Only the strong travel this deep
Only the strong travel this deep

Only the strong travel this deep

The Story of Dune

By Scott Sentinella


Published in 1965, Frank Herbert’s Dune took a few years to find its audience. By the end of the ‘60’s, however, it was a full-scale phenomenon. Herbert wrote ahead of the curve with his tale of mind-altering substances, youthful heroes, and a guerilla war against a technologically advanced dictatorship.

In Dune, the most important substance in the universe is the spice melange. Spice exists on only one planet, Arrakis, and the book begins with several schemes unfolding for possession of political power over spice production. Two peoples—the noble Atreides and the foul Harkonnen—vie for this right while the Emperor of the Known Universe manipulates them. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the real power appears to be in the hands of the Guild Navigators and Bene Gesserit—two factions that rely wholly on melange. Yet, Dune goes beyond its “castle intrigue” framework with the inclusion of the messianic rise of the Atreides heir, Paul. The product of centuries of Bene Gesserit breeding, upon his arrival on Arrakis, the spice allows Paul to expand his abilities. Here Paul appears to fulfill an ancient prophecy of Arrakis’s native people, the desert-dwelling Fremen. There is much, much more, including giant sandworms that appear to guard the spice, some two dozen characters, and a plethora of names and terms that have vague Middle-Eastern origins.

Herbert does such a complete job of building a new world that Dune comes with its own glossary of terms at the back of the book. The vocabulary and narrative’s plans within plans often come under fire as being far too dense. Instead, I would contend that the story is far richer for these details than confusing.


Throughout the ‘70’s, there were several aborted attempts to bring Dune to the silver screen. Names attached to the project included Arthur Jacobs, the successful producer of THE PLANET OF THE APES. There were rumours of Mick Jagger playing Feyd Harkonnen, David Carradine as Leto Atreides, Gloria Swanson for the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, and Orson Welles as the corpulent Baron Harkonnen.

In the mid-‘70s, it appeared that Dune would become the third major mind-bender of midnight movie director Alejandro Jodorowsky. According to Jodorowsky, he would have employed the services of Pink Floyd to score the film while casting Salvador Dali as the Emperor. Artists such as H.R. Giger, Christopher Foss, and Jean “Moebius” Girard (with whom Jodorowsky continues to collaborate on comic books) would have done the production design.

“I didn’t want to respect the novel. I wanted to recreate it,” said Jodorowsky of his proposed film. To make the Dune more his own, the director conceived of, among other things, making Feyd Harkonnen a hermaphrodite, and having the Emperor living in symbiosis with a robotic double. After pouring years of effort into the project, Jodorowsky’s DUNE died on the vine, leaving the director so disillusioned that he went on to make TUSK. Meanwhile, several members of his production team migrated to ALIEN.

It was after the success of ALIEN that producer Dino DeLaurentiis—the money-man behind everything from Fellini’s LA STRADA to the campy 1976 KING KONG remake—tapped director Ridley Scott for the DUNE job. Things went well for a while, despite an adverse reaction from Frank Herbert to screenwriter Pat Wurlitzer’s idea to include a scene of Paul Atreides making love to his mother, Lady Jessica. Despite subsequent, well-received scripts and some enthusiasm behind the project, it was deemed too expensive for the time, leaving Scott ready to make another sci-fi epic, BLADE RUNNER.


In 1981, DeLaurentiis announced that director David Lynch would write and direct DUNE. Once rumoured to have been the leading choice to direct RETURN OF THE JEDI—a similar tale of mind expansion and guerrilla warfare—David Lynch was hot off THE ELEPHANT MAN, a film that earned eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director.

Shot in Mexico to keep costs low, DUNE still boasted a whopping $42 million dollar budget. With its desert setting, shooting DUNE was no picnic. It was mentally and physically taxing to all those involved. Upon completion, the rough-cut of DUNE was nearly four hours long, a fitting length for such a wildly involved novel. Yet, this was far too lengthy for the Saturday matinee kiddie crowds, who were being primed for another “space adventure” like STAR WARS.

