From Novel to Film pt. 14: Dune

Novel (1965) by Frank Herbert.
Film (1984) written and directed by David Lynch.

"My father once told me that respect for the truth comes close to being the basis for all morality. 'Something cannot emerge from nothing,' he said. This is profound thinking if you understand how unstable 'the truth' can be."

Let's start with this review from Goodreads member Manny. It's a bit on the lengthy side but worth reproducing in full:

"There's a characteristically witty essay by Borges about a man who rewrites Don Quixote, many centuries after Cervantes. He publishes a novel with the same title, containing the same words in the same order. But, as Borges shows you, the different cultural context means it's a completely new book! What was once trite and commonplace is now daring and new, and vice versa. It just happens to look like Cervantes's masterpiece.
Similarly, imagine the man who was brave or stupid enough to rewrite Dune in the early 21st century. Like many people who grew up in the 60s and 70s, I read the book in my early teens. What an amazing story! Those kick-ass Fremen! All those cool, weird-sounding names and expressions they use! (They even have a useful glossary in the back). The disgusting, corrupt, slimy Harkonnens - don't you just love to hate them! When former-aristo-turned-desert-guerilla-fighter Paul Muad'Dib rides in on a sandworm at the end to fight the evil Baron and his vicious, cruel nephew, of course you're cheering for him. Who the hell wouldn't be?

So that was the Dune we know and love, but the man who rewrote it now would get a rather different reception. Oh my God! These Fremen, who obviously speak Arabic, live on a desert planet which supplies the Universe with melange, a commodity essential to the Galactic economy, and in particular to transport. Not a very subtle way to say "oil"! They are tough, uncompromising fighters, who are quite happy to use suicide bombing as a tactic. They're led by a charismatic former rich kid (OK, we get who you mean), who inspires them to rise up against the corrupt, degenerate... um, does he mean Westerners? Or only the US? And who is Baron Harkonnen intended to be? I'm racking my brains... Dubya doesn't quite seem to fit, but surely he means someone? Unless, of course, he's just a generic stereotype who stands for the immoral, sexually obsessed West. This is frightening. What did we do to make Frank al-Herbert hate us so much? You'd have people, not even necessarily right-wingers, appearing on TV to say that the book was dangerous, and should be banned: at the very least, it incites racial hatred, and openly encourages terrorism. But translations would sell brilliantly in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and a bad movie version would soon be made in Turkey.

I honestly don't think Herbert meant any of that; but today, it's almost impossible not to wonder. If anyone reading this review is planning to rewrite The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, you'd better make sure you get your timing right. Who knows how it will be interpreted five years from now?"

I thought that was pretty insightful. And as someone reading it for the first time in 2015, that stuff really jumped out at me, even before I read the above. The text is so generously infused with Arabic words and religion ("They prevented us from the Hajj." "It was Ramadhan..." "...our Sunni ancestors." Not to mention the "jihad," of course, that Paul Muad'dib sees as his inescapable destiny) that I can't quite believe that Herbert didn't intend these allusions. But although he spent time in Egypt and certainly knew a bit about Arabic culture, the novel originated when he was supposed to do a magazine article on the Oregon Dunes near Florence, Oregon. 

The article was never written, but his research for it planted the seed that led to Dune.
It's not just Islam, though - all of Earth's religions have survived into the future. From one of the appendices:

"The so-called Ancient Teachings - including those preserved by the Zensunni Wanderers from the first, second, and third Islamic movements; the Navachristianity of Chusuk; the Buddislamic Variants of the types dominant at Lankiveil and Sikun (...) the Hindu outcroppings found all through the universe. (...) There is a fifth force which shaped religious belief, but its effect is so universal and profound that it deserves to stand alone. This is of course space travel - and in any discussion of religion, it deserves to be written thus:


That "SPACE TRAVEL!" thing is great. Space folds - religion, too, is relative to time. (I wanted to name this section E = Muad'dib Squared.) Exploitation, though, carries over from our distant past to this projection of the future.

