territory: Arrival (2016) was one of the subtlest and least grandstanding of recent big-budget sci-fi movies; and if Blade Runner 2049 (2017) failed to satisfy all fans of Ridley Scott’s original, it at least didn’t take the easy option of being a play-it-again sequel, instead exploring elements and implications of its predecessor to challenging effect. Good omens, perhaps, for the director’s stated aim of creating with the present film “Star Wars for adults”.

One pitfall into which the 1984 film fell headlong, but Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, have shrewdly avoided, is excessive fidelity to the original. Herbert himself commended Lynch’s version, saying “This is going to go down in history as one of the few films that follows the book so carefully” – and this, unfortunately, was true. The novel is punctuated at frequent intervals with passages in italics telling us what this or that character is thinking – and Lynch’s film likewise gives us repeated sotto voce voiceovers while actors look pensive. What’s no more than mildly irritating on the page rapidly becomes tedious on the screen. Thankfully, Villeneuve and his team steer clear of such devices, hinting by visual means at what’s being thought.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Dune (2021)
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Dune (2021)
© Courtesy of Warner Bros

Otherwise, though, the present film does justice to its source – or at least, it does as far as it goes. Inevitably, given that Herbert’s is a long and complex novel, several episodes are compressed or omitted, but never to the detriment of the narrative flow. The key storyline isn’t distorted or simplified, and neither are the main characters; there are no casting missteps such as Lynch made in choosing the inexperienced Kyle MacLachlan to play hero Paul Atreides (his screen debut, and it showed), and drawing a clownish performance from Kenneth McMillan as chief villain Baron Harkonnen. Instead, Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name, 2017) tellingly brings out the steely determination developing behind Paul’s initial diffidence. No weak links in the impeccably chosen supporting cast, either.

As might be expected, the special effects are state-of-the-art and beyond, leaving the previous version gasping for breath. (Though even in 1984, five years after Alien, Lynch’s film looked hopelessly dated.) Especially appealing are the ‘ornithopters’, delicate flying machines like giant dragonflies. But Greig Fraser’s camera (using a mix of Imax and 2.35) also makes evocative use of natural locations, especially the Jordanian desert that represents the rolling dunes of the planet Arrakis, where most of the action plays out. (More than one nod here to the godfather of desert movies, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, 1962.) Herbert’s world intriguingly blends the futuristic with the medieval, adducing elements of Arab and Berber culture, a mix reflected in the film’s rich tapestry of sets and costumes. And pulsing over it all, Hans Zimmer’s relentless, brooding score, deploying wordless female choruses, percussion frenzies and even bagpipes.

But – “as far as it goes”? Yes, because this is credited as Dune Part One, with the action covering the first three-fifths of the novel. So is Part Two in production? Not yet, it seems; Warners and Legendary, it’s been reported, will wait to see how audience figures shape up before deciding whether to proceed. An odd strategy if true: will people come to watch the first part of a story with no conclusion guaranteed? (And no, Lord of the Rings didn’t work like that; principal photography on all three parts was shot simultaneously.) Quite a risk – even Paul Atreides might balk at that one.

10 great sci-fi adaptations

From H.G. Wells to Philip K. Dick, the titans of sci-fi literature have been keeping filmmakers busy for decades. As Denis Villeneuve becomes the latest director to grapple with Frank Herbert’s epic Dune, we remember 10 times they struck gold.

By Anton Bitel

10 great sci-fi adaptations


Originally published: 25 October 2021