Too Much Novel for One Movie: Detour for Dune


Director:  David Lynch

Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, Everett McGill, Sting, Max von Sydow, Jose Ferrer, Sian Phillips, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Stewart, Sean Young, Brad Dourif, Linda Hunt, Kenneth McMillan, Jurgen Prochnow, Dean Stockwell

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class F (4/7, rather hot yellow-white star).  An ambitious train wreck of a film, Dune was too much novel for one film, and it shows.  However, it is not without its charm, especially visually (though there are places where the effects fail or are poorly conceived), and the movie is entertaining even if it is ultimately a rather silly, pointless and flat adaptation of a remarkable novel.  Put another way, without reference to the 1965 novel, the movie is okay—and there are hints that it might have been a remarkable achievement if director David Lynch’s vision had been accomplished.


The novel Dune is one of the most widely read and best selling science fiction novels of all time, as I mentioned in my post What Makes Science Fiction Popular?  It must have seemed like a no-brainer for a movie adaptation when they first started looking at it, and before anyone really looked too hard at the complicated plot with its complicated setting and complicated backgrounds.  And it may be that the novel’s complexity contributed to a lengthy term of development hell.  It also appears that the early phases of development had their influence over the movie which surfaced in 1984.

In brief, in 1971 Arthur P. Jacobs (the producer of the Planet of the Apes movie and its progeny) optioned the rights to the book.  The project went through two or three directors, as well as two scriptwriters, before Jacobs died in 1973 before filming could begin.  In 1974, the project was purchased by a French consortium, and Alejandro Jodorowsky was to direct.  Jodorowsky planned an ambitious ten hour feature, starring or involving such luminaries as Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Alain Delon, Hervé Villechaize and Mick Jagger, with music to be composed and performed by Pink Floyd.  The pre-production unit included the British artist Chris Foss, French illustrator Moebius, and H. R. Giger, with Dan O’Bannon (he wrote Alien and was a scriptwriter for Total Recall) heading up the special effects department.  After spending $2 million in the pre-production phase—they completed the script, the storyboards, and designs—financial backing dried up.

After Jodorowsky’s failed attempt, the film rights were sold to Dino de Laurentis.  In 1978 de Laurentis commissioned Frank Herbert—author of the novel—to write a script, but it was too long, and hence in 1979 he turned to Ridley Scott as director, Rudolph Wurlitzer as scriptwriter, and H. R. Giger (again) for design work.  Scott envisioned a two movie sequence, and felt that Wurlitzer had delivered a script which captured the essence of the novel.  However, this attempt, too, failed, as Scott’s brother passed away and he did not feel he could commit to the two and a half years it would take to bring Dune to the big screen (he turned instead to 1982’s Blade Runner).  In 1981, de Laurentis renegotiated the film rights and included the sequels to the novel Dune (Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, to name the next two novels).  At this point de Laurentis hired David Lynch (Eraserhead and The Elephant Man) as director and scriptwriter, even though Lynch had not read the book or had any interest in science fiction before being hired.  The script went through six drafts before shooting began.

Lynch did not have final cut authority over the film, and he attributes its failure (and that is Lynch’s own word) to that fact.  It is obvious that Lynch appreciated the novel, however:

Herbert’s book incorporates dream sequences, complex textures, different levels of meaning and symbolism; it concerns people, their emotions, their fears and goals—and also provides an opportunity to create whole new worlds by combining elements in ways that have never been done before.

Dune cost more than $45 million to make, and it earned a mere $26 million or so at the box office.  It was, by any definition, a flop.  Critical response to the film was incredibly negative, with Siskel and Ebert calling it the worst film of the year.  One critic compared it to taking a final exam, while another stated that it was the “most obscenely homophobic film” he’d ever seen.  It was lambasted as “hollow” and “cold,” with a complexity requiring over a half hour of screen time spent in exposition.  In one of the most pithy complaints about the film, reviewer Janet Maslin stated that “[s]everal 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.”