Instead of glitz and laser beams, DUNE owed its overpowering visual spectacle to cinematography by Freddie Francis (GLORY), the costumes of Bob Ringwood (EXCALIBUR, EMPIRE OF THE SUN), and the sets by Anthony Masters (who worked on both LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY). All of these, along with sound design by longtime Lynch collaborator Alan Splet, helped to make DUNE look, feel, and sound like no other science fiction film before or since.

One of the most unique features of Lynch’s DUNE is the device of having characters’ thoughts spoken aloud. This helps in explanation of the esoteric narrative as well as giving the audience a greater opportunity to identify with the characters. Another addition to DUNE came in the use of voice as a weapon. The “weirding way” of the Bene Gesserits was vague enough and the strength of words important enough that Lynch created a secret weapon for the Atreides: the “weirding module,” which converted sound into power—a kind of “ray gun” for the mentally disciplined. The implementation of this device feels completely integrated with the original source material.

DUNE has the same haunting, dreamlike atmosphere of other films in Lynch’s oeuvre. Its imagery is spellbinding and unforgettable. Yet, it doesn’t seem to be enough for those who miss the nuances of Herbert’s writing and criticize Lynch’s abililty to condense the complicated novel into a conventional-length film. And, yes, DUNE would be condensed from its rough version into a more palatable 141-minute length.


Opening in the United States on December 14, 1984 on 915 screens, DUNE took in $6 million that weekend, making it the second biggest movie at the box office (behind BEVERLY HILLS COP). Box office figures quickly fell while critical and popular opinion of the film declared the movie a glorious failure. Always knowing the public’s pulse, “USA Today” compared the film to a freak show while longtime Lynch-hater Roger Ebert picked it as the worst picture of 1984. According to “The Saturday Evening Post,” when one critic was asked to pick the ten worst movies of 1984, he simply repeated “DUNE” ten times. Considering Lynch’s previous successes with the unconventional ELEPHANT MAN and ERASERHEAD, the backlash against DUNE was a slap in the face to the fledgling director.

Dying a quick death at the box office, DUNE would find a better life on home video and, subsequently, on commercial television. DUNE die-hards would hail the TV debut of DUNE as it gave fans nearly 45 minutes more of this monumental film, David Lynch considers his version of DUNE “a heartbreak,” and the extended cut a travesty. Lynch contested this version, having his name taken off the longer cut. His directing credit went to the esteemed Alan Smithee while his writing credit appeared as “Judas Booth.”

While this longer version was like manna to fans of the original cut, many still felt that this extended version was either incoherent or mind-numbingly boring. For a full scene by scene and, often, line-by-line comparison of these different versions of DUNE, read Sean Murphy’s analysis in issues 33 and 34 of Video Watchdog. Almost every scene of Smithee’s DUNE has been expanded. The most pertinent changes involve the role, or the lack thereof, of Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan.


The Emperor of the Known Universe’s daughter, Princess Irulan, narrates Herbert’s Dune. This character seems an odd choice for such a prominent role until the end of the novel where she and Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) wed for purely political reasons, rather than love.

In Lynch’s DUNE, Irulan maintains this role as narrator, giving a well-spoken introduction and occasional voice-over spots that fill in gaps during the Fremen campaign against the Harkonnens. However, Irulan and Paul don’t marry at the end of DUNE. They don’t even speak to one another. Truth be told, Irulan doesn’t speak much at all except in voice-over.

Smithee’s DUNE begins with a highly suspect “prologue” that replaces Irulan’s voice-over with a pedantic narrator who speaks while crude production drawings float by on screen. Rather than clearing up anything, this new narrator does his best to confound matters by providing a deluge of unnecessary exposition. Princess Irulan would get her day in the sun some sixteen years later in John Harrison’s miniseries for the Sci-Fi Network, FRANK HERBERT’S DUNE.


The presence of Herbert’s Dune didn’t lessen over the years. By 1985, Herbert had written five sequels to his popular novel. After his death in 1986, Herbert’s son took up the mantle and wrote (with outside help) several prequels to Dune. Knowing that a great number of fans of Herbert’s original work were still disappointed with the Lynch and Smithee films, and knowing of Dune’s popularity, the Sci-Fi network commissioned a new adaptation of Herbert’s work.

