With new stills surfacing on the internet this week for Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction epic, I figured a look back at the multiple attempts to do the book justice on the big (and small) screen was in order.
What is Dune, you ask? Here’s a brief overview for the uninitiated. Dune was published in 1965 and was the first in a series of six science fiction novels written by author Frank Herbert. The story of Dune centers around the desert planet Arrakis, home to the highly sought-after spice mélange, a consciousness expanding substance that allows users brief glimpses of the future and absolutely necessary for the pilots of vehicles capable of lightspeed travel. Dune’s protagonist is the young noble Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides and Lady Jessica of the Bene Gesserit (an all-female order of psychic mystics). The novel and its two sequels follow the life of Paul as he attempts to survive on the harsh planet of Arrakis, while dodging gargantuan sandworms and frequent attempts on his life by a rival noble family, House Harkonnen.
Herbert wrote six novels, though only the most committed Dune fans, like Last Podcast on the Left’s Henry Zebrowski, wade into the deep waters that comprise books four through six. Full disclosure, I read (and enjoyed) book four, God Emperor of Dune, but had no desire to progress further.
Many subsequent Dune novels haven since been written by Brian Hebert (Frank’s son) and Kevin J. Anderson.
The First Attempt (1971-1973)
The film rights to Dune were optioned in 1971 by Apjac International, which was the studio behind the original series of Planet of the Apes films. Shooting on the film was scheduled for 1974, but the head of the studio died in 1973 and the rights were sold to a French film concern in 1974, which is how they ended up in the hands of surrealist film director Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (1974-1976)
Jodorowsky on his vision for ‘Dune’Fresh off the success of his mind-bending film The Holy Mountain, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky was looking for a new project. Talking about why he chose the novel for his next project, the director said “I didn’t read Dune. But I have a friend who say to me (sic) it was fantastic.” So decided, Jodorowsky set out to assemble his team of “spiritual warriors” to bring to life his vision of a movie that would “give the people who took LSD at that time the hallucinations that you get with that drug, but without hallucinating. I wanted to create a prophet.” Here’s an incomplete list of Jodorowsky’s team and their roles:
- Jean “Mœbius” Giraud – French comic book artist – storyboards, character design
- HR Giger – artist, designer of the aliens and environments from the Alien franchise – concept art, character design
- Dan O’Bannon – writer and special effects, Alien – special effects
- Pink Floyd – yes, that Pink Floyd – soundtrack
- Salvidor Dali – surrealist artist – actor
- Orson Welles – actor, Academy Award-winning director – actor
- David Carradine – Kung Fu, Kill Bill – actor
- Mick Jagger – The Rolling Stones – actor
Unfortunately, Jodorowsky’s uncompromising vision was not deemed feasible by Hollywood and the movie was never made, though its fingerprints are all over films from that era. There was a great documentary released in 2014 about this epic film that never was called Jodorowsky’s Dune that is a fantastic watch. I definitely was inspired to write and create after seeing it and have talked it up to anyone who will listen.
The film was officially cancelled in 1975 and the rights passed into the hands of Dino De Laurentiis in 1976.
Dino De Laurentiis, David Lynch and Dune (1984)
After acquiring the rights, De Laurentiis commissioned Frank Herbert to write the script, which yielded a movie well over the two-hour run-time De Laurentiis had envisioned. The movie was then handed off to Ridley Scott who planned to split the story into two movies, before ultimately abandoning the project and would shortly go on to make Blade Runner, for which he hired Mœbius to do design work.
After seeing a screening of the film The Elephant Man, De Laurentiis’s niece recommended David Lynch for the project. Lynch, who had just recently turned down the director’s chair on Return of the Jedi, signed on to write and direct Dune. The movie starred Kyle McLachlan (Twin Peaks), Sting, Sean Young (Blade Runner), Sir Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Max Von Sydow (The Exorcist, Game of Thrones) and Virginia Madsen. The soundtrack featured music by Toto and Brian Eno.
Released on December 4, 1984, Lynch’s Dune was a flop, grossing only 30.9 million dollars of the original 40 million dollar budget. To add insult to injury, the movie was panned by many critics, with Roger Ebert describing the movie as “a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion.” Lynch would go on to disown the movie and to this day refuses to discuss it in interviews.
The Sci-Fi Miniseries (2000-2003)
In 2000, nearly twenty years after the disastrous release of the Dune movie, the Sci-Fi network released a mini-series entitled Frank Herbert’s Dune, overseen by executive producer Richard P. Rubenstein, who produced the mini-series adaptations of Stephen King’s The Stand and The Langoliers along with writer/director John Harrison. The first mini-series won two Emmy awards and was successful enough to warrant the development of a second mini-series, Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune in 2003, which adapted the novels Heretics of Dune and Children of Dune and starred James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class, Split).
Paramount studios acquired the film rights in 2008 and Frank Herbert’s son and co-author Kevin J. Anderson (author of numerous Dune and Star Wars expanded universe novels) were contracted as producers. Originally Peter Berg (Hancock) was slated to direct, but he left the project, which was then handed off to Pierre Morel (Taken). Morel eventually parted ways as well and Paramount killed the project in 2011.
Credit: Chiabella James (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
The current incarnation of Dune is directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) and stars Timothee Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) as Paul Atreides, Zendaya (Spiderman: Far From Home) as Chani, Oscar Isaac (Star Wars) as Duke Leto Atreides, Rebecca Ferguson (Doctor Sleep) as Lady Jessica, Josh Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War) as Gurney Halleck, Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) as Stilgar, Jason Mamoa (Aquaman) as Duncan Idaho, Stellan Skarsgard (The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo) as main villain Baron Valdimir Harokonnen, and David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) as Rabban “The Beast” Harokoneen the Baron’s nephew.
Like Jodorowsky, director Denis Villeneuve sees Dune as a prophecy, telling Vanity Fair that the novel was a “distant portrait of the reality of the oil and the capitalism and the exploitation – the overexploitation – of the Earth.” Villeneuve will be splitting the movie into two parts in order to do justice to the rich characters and complex narratives of the novel on the big screen. The first installment is slated to be released on December 18th, 2020.
Dune: The Sisterhood (TBA)
A streaming series from Dune screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) titled Dune: The Sisterhood is also in the works at HBO Max but more recently Jon was pulled off the series to help write the second Dune film for Legendary and Denis Villeneuve. The show is expected to be taking inspiration from Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson’s book Sisterhood of Dune part one of the Schools of Dune run.
Wrap It Up Already
If you haven’t read Dune yet, now is a great time to get started. Did you look at Game of Thrones and wish there was interstellar travel, human computers and more giant monsters? Then Dune is for you. All of the intrigue, the murder and the family drama, but in space.
If you love Star Wars, you owe it to yourself (and Frank Herbert) to read Dune. George Lucas was strongly influenced by Dune, (savior of the galaxy tries to survive on desert planet, mystical order of telekinetics, etc.) and I firmly believe we would not have Star Wars had Dune not existed. Say what you want about the later books, but there is not a single Ewok or Gungan-who-shall-go-unnamed to be found in Herbert’s body of work, which is a selling point all in itself. And seriously, if you are a creative person or just love movies, watch Jodorowsky’s Dune. You will not be disappointed.