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Setup:  In the year 10,191, humanity has spread to the stars in an Imperium, ruled on its face by House Corrino in the person of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV.  In reality, the Emperor must defer to the Spacing Guild, which has a monopoly on space travel since its navigators are the only ones who can enable space travel—though this process requires the spice melange, found only on the planet Arrakis, which is also known as Dune.  The Emperor also has to worry about the lesser Great Houses, who are always jockeying for position, including House Atreides and House Harknonnen.  The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood also exercises a great deal of influence behind the scenes, largely due to clever placement of its Sisters as providers of specialized services as well as the number of wives, concubines and mothers in the Great Houses.  The Sisterhood has been breeding humanity in a ninety-some generation project with the intent of creating, and then controlling, a super-being they call the Kwisatz Hadderach.  Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto and the Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica, is a product of that breeding project.  Meanwhile, the Emperor gets wind of Duke Leto Atreides developing a secret army using a new weapon based on sound, and decides to destroy Duke Leto in order to maintain his own position.  The Emperor takes the planet Dune away from the Harkonnens and gives it to House Atreides instead, but this is the bait for a trap:  the Emperor intends to secretly assist the Harkonnens to destroy House Atreides once they are on Dune but before they have truly settled in and made it their own.

And so the stage is set….

And yes, I realize that this is an unusually complex setup for a movie.  What can I say?  All of it is straight out of the novel, albeit with some modifications, and the very complexity of the setting makes Lynch’s approach to setting up the movie interesting.  Therefore, let me show you how Lynch and the film set up the story in three short scenes, lasting a total of just more than ten minutes:

Scene One is a voice exposition by the Princess Irulan, daughter of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV, and reminiscent of Herbert’s chapter epigrams of the Princess’ purported histories of the time before Paul Atreides became Emperor himself.  She sets the stage at the year 10,191 (presumably AD, though that’s not clear), and the known universe is ruled by her father.  One substance, the spice known as melange, is the most precious material in the universe.  The spice extends life, expands human consciousness, and gives the Spacing Guild the power to fold space, thereby enabling space travel.  And this unique substance is available only from the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune.  Dune’s inhabitants, the Fremen, await their messiah, who will lead them to freedom.

Scene Two is another expository scene, in this case a voiceover with graphics purporting to be a secret report by the Spacing Guild.  This scene, two mimics the device of the novel’s appendices, some of which are also secret reports.  The report identifies four planets and their associated factions as possibly endangering spice production.  The first planet is Arrakis, also known as Dune, and home to the Fremen.  The second is Caladan, home to House Atreides; the third, Giedi Prime, home to House Harkonnen, the mortal enemies of the Atreides clan; and the fourth is Kaitain, home to House Corrino, and the Emperor of the known universe.  The Guild sends a navigator to demand details from the Emperor.

Scene Three is a more conventional one, and it shows us that meeting between the Emperor and the guild navigator, a monstrously mutated person who no longer resembles the rest of humanity, lays out the rest of the foundation for the film.  The Emperor is aware that House Atreides, led by the increasingly popular Duke Leto, is developing a secret army utilizing sound in some new way.  In order to get rid of House Atreides without appearing to do so, the Emperor turns over the Harkonnen fief of Arrakis to House Atreides, where the Duke Leto Atreides is to take over spice production.  But this plum assignment is actually a trap, as the Emperor intends that Baron Vladimir Harkonnen will, with secret assistance from the Emperor’s own troops, eliminate House Atreides.  The Guild sees “plans within plans,” but agrees to the plot as long as Duke Leto’s son Paul is killed.  The Emperor’s Truthsayer, a mysterious woman of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, learns of these matters with the Emperor’s connivance, and resolves to journey to Caladan to see young Paul Atreides.

And so the stage is set (again)….

Skip the summary and jump to impressions!

Short summary:  There is no such thing as a short summary to a movie like this.  It opens with ten minutes spent laying out the basic facts necessary to begin to follow the action, before we ever see the hero of the film, the young Paul Atreides.  I’ll try, if you wish, but it’s probably not going to be pretty.