Drawing five million viewers its first night, FRANK HERBERT’S DUNE fared surprisingly well in the ratings. The new production cost $20 million; quite a lot for a basic cable outlet but still less than half of what Lynch spent nearly two-decades before. Despite the valiant attempts by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (APOCALYPSE NOW, THE LAST EMPEROR), the budgetary constraints still make themselves known. Rather than large, sweeping exteriors, the mini-series has a real “soundstage look.” Storaro has to rely on a lot of smoke, mirrors, and colored gels in an attempt to give FRANK HERBERT’S DUNE a “big” look. Yet, the production seems static.

While Graeme Revell’s musical score is subtly effective, it sounds as though it came from a music library. It’s odd to think that Lynch’s use of Toto (yes, as in “Rosanna” and other wimpy ‘80s tunes) would compare so favorably to the score of a professional composer. Revell’s music works best during the few hallucination scenes of Paul and Jessica. These scenes are quite surreal, if a little hokey. The scene in which Jessica drinks the mind-altering “Water of Life” looks very similar to the “trip to Jupiter” at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or, failing that, one of those classic rock-powered laser shows staged at observatories.

Casting proved quite a problem for FRANK HERBERT’S DUNE. Alec Newman is the right height for his role as Paul Atreides—he’s shorter than practically every other male actor in the film. However, his air of petulance makes him an unsympathetic lead. Additionally, Newman appears to be a decade or more too old for the part (Paul is not yet in his twenties by the end of Herbert’s book).

Meanwhile, Zuzana’s Geislerova looks decades too young for her part as Reverend Mother Mohiam. Instead of being an “old crone”, she appears to be quite a few years away from taking early retirement. It’s Mohiam’s character who’s also most in need of a wardrobe change. Her hat makes her look more like “The Flying Nun” than a grand dame Bene Gesserit. While costumes are being discussed, one can’t overlook the obsequious dress of Matt Keeslar as Feyd. His “triangle suit” may be a bit less embarrassing than the codpiece sported by Sting as Feyd but it’s still quite an eyesore.

It’s striking how similar the first two hours of the mini-series are to the first hour of Lynch’s film; not in tone but in content. Both Harrison and Lynch followed the book well, lifting lots of dialogue verbatim. The problem with Lynch’s film was that he took ninety minutes to cover the first two hundred pages of Herbert’s book, meaning that he had to cram the remaining three hundred pages into the remaining forty-five minutes. With his allotted time—roughly four-and-a-half hours without commercials—Harrison delves deeper into the second half of the book. Yet, FRANK HERBERT’S DUNE moves at a sluggish pace, only gaining real ground in the final installment of this three-part event.

Harrison’s biggest departure from Herbert’s novel is in the major beefing-up of the role of Irulan (Julie Cox). Not satisfied to keep her in the background, Harrison introduces several subplots with Irulan plotting against her father, the Emperor (Giancarlo Giannini, dressed in some Studio 54 cast-offs), flirting with Paul, and seducing Feyd. Harrison seems to have merged Irulan with a character missing from Lynch and Smithee’s DUNE, Lady Fenring. Harrison could have easily dropped all of these subplots but probably felt he had to do something with Irulan in order to justify her becoming Paul’s wife.


Harrison’s DUNE is a well intentioned and, above all, faithful adaptation of Herbert’s Dune. It lacks the eerie, hushed atmosphere of Lynch’s film because of the strained attempts to find itself more “in tune” with Herbert’s original vision. The results are earnest if somewhat plodding.

Harrison does everything he can to keep the Lynch version of DUNE at bay—even going so far as to eliminate Paul’s “secret Fremen name” and having characters’ names pronounced differently (no longer does Paul love Chani; he loves “Cheney”). Yet, it takes at least two viewings to see Harrison’s version without the Lynch version echoing in the viewer’s brain.

I still don’t think that there’s any substitute for Herbert’s original novel and anyone who hasn’t read it will probably find Harrison’s film as confusing as Lynch’s. However, Harrison’s work is interesting enough to make one look forward to his version of Herbert’s second Dune novel, Dune Messiah, which he is currently adapting. In fact, the producers of the mini-series own the rights to all six of the original Dune novels with the good news that none of the sequels are quite as long or complicated as the original. Future adaptations should be a bit easier, both to make and to watch.

(This article was originally published before the broadcast of John Harrison’s second DUNE miniseries, CHILDREN OF DUNE.)