"You cannot go on forever stealing what you need without regard to those who come after. The physical qualities of a planet are written into its economic and political record. (...) Arrakis is a one-crop planet. It supports a ruling class that lives as ruling classes have lived in all times while, beneath them, a semihuman mass of semislaves exists in the leavings. (...) These are far more valuable than has ever been suspected."

It surprised me that I liked Dune as much as I did. If I have a list of Things in Sci-Fi That Normally Turn Me Completely Off, it would look something like this:

- Unnecessary Apostrophes. Dune is full of these: Muad'dib, 'thopter. Many more.
- Royal Bloodlines.
- Ancient Prophecy/ Chosen One.
- Too Many Made-Up Words. (I sympathize with this one. There are certainly several fine lines between 40 pages of appendices, as Dune is, and translating Shakespeare into Klingon or the Elven High Tongue.)

Yet Dune utilizes each of these things, and I loved it. Maybe it's the exception that proves the rule. More likely, it was so hugely influential that its structure seeped into everything that came after.

There's little point in summarizing the plot or the book's impact on the world. And I'd be a poor tour guide if there actually was an urgent need for that, having only read the first volume.
It's a very effective and sensibly conceived myth, accessible and familiar yet alien and epic. If Ivanhoe was space opera, it would read like Dune.


I saw this film in the theater when I was all of 10 and didn't know what to make of it. Neither did most people in 1984, not the least of whom was New York Times film critic Janet Maslin, who wrote "Several of the characters in Dune are psychic, which puts them in the unique position of being able to understand what goes on in the movie." 

She praised the director's ambiguity in later films, writing this of Lost Highway: "The unnatural is second nature for David Lynch, whose twisted, libidinous imagery yields nightmare films of such strange and menacing flair."
Lynch himself distanced himself from the film - citing the usual interference from both studio and Dino De Laurentiis - but its reputation has improved considerably in the 31 years since its release. I'll get to some of the things that didn't work for me in a second, but two of the things often cited as failures of the film were a-okay by me: 

1) The whispered-thoughts of the character to approximate the shifting points of view of the novel. I can see how that would bother people, but what can I say? I don't want every film adapted from a novel to do this, but for Dune, it worked for me.

2) The 80s-ness of the soundtrack (provided by Toto.) What? This soundtrack is great. Granted, I forever get a kick out of guitar motifs soaring over big set pieces such as the below - probably because I am, after all, filled with 80s-ness myself.

Something that most agree the film gets right is the casting. Sure Kyle MacLachlan was only a couple of years older than the character he was playing (who is described as the child who speaks like a man to begin with) but he's certainly not 15 or 17, the two ages of the Paul Atreides of the novel. But who cares? Hardly unique to this movie.

He's perhaps not the greatest lead in movie history, but I liked him as Muad'dib.
Not bad when your first role has you playing off Patrick Stewart and Dean Stockwell.
I won't go through every member of the cast, but two quick shout-outs are due:
- Kenneth McMillan plays the Baron as slightly more insane than he comes across in the book (which I understand was at the actor's insistence) but certainly a memorable Baron Harkonnen.

Memorably gross.
There's a lot of the David Lynch to come in some of the Baron's scenes. I wish there was a 45 minute black and white cut of just them with later-era Lynch sound design. Well, almost.

- Francesca Annis was a great Lady Jessica. I'm not all that familiar with her body of work, but she has fantastic presence on-screen. 

Seems like she'd be perfect for Game of Thrones or something like that.

Those of you who have read the rest of the series - does this Jessica work for you? From my own limited perspective, she seemed perfect for the role. 

From a recent re-appraisal of the film from The Atlantic:

"Before his death in 1986, Herbert said that he was largely pleased with Lynch’s film's representation of his universe. You can understand why. While it's hardly a cohesive experience, individual scenes are brought to life with striking power." 

