At the tail end of 1984, a film from one of the medium's undisputed masters, adapting one of the great science fiction novels of all time-- hell, one of the great American novels of all time -- was released. David Lynch, adapting Frank Herbert's masterpiece, Dune! What could go wrong?
Critics hated it. Audiences avoided it. David Lynch wanted nothing to do with the final product, and still doesn't to this day. How did something so potentially fantastic go so horribly, horribly wrong?
Let's start with the novel itself. Herbert's masterpiece is a sprawling, epic tale of politics, prophecy and ecology fused to classic space opera. Themes of genetic engineering, drug use and mysticism run through the book, illuminated by snatches of intricate backstory and told through dense plotting. It requires multiple reads to get it all, and even after enjoying it at least three times myself, I am sure there's more to discover there. It is not, in any way, the kind of book that suggests an easy translation from page to screen.
No surprise, then, that it was anything but easy to translate to film. Attempts to bring Dune to the silver screen date back to the early '70s, just five years after the book's initial release. It bounced around a handful of different directors and screenwriters and producers -- most famously, Alejandro Jodorowsky took a hell of a shot at it, as seen in the new documentary Jodorowsky's Dune http://jodorowskysdune.com/ -- before Dino De Laurentiis hired Lynch to do the job. Lynch worked for the better part of a year on the screenplay, splitting with early collaborators over creative differences, before starting filming in 1983. The rough cut ran over four hours, but Universal insisted on a two-hour version, forcing re-shoots, ridiculous edits and a whole lot of voiceover.
Not a recipe for movie magic, to say the least.
The resulting film is, to put it mildly, a fucking mess. It excises huge parts of the story. It randomly adds in elements that weren't in the book and only serve to confuse the story further. The movie is a confusing, shambling putrescent mess, and in all honesty it earned every one of its one-star reviews (there were many, including Roger Ebert's) and all of the apathy and/or hostility of its audiences.
But it wasn't all bad.
While there's not a lot to recommend Dune, it does offer a few points of recommendation beyond the obvious cautionary tale of how awfully wrong a movie can go. While some of it is ugly, dated and cheap-looking, there are some magnificent visuals throughout the movie -- Lynch nailed those Guild navigators, creepy and gross and exactly what you'd expect space-folding druggie mutants to look like, and the sandworms get it done, too. Plus, it gave the world Patrick Stewart in his first genre role, paving the way for him to take on the role of Jean Luc Picard a few years later, and Professor X further down the line. And, despite being an incomprehensible, chaotic mess, it does capture some of the epic scope of the novel and offers a suggestion of incredible depth behind what's shown on screen. Yes, it's a mess, but a glorious, intoxicating, over-the-top mess.
The film's most important success isn't even visible on screen, though. The best thing about Dune, the movie, is that it got me, and I suspect many other people my age, to read Dune, the book, and that's of immeasurable value.
Now, there's a good chance I would have eventually read the book anyway, but truth be told, there's a lot of classic science fiction out there, and I haven't read plenty of it. I'd like to think Dune wouldn't be one of the many, many books I've bought, stuck on a shelf and forgotten about, but it might have been -- plenty of other highly recommended stuff has suffered that fate. I missed it on initial release, probably because my dad, who took me to such films, took one look at the trailer and said, "Uh, no." It wasn't until my late teens that one of my nerd buddies made me watch it. At his insistence, we sat down basically ten minutes after he discovered I had never seen it and watched a bootleg VHS copy. After it ended I was thoroughly confused, but intrigued, and he spent an hour explaining all the things in the movie that didn't make sense and insisting over and over, "You have to read the book to really get it." Soon after, like the next day soon, I did, and like most people who have ever read it, my reaction was something along the lines of "Holy shit, you guys! This is fucking great!"
So go see Dune in all its fucked-up, miserable shambolic glory. You'll get some nice visuals, a little genre history and a sense of what might have been. If you're like me, you might be inspired to read one of the great science fiction works, and if not, hey, Sting in a space Speedo! You can't go wrong with that.
David Lynch's Dune shows at 9:30 p.m. Friday, April 18 at the Sie FilmCenter.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.
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