Is Dune unfilmable?

Frank Herbert wrote what is perhaps the masterpiece of science fiction space opera. ‘Dune’, whilst at its best in the first novel, is actually a series of 8 books the latter two of which were finished by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson after Frank died in 1986.

The universe that Herbert created was rich in depth and colour. He envisioned mankind far in the future, which following a machine/computer uprising has shunned technology and yet has managed to maintain a feudal galactic community. The characters felt real and their motivations compelling. Bad guys weren’t one dimensional, Harkonnens weren’t bad for the sake of it, they were a product of Giedi Prime and the Baron’s sadistic mind, likewise, Fremen could be seen as an allegory for terrorist middle eastern society but Herbert gave them a subtle nuance which made them a powerful and interesting culture.

Dune is a deeply ecological novel, something I never realised on first reading but then I was young and not yet a qualified ecologist myself. The lifecycle of Sandworms and the production of Spice create a moral story about the exploitation of nature whilst the pastoral Atreides vie with the industrial Harkonnens and the decadent Imperial House Corrino giving a societal and class context.

So the books have depth and great characters, its ripe for film adaptation but so far things have been slow. The first attempt to make it to cinemas was David Lynch’s 1984 version that starred  Kyle MacLachlan and Sting in strange metal underpants. The film was badly received at the time but has since become a cult classic. I enjoy the film and it is a faithful representation of the book but something is missing. Lynch captured the pseudo-gothic atmosphere of the book and beautifully imagined Lady Jessica and Thufir Hawat but failed to represent the scale and scope of the universe.

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A standard film, 136 minutes, in this case, isn’t enough to go into the detail of the book, both the Bene Gesserit and the Fremen are glossed over and if you haven’t read the book I m not sure the Spacing Guild, CHOAM or the  Landsraad will be as rich or as understandable. The film had great music and although Baron Harkonnen has hammed up it did feature Patrick Stewart carrying a pug dog into battle as Gurney Halleck.

Thus it was with some interest that I watched the SyFy channels miniseries that covered the first second and third books. These were well received and won several Emmys, the longer length allowed more of the world to be realised however casting wasn’t as tight. Unlike the film, the series did capture the scope of the film but captured less of the atmosphere. The pulled in good actors including William Hurt, Ian McNiece and James McAvoy. In fact, the series version of Gurney played by P.H Moriarty was closer to my image of the book Gurney than ST: TNG’s Captain Picard. The special effects, which can make or break a Sci-fi production, were good for a small channel but not as what one would find in a movie scale production.

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So in both cases, the series and the film, it was close but not quite. This is hardly surprising as the first film project in 1973 by Alejandro Jodorwsky had a script that ran for 14 hours! What then, is the answer? What is needed is a Peter Jackson for the franchise. Jackson managed to produce the previously unfilmable Lord of the Rings Trilogy, creating a masterful recreation of Tolkien’s world. The atmosphere and world were faithfully recreated even though some plot elements were altered. Faithful recreations are hard and Jackson only caught lightening once as his Hobbit Trilogy whilst a visual feast was bloated and hindered by populist casting.

With the advent of the TV phenomena of Game of Thrones suggests that a TV series is again a possible format. They have shown putting in the budget to support the narrative is a winner but then there is the risk of faithfulness to the books, that although George R.R Martin is happy with the series it doesn’t necessarily conform to the book series in fact seasons 7 and 8 will be out before Martin’s novels and not guaranteed to match! Dune, of course, was doing inter/intra-family drama long before GoT.

There is a project in motion. In 2016 Legendary Entertainment acquired the rights to the franchise and has secured Denis Villeneuve as a director, safe hands maybe? Villeneuve’s project looks to be a series of films with the first film covering the first half of the first book. That is all the information so far. The main website has a single post detailing the rights acquisition in November 2016 and nothing more, so perhaps this is a slow burner?

Is Dune unfilmable? The answer is a blatant no. We have two versions already, both of which fail on some score. We still await that golden masterpiece and we can only pray to the gods of celluloid (or the digital film material of today) that Villeneuve is the saviour and that we all get the representation of Herbert’s work that he and we deserve. Everybody get your fingers crossed.

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