"Watching Dune today holds the same joy as flipping through an illustrated version of the novel."
"Considering the density and imagination of Herbert's world, that should count as something of an achievement." 

Hear, hear. Okay, it's worth addressing a couple of the ten things mentioned here that Lynch altered in his adaptation. I won't do all 10, just a couple:

- The Mentat. I love Brad Dourif, and I can get behind his performance here. But the fuzzy eyebrows and wild demeanor given him (and Thufir Hawat) did not match my impressions of Mentats ("Human computers trained from childhood for amazing feats of logic and computation, employed by most of the Great Houses and other powerful groups to replace traditional computers, which are now illegal") from the novel. 

Dean Stockwell's Dr. Yueh, however, matched my impression of Mentats perfectly. I'd have flipped this, myself. And totally dropped those eyebrows.

- The Weirding Modules. "Weapons that amplify the human voice into destructive energy are a nifty idea. Problem is, not only do they exist only in Lynch's mind and have no analogy in Herbert's novel, but half the damn movie is based around them: 

"These things conquered a multi-galactic empire for fuck's sake! Gone was all of Herbert's wonderful exposition of the Fremen as fierce, implacable warriors -- you could have given these things to your average kindergarten class and achieved the same result!"

The point made about lessening the impact of the Fremen is well-taken. In the novel, the Fremen are superior fighters to even the Emperor's personal guard (the most ferocious fighters in the known universe.)

In the film, it is only this weirding module weapon that Paul teaches them to use that gives them victory.

- The Third Stage Guild Navigator. I threw the DVD in almost immediately after finishing the book, but I had no freaking idea what to make of this.

It's a very captivating scene and all, but huh? I even texted my buddy who's read the book and had to ask who the hell this was supposed to be.
More to the story: "Yes, this is something Lynch added but (not) something he created. The Navigator depicted here is almost certainly inspired by Edric, the Guildsman who appears in the second book, Dune Messiah. If this is true, then it's nice to see a nod to another book in the series, and they did a good job of capturing Edric... It's just (that) there was no reason whatsoever to bring a third-stage Navigator into this film save to provide a little exposition (which could have been handled a dozen other ways), and to show off the creature creation skills of Carlo "E.T." Rambaldi."

- Finally, The End. "From the perspective of a fan of the novel, many of the weak points of this film can be ignored or excused: One simply has to accept the fact that cinema and literature are separate mediums, and things are inevitably going to be lost in translation."

"The scene above, however, cannot be so easily forgiven. Even if you're unfamiliar with the book, there is nothing in the movie to suggest that Paul could somehow spontaneously develop the miraculous power to alter weather patterns with his mind and make rain appear on a desert planet. If you are a fan of the novel, then that's not rain -- that's Lynch pissing in the face of every human being who ever has, and ever will read Herbert's book."

Okay, simmer down now. It's almost certainly the hand/piss of Dino De Laurentiis insisting on a big finish and not Lynch's decision, for one thing. But why even introduce the centuries-in-progress plan of the Fremen to change the ecology of Arrakis transforming 3% of its surface to moisture (which is from the novel) if you're going to end the film with Paul bringing water to the surface of Arrakis all by himself?

Another thing missing from the end of the story is Paul's engagement to Princess Irulan.

In the book, most of the chapter-intros are from a yet-to-be-written memoir of the Princess, describing her relationship with the Muad'dib, his philosophy, and other exposition that gives the story even more breadth. The film opens with almost the same spiel the book does -

"The beginning is a very delicate time," etc.
but she serves little point in the film that follows. (I should mention - I haven't seen the extended cut, so maybe there's more to it in there.) If she's not meant to marry the Muad'dib, there's little point in having her play the same offstage-narrator role, in the same way there's little point of introducing the Fremen's ecology plan if Paul's just going to start the reactor. (So to speak.)