Boy’s family is a potential threat to the government.  Boy’s family is targeted for destruction by the powers that be.  Boy’s family moves to the planet Dune, knowing it’s a trap.  Thanks to a traitor in Boy’s family, as well as the Government’s help, Boy’s father is killed and Boy and Boy’s mother are forced to hide.  While in hiding, Boy meets Girl.  Boy develops the powers he was bred for.  Boy falls in love with Girl.  Boy takes control of oil—oops, I mean spice—production.  Government comes after Boy.  Boy uses his powers and takes down the Government. Boy becomes a god.  And the day is saved!

Er…wow.  Okay, maybe it is possible to sum up the movie in one fell swoop.  Just be aware that the foregoing paragraph is an almost criminal simplification of a very complicated story….


One of the best things about the movie is its visual appeal, and that is certainly David Lynch’s touch at work.  He used innovative techniques—single camera filming and light flex (in which a scene is shot through a reflection of a color filter), just to name two—along with amazing design elements to create a stunningly beautiful vision of the future.  Lynch paid attention to every detail, and there are some really great ones, to make the film look good.

In terms of design, there is a unique and almost baroque look to the buildings, space ships, and technologies at play.  Consider the “house shields” of the Atreides ducal residence on Arrakis: each corner of the shield is an ornate L shaped metallic cap which actually rises from the ground as the shield effect develops.  Or consider the film’s ornithopters, a sort of blocky, stubby-winged air craft which was completely unique to film at the time.  The design elements are simply unprecedented in film, and everywhere you look there are intiguing visual details.

Or look at the costuming.  Women’s gowns are ornate, billowing affairs which ripple behind them as they walk; men’s military uniforms are formal and old-fashioned costumes which capture the romance of England’s Regency era.  The Fremen stillsuits, on the other hand, have a sleek, no-nonsense look which epitomizes the Fremen culture from which they come.

Basically, there is nothing on the screen which has not been carefully considered and designed, with thought about what that look says about the culture or faction from which it originated.  That thoughtfulness gives the film a unique and amazing look and feel.

It is unfortunate, then—and given the movie’s enormous budget, genuinely surprising—that some of the effects fall flat.  In particular, the scene in which the Guild navigator “folds space” to enable House Atreides to travel from Caladan to Arrakis is weak.  Lynch has commented that this segment was never truly finished, and it shows.  First, the mutated navigator creature looks unreal—like any movie monster, it is far more successful when it is shadowed, and can’t be clearly seen.  Next, the entity is clearly emitting pulses of light from its anus.  Yes, that’s right, the Guild’s navigator, a worm-like thing, excretes light as part of the space folding process.  Oh, it also spits it out, but nevertheless, the excretion takes place.  In a strange sequence, three planets are lit up by the creature’s spitting, and the last appears to be either Caladan or Giedi Prime—and not Arrakis, their destination.  That planet is the second one to be so identified, but in spite of that visual defect, it is to Arrakis that they go.  And the colored rings of light, the swimming stars—they all look rather silly.  The omnipresent green screen failure—in which a character’s outline is sharper than it should be—and obvious superimposition of disparate elements, primarily explosions and blaster fire—also mar the effects.  Given the amount of money involved, these failings are egregious even for an early ’80s film.

The music of the film is grand and complex.  Scored by the band Toto (!) with a contribution (“Prophecy Theme”) by Brian Eno, and performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Volksoper Choir, it has a suitably orchestral sweep which matches the film’s operatic scope.  In places, of course, there are jarring moments.  Here and there an electric guitar strikes a recurring motif which simply doesn’t fit the rest of the movie’s identity.  It’s almost as if the composers had seen the de Laurentis production of Flash Gordon (1981) and wanted to evoke both it and the grandeur of Star Wars at the same time, with decidely ineffectual results.

The acting performances are a mixed bag in this film.  Kyle MacLachlan, as Paul Atreides, and Francesca Annis, as the Lady Jessica, turn in stellar performances—which is only fitting, given how much time the novel spends developing their characters, and given the two’s proven competence as actors.  Jurgen Prochnow, as Duke Leto Atreides, makes the most of his screen time and dominates many of his scenes, fitting given his character’s place in the feudal hierarchy.  And there is no denying that the three are by turns beautiful and noble, the visual essence of royalty and noblesse oblige.