Well, then. Overall, I'd say this is one hell of a film, but I can certainly understand how it baffled audiences and disappointed Dune fans at the time of its release. 

These Production Notes from the DVD Special Features made me chuckle: 

Not for its content, just that it's the one image, above, and nothing more. Nice sentiment and all, but was it really worth it to include? 

Again, from that Atlantic review: "The film's production is masterful in itself, and it syncs with the themes of the original storyverse. Set 10,000 years in the future, everything looks appropriately streamlined. Yet plenty of baroque flourishes (the Emperor’s court in the opening scenes looks like a relic of imperial Russia) remain, as if to illustrate, as Herbert does in his novel, that even as we evolve, certain elements of our existence will remain constant. Jodorowsky's new-age, bright and groovy acid-trip take seemed to miss this point."

Does it? Let's have a quick look. 


(2013) Directed by Frank Pavich.
In case you've never seen it, this is a documentary about the aborted attempt to make Dune in the mid-70s. Alejandro Jodorowsky and his producer Michel Seydoux are interviewed extensively, as well as several of the other people involved.

First off, this is a pretty cool flick, regardless of what you think about Dune or about Jodorowsky. If you have any interest in creativity, or the nuts and bolts of movie pre-production, or kooky artistic guys and the things they say and the sweeping gestures they make with their hands, you'll probably love it. 

Second, I disagree with the Atlantic's description quoted above. 

Jodorowsky certainly did set out to make a new-age-y acid trip of a film, sure.
And his changed ending reflects this - Paul dies and his death transforms Arrakis into a paradise that sets off on its destiny -

"The Luminous Planet Traverses the Galaxy" - nice. Of the changed end, Jodorowsky says that you can't regard a book too preciously. He likens the adaptation process to taking a bride. At the altar, she is all in white and pure, and you love her spiritually and honor her. But on the wedding night, well I'm sure he's not advocating forcing your newly betrothed into sex against her will, so it's poor word choice (English is not his first - or even third or fourth, I don't think - language) but this is how he sees his change to the book's ending.

"With love," he's quick to add. I, uh... Let's move on.
It's difficult to tell only from storyboards and without seeing the performances, but all this wedding night business aside, Jodorowksy seems really synched up with the best of the book's themes. 

As for the proposed look of the film, is it day-glo-y and against the tone of the novel? Again, not to my eyes, not at all. We're given tantalizing glimpses of the production design -

including storyboards and character designs by Jean "Moebius" Giraud,"
as well as concept art and models by Chris Foss:
and H.R. Giger:
(Castle Harkonnen)
Some of Jodorowsky's casting ideas are terrific. He planned to have Orson Welles play the Baron, Mick Jagger play his nephew - which makes me suspect that Sting took the role in Lynch's version for this reason; it seems like something early-80s-Sting would have felt he had to do to expand his burgeoning rock icon persona.

I can even him see him saying "It is your destiny" to his mirror reflection while in his trailer, with a picture of Mick Jagger tucked into the frame -
and Salvador Dali (!) as the Emperor. All agreed to do the film, which is remarkable, and Jodorowsky tells memorable stories about his interactions with them. (As well as Pink Floyd, whom he wanted to supply the music motifs for House Atreides.) It's a damn shame no footage was  shot with any of the above. 

Like I say, you don't have to be a fan of Dune to enjoy this documentary, but if you are, it's especially interesting to consider this approach-that-never-was. The assembled pre-production materials were shopped around before the bottom dropped out of the project - all they needed was an additional $5m; too bad no crowdfunding in the 70s, eh? - and Giger and Dan O'Bannon (also one of the "spiritual warriors" Jodorowsky assembled for the project) brought what they'd created for Dune over to Alien

One last thing, Jodorowsky cast his son as Paul, and to get up to snuff for the role, he (Brontis Jodorowsky) trained with a grueling martial arts and weapons instructor for 6 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 2 years.

Final Verdict: Jodorowsky's Dune -  worth your time; Dune (the novel) - amazing stuff, hard to overstate either its quality or its influence; Dune (the 1984 film) - glad to see this getting more positively re-appraised in recent years. Not a perfect movie, but a bold attempt and beautiful to look at; and ditto for the film as an adaptation of the novel. 


  1. I'm a massive fan of the novel, which is one of the half-a-dozen titles perpetually vying for the crown of Bryant's Favorite Book. It was the first grown-up novel I ever read, and the reason I read it was that my parents didn't take me to see the movie. So I did what I did in the case of most movies I wanted to see but didn't: I read the book.

    I was baffled by it, but in a way that draw me to it, rather than push me away. I must have read it half a dozen times over the next few years, and I eventually read the sequels, too (none AS good, but all good).

    Years later, I finally got around to watching the movie and . . . yeah, I more or less agree with you. Pretty good flick! Not deserving of the hate it gets from some corners. (Speaking of which, they way I interpret the end sscene with the rain is that Paul has somehow folded space and transported rain from the oceans of Caladan to Arrakis. Still daffy, but arguably a bit less daffy.)

    I have not yet made the time for "Jodorowsky's Dune," which sounds marvelous. Where IS that damn Ur-Kindle?!?

    The parallels between Herbert's Dune mythos and modern-day politics is compelling. This certainly is not lessened one whit by the sequels. I can tell you this without giving anything much away (because the events themselves transpire off-screen between the first and second novels): Paul's Fremen warriors spend the next ten years post-"Dune" traveling the galaxy on an extremely bloody jihad. I don't THINK the word "Isis" is ever used, but I guarantee you that that is how it would play these days.

    And maybe that's not a bad thing. It seems to me that the time is 100% right for HBO or some other enterprising cable outlet to invest in creating a "Game of Thrones"-style television series out of these books, and pissing off half the country or more. The novels don't lend themselves to adaptation perfectly, but the correct group of filmmakers could make magic out of these suckers.

    Elements of the prequels/midquels/sequels written by Herbert's son in conjunction with Kevin J. Anderson could even be used. Those books are mostly shabby and flaccid in comparison to the F. Herbert books, but they do have their moments.

    1. "the way I interpret the end scene with the rain is that Paul has somehow folded space and transported rain from the oceans of Caladan to Arrakis. Still daffy, but arguably a bit less daffy."

      I like that. I can buy Paul's having the ability to do that as master of the spice. It's interesting that both Lynch's version and Jodorowsky's version-that-never-was end with the terraforming of Arrakis. In different ways, sure. Actually, it's rather funny to consider that the books have Paul leading the Fremen on a bloody galactic jihad, while Jodorwosky's has the planet of luminosity traveling the universe spreading love and awareness.

      You're so right about this series being fodder for a perfect HBO-style series.

  2. I could (and may yet) carpet-bomb your post with comments about individual aspects of the book and/or movie, but one thing in particular I wanted to mention:

    Goon on ya for being a fan of the score by Toto and Brian Eno! I like it quite a bit, myself. It was -- and, to some degree, still is -- a thankless endeavor to be writing a sci-fi score in 1985 that didn't sound like you were at least imitating John Williams. This goes in a mostly-very-different direction, and I think the movie is all the better for it.

    The highlight is absolutely that riding-the-sandworms scene with the triumphant guitar riffs. I'm guessing nobody had the sense to film a version of the scene in which the entire band Toto can be seen on a different worm, hair flying in the Arrakeen wind, arms windmilling furiously as they strike those power-chord licks on their axes.

    God damn, but that OUGHT to exist, now shouldn't it?

    1. Toto on the sandworm probably wins the internet for the day. That image really cracks me up - and works to boot.

  3. I'll admit I'm not one of the fans of the movie, and I think the reason has to do with (1) executive tampering of the story resulting in (2) taking out a bunch of material that would have helped explain things, and (3) not letting Lynch work his usual mojo on the movie.