Still other performances rise to high levels precisely because of the underlying characters’ one dimensional nature.  Kenneth McMillan’s Baron Vladimir Harknonnen and Sting’s Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen are cartoonish, over-the-top performances in which the two actors chew up all the scenery in sight.  The always engaging Linda Hunt turns in a remarkably (and appropriately) creepy performance as the Shadout Mapes, and Sian Phillips’ Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam is a mysterious woman with a purpose who embodies every ambiguously powerful woman ever born (though with some directorial flaws, as she is commanded to silence and yet makes inarticulate noises, thereby undercutting the film’s theme).  A very young though recognizable Alicia Witt also turns in a deliciously eerie and disturbing performance as Paul’s younger sister (and Leto’s posthumous child), the abomination Alia.  Finally, Patrick Stewart’s turn as young Paul’s mentor Gurney Halleck, the warrior-troubadour, is tremendous fun.

Everett McGill’s Stilgar, one of the key characters of the novel, a surrogate father to Paul-in-exile, turns in a curiously ambivalent performance.  Stilgar is a Fremen, a strong warrior leader who is nevertheless as moved by love as he is by hate, and yet an eminently practical man as well, shaped by the harsh desert environment he inhabits.  Strangely, the script seems to slight this important paternal influence, though McGill does what he can with what the script serves up.  A key scene between Stilgar and Paul, which takes place on the back of one of Arrakis’ giant sand worms, in which Paul takes his place as the legendary and prophesied messiah, never occurs; Stilgar is in the grip of the legend and his culture’s myth by this point.

Other performances, however, fall a little flat, a little stilted, and to some degree that is because of the script and the film itself.  The wiley mentat Thufir Hawat, played by Freddie Jones, never quite seems to gel (and a scene deletion robs this character of the completion of his arc).  The equally important twisted mentat Piter De Vries, servant of the Harkonnens, played by Brad Dourif, also fails to captivate, though at least Dourif gets to play off Sting and McMillan at some points.  It may be that the mentats—a concept not explored or even explained by the movie (blame another scene deletion for that)—fall flat because they are “human computers.”  Their dialogue is stilted and contains odd pauses, and their emotions are somewhat repressed, making the performances seem a little lifeless.  Virginia Madsen’s Princess Irulan, who has little screen time but significantly introduces the movie and its background concepts, gives a stiff performance in the opening scene, full of further odd pauses and strange pronunciations, though in the remainder of the film she is adequate.

I have a major quibble with one particular device used in the movie: the voiced thoughts of the characters. Dune was written in a third person omniscient viewpoint, and Herbert has no compunctions about exploring his characters’ internal mindscapes and monologues.  In some ways this technique drives his characterizations, since he can get inside a character’s head and show the reader exactly what is going on.  The movie attempts to mimic this by including the unvoiced thoughts of characters on the screen as vocalizations—a jarring device that routinely disrupts the flow of the film and shatters the illusion of reality.  If it had only happened once or twice, it would have been more acceptable, but the routine use of the device felt clumsy and a little silly, and reminds the viewer again and again of the essentially false nature of the events on-screen.

The movie’s story is in three basic parts, one of the clearest three act structures of any movie I’ve reviewed in this blog, excepting only Things to Come.  In Act I, the basic exposition takes place, and the Atreides family willingly steps into the trap in the hopes that recognizing the trap will enable them to disarm it.  They collectively fail, and Duke Leto is killed and Paul and Jessica flee into the desert.  In Act II, Paul takes on the religious mantle of messiah to the native Fremen, consolidates his hold on Dune, and launches a war, culminating in his taking the Water of Life and becoming the messiah he has pretended to be.  And in Act III, Paul reverses the trap, lures the Harkonnens, the Emperor, the Guild and the Sisterhood to Dune, and defeats them all.

On paper, the three act structure looks pretty good.  In practice, sometimes the clear divisions between acts interrupt the flow of the narrative and the development of a movie’s themes, and that’s exactly what happened here.  In Act I Paul is surrounded by his formative influences, and the interplay of human emotion sustains the film and makes it interesting.  In Act II, Paul is separated from all but one of those formative influences, and the remaining one, Lady Jessica, inexplicably recedes into the background.  Paul’s growth into his own man—and also into the literal “Hand of God”—takes place without the characters we have grown to know and love, and the movie fails to do much to show his new connections or give the viewer a reason to like the new characters (Chani and Stilgar, for example).  Act II changes the focus of the film, and it has a negative effect on the film.

Part of the negative impact centers on the the gap between the operatic sweep of the universe-altering events on the screen and the human scale of the participants in those events.  Act I is warm and human and focused on human emotions, while in Act II, the pace of the movie speeds up and the focus changes.  Two years of teaching, personal development and unending warfare vanish in two minutes of exposition.  We are told of, but never see, the development of the great love between Paul and Chani.  By the third act, in which Paul has lured Baron Harkonnen and Emperor Corrino into the trap which is Arrakis, the film has pulled its focus back from a merely human act of revenge and instead shows us Paul’s god-like status—and the viewer is left somewhat unconnected from the events on the screen.  That disconnect is even odder given how successful the movie is at invoking both the large—in the form of immense vistas of the deserts, huge buildings filled with people, and the panorama of the battlefield—and the small—in its single camera focus on individuals and its mastery of light and shadow.

The theme of the film is very different from the themes explored in the novel.  As Herbert himself put it, “Paul was a man playing god, not a god who could make it rain.”  Lynch’s movie is an exploration of a man who becomes, quite literally, “the Hand of God” and fulfills the Fremen prophecy of a messiah.  Seen from this perspective, and ignoring for a moment the tremendous complexities of the storyline and its enormous cast of characters, the movie is reasonably successful.  Paul takes the Water of Life and declaims to his dead father (or, perhaps, to God or the higher power who might be said to be his father in a non-biological sense) “the Sleeper has awakened.”  Paul takes on the abilities of the mysterious Spacing Guild, as well as the powers of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, along with who knows what else—demonstrating a control over sound, the ability to kill with a word, telepathy, control over the worms of Dune, and the power to control the weather in a very short period of time.

David Lynch has never said much about Dune other than that he regards it as a failure, and that his lack of final cut authority was a major element in that failure.  The DVD had some deleted scenes, though, and having viewed them, I suspect that had those scenes been in the film that the movie’s pacing, structural and thematic flaws may have been lessened—or even eliminated.

Rafaella de Laurentis, in the introduction to the deleted scenes, tells us when shooting ended, a group including Lynch, Rafaella and Dino de Laurentis laid out four hours worth of filming with blank scenes where special effects had not yet been completed.  The goal was to identify what they would need to do to bring the film in at something closer to two hours, which is what Universal, the film’s distributor, asked for.  Those six or seven scenes, which felt incomplete and which may well be lost in their whole forms, suggest that Lynch intended to invoke and develop the religious transformation from the very beginning of the film.  Instead, after the deletions, Lynch was permitted to add one scene—that in which Paul takes the Water of Life, summons the sandworms and transforms into the Hand of God—which was intended to capture the essence of the deleted scenes.  It failed to wholly do so, converting a gradual transformation which begins in the opening scenes of the film into a pivot point—a sort of non-organic, not fully anticipated change in direction.

Specifically, the deleted scenes emphasize the Bene Gesserit’s role in the breeding scheme and get the Kwisatz Hadderach idea out in front of the viewer in the first moments of the film, when Princess Irulan’s opening scene takes place (something of critical importance, given that the last line of the theatrical cut, spoken by Alicia Witt, was “And how can this be?  For he is the Kwisatz Hadderach!”).  The mentat place in the political and social order is at least mentioned, and the Guild’s ability to control the Emperor, as well as the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood’s secret plans to create a god-like entity under their control, all are explicitly stated instead of reduced to background elements.  They also explain the Fremen prophecy of a messiah who will lead them to true freedom, and emphasize that while the Guild and the Emperor and the Bene Gesserit all have their plans, the Fremen have a secret of their own, and that is in service to “a higher power.”  Parenthetically, one of those scenes is a wonderful interaction between the incomparable Linda Hunt’s Shadout Mapes and Francesca Annis’ Lady Jessica which, while overdramatic, was a great deal of fun to watch.