    That said, I have to wonder if a book as multi-faceted as the Dune series can ever survive the transition to screen (I've felt the same way about LOTR and The Hobbit, and yes those adaptations do nothing for me either, I admit).

    To give an idea of the complexity involved. Yes, I think the novel "may" play around with the concept of fundamentalism in the Islamic religion. However, the problem with the "Goodreads" review is that it only seems to scratch the surface, and doesn't (from what I can read on this blog) mention the pointed skepticism that treats the subject with. It's been a long time since I've read this but one line I've always had in my head is the dying thoughts of one character that goes "Never trust a hero" or something to that effect, or sentiment. It's that skepticism that is an integral part of the book. In fact (major spoiler warning) in later books, Paul goes onto turn against the movement he's created.

    These are all elements that are missing from the film, and which I think cripple it's impact. That said, I can only repeat, this is one of those text that are probably untranslatable in cinematic terms.

    In that sense, maybe Jodorowsky, whether he knew it or not, had the right idea in taking the novel in the more Hippie like direction. Who can say.


    1. As to Jodorowsky's Dune, I have to say it's a rather fun trip.

      Some fair warnings, though. It's no joke when I say Jodo's work is not for everyone. And second that trying to puzzle out the director's take on the material perhaps requires both an open mind as well as an imagination (that said, how many who watched it were reminded at times of The Dark Tower (albeit written as a perhaps a grind house flick?).

      That said, my favorite bit is when Jodo recalls how David Carradine "auditioned" for his part (hint: Vitamin E and lots of it!). Also, Mobius's animated drawing's are breath-taking, and are some of the best bits of the documentary.


    2. Agreed wholeheartedly on almost all points. (I like the film, after all, but I see what you're saying. And definitely, the skepticism/ dread with which Paul, especially, approaches it all, is an important part, at least of the first book, i.e. the only one I've read.)

      Jodorowsky's The Dark Tower would have been / perhaps-would-still-be quite interesting!

    3. Incidentally, I know of another sci-fi novel that raises post-9/11 concerns without meaning to.

      It's a novel called "Wasp" by Eric Frank Russell, and it's discussion of terrorist themes can be found here:



  4. Nice blog, Bryan. It's funny that you wrote this right when I'm re-reading the whole series (currently on Chapterhouse: Dune). I appreciate your take on the above and can't see much that I'd disagree with.

    Vandi and I really enjoy the movie, despite its flaws (yeah, the fuzzy eyebrows and crazy hair for the mentats is just a bit much, although we adore Brad Dourif in most everything he's done). And - if you haven't seen it - we'd definitely recommend the Children of Dune TV miniseries. While we didn't like the Dune miniseries (decent perhaps but a bit boring and the 1984 movie just works for us so much better), the Children of Dune follow-up worked well for us.

    It's easy to get caught up in a bit of nerd worship and to criticize adaptations and the Dune books and adaptations suffer from similar fears. Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson have been panned for their books in the Dune universe, but I'll be honest - they're more entertaining than Frank's books. Frank's books are deeper and more philosophical (Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune stand out in my mind as just wonderful psychology treatises in many ways), but Brian and Kevin are nice popcorn storytellers. I enjoyed reading those books and really the only one they failed at, IMO, is Sandworms of Dune. Like the movie, like the Lord of the Rings movies, I believe you have to separate fanatical devotion to the original material and judge these other projects on its own merits. In that respect, what Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson produced is fairly good (and this from someone who found Kevin Anderson's Star Wars stuff to be pretty awful).

    -- BRAD

    1. I look forward to reading the other Dune books. I enjoyed the first one enough that I'm going to take my time with the rest of them, to savor the experience rather than plow through them all as fast as possible, as has been my m.o. with other multi-volume stories that have caught my eye. I will definitely check out the Children of Dune mini-series, though. (And probably everything else, as well.)