If those scenes had not been deleted, and instead the religious transformation had developed as Lynch appears to have intended, the film’s second half might have felt less like a change in focus and more like a fulfillment of the movie’s early promise.  And the third act, the climactic battle in which Paul’s forces defeat those of the Emperor and the Harkonnens, as well as pulling the fangs of both the Sisterhood and the Guild, might have had more emotional power as the full realization of Act II’s religious transformation.

The theatrical cut of the film runs about two hours and fifteen minutes.  According to Rafaella de Laurentis, there was never a completed “director’s cut” and that version of the film is all that ever existed until the extended edition was released.  The extended edition—which credits Alan Smithee as director, since Lynch refused to let Universal put his name on it—-runs two hours and fifty-seven minutes, a mere forty-three more minutes.  And yet in that forty-three minutes, in an attempt to make the film more comprehensible to the casual viewer, someone has managed to completely wreck a film which was already problematic.  Eight minutes of exposition, told over matte paintings which might well be pre-production artwork, precede the original opening scene—and bring the movie’s initial exposition to something along the lines of eighteen minutes.  Eighteen minutes of screen time before we get to the protagonist!  Eighteen minutes of exposition in which we are told, instead of shown, how the universe works—and some points are repeated during that exposition.  The narrator shows up again here and there during the course of the extended edition with more matte paintings, and unfinished clips are woven into the film from the cutting room floor and, disturbingly, as repetitions from earlier points in the film (a spaceship landing which is visible only once in the theatrical cut, for example, shows up three or four times in the extended edition, even though the destination is different in each of the scenes).

In other words, the extended edition represents a response to the idea that the film is confusing and hard to follow—which is probably true—which rather neatly illustrates that David Lynch knew what he was doing….


If Total Recall is an example of a difficult development process because there’s not enough in the original story to carry a film, then Dune is an example of the reverse—there’s simply too much story in the original novel to be captured in a film.  In both cases lengthy and troubled development processes provide ample warning that a catastrophe is well under way.  Add to that the fact that you had too many cooks in the kitchen here, with very different ideas about how the meal was supposed to turn out, and you have a recipe for disaster.  The movie is a complicated, unfocused mess.

For all that, though, there are facets of the movie which shine.  The opening three scenes, with their economical and efficient delivery of the necessary background, were an astonishing achievement which also echoed their source.  The movie’s effects are largely successful, and some of the performances are magnificent.  Finally, the design and camera work for the film is simply fantastic, creating an amazing world and culture which is worth the price of admission all by itself.

There is much to be said, too, of the differences between the movie and the novel.  I am personally quite fascinated by the differences in the Spacing Guild’s emphasis on mathematics, the Mentat focus on data processing, and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood’s primacy in the arena of self-knowledge and self-control as methods of developing human potential to the fullest.  And the change to the “wierding way” of fighting to include sound weapons so as to avoid, in Lynch’s words, “kung-fu on sand dunes,” is almost a story in itself.  On another note, the parallels between Dune, the Fremen and the spice to the Middle East, the culture of Islam and oil are also worth examining.  But I have tried to keep the focus on the film as a stand-alone work of art in its own right.

Examined in that light, Dune is an entertaining, though overly complex and difficult, movie which fails to fully or effectively develop its main theme and has some issues with pacing and focus.  It fails to fully exploit the emotional power of Paul’s revenge on those who have wronged him, and almost wholly neglects the Fremen enslavement and rise to power over their oppressors.  But it is also a visual feast with some nice acting, in some ways a cinematic triumph, and it does repay the effort spent in watching and following its complex plot structures.  It’s not a Top 50 film, but it’s an interesting movie and it has a lot to teach us.


2 Responses to “Too Much Novel for One Movie: Detour for Dune”

  1. Very good break-down of the film and some unique insights into some very complex aspects. My only moot point is around the fact that the prophecy was wrong. Wasn’t it Paul’s son who became God and not Paul himself…

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