Hey, I never said this blog was going to be all new movies, now did I??
If you’re a child of the 80s like me, you probably remember a very strange David Lynch film based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune. Also, if you are me, your memories were very vague, consisting mainly of images of a gross fat guy in what looked like soiled pajamas floating in the air, an almost-naked Sting wearing only a blue stylized Speedo, and people going around in form-fitting suits with innertube-like bulges and glowing blue eyes.
Recently, as I have been slowly collecting the films with which I very much identify my youth, I purchased Dune after catching part of the film on YouTube. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered and certainly wasn’t as bad as the reviews I’d read (contemporary reviews, as the film is now viewed as fairly faithful to the novel). There’s a certain twisted quality to the film that makes it intriguing.
I won’t try to summarize the plot; Wikipedia is just fine for that. Besides which, the story is one that defies any easy summary. Herbert’s novels encompass so much that it resists an easy boil-down. However, the basic premise is this–in the year 10,191 (approx. eight thousand years from now), the Known Universe is ruled by a feudal empire; there is an Emperor, whose power is kept in tenuous balance by the Landsraad, which is a collective of the Great Houses, the CHOAM corporation, which controls all the business dealings of the universe, the Spacing Guild, which holds a monopoly on space travel; at the center of it all is a drug called melange–or, as those who share cat memes no doubt know well–the spice, which exists in only one place–a desert planet called Arrakis. The spice extends life and expands consciousness, and a poison called The Water of Life enables certain members of a sect called the Bene Gesserit to become Reverend Mothers and gain powers of genetic memory and Truthsaying.
That’s the setting; the plot itself concerns two feuding Houses (Atreides and Harkonnen) and the Emperor’s machinations to eliminate the Duke of House Atreides, who represents a threat to his power. It’s a huge scope, involving plots and betrayal a young man with a mysterious destiny, who is driven to revenge after his father is killed by their mortal enemy. He flees into the deep desert with his mother and meets the Fremen, a desert-dwelling people whose ferocity in battle presents him with an opportunity to get revenge on his enemies and eventually take control of the planet, and thus the universe.
With those elements, the movie is very faithful to the book; yes, Dylan McDermott isn’t a teenager and some of the visual elements are extremely bizarre, but the plotline is the same. There is some very good acting from some of the cast (including Patrick Stewart) and some total overacting, but overall it’s not bad.
Where the film strays are elements from the novel that would admittedly be very hard to get across in film, less so with today’s technology but insanely difficult back in 1984. One of the main themes in the novel is the fact that Paul Atreides has prescience, or visions of a myriad of future timelines. The element missing from the film (aside from a very brief mention that is never followed up on) is that Paul, while training the Fremen in the weirding way (which is presented in the film as some kind of device worn around the neck and something held in the hands that allows the user to destroy with sound, but in the novel is more like a martial art), can see a tremendous Jihad that will be released by his ascendency to the throne. Much of the novel is involved with Paul trying to find a way to avoid this jihad, but ultimately when he defeats the Emperor and kills the heir to House Harkonnen he knows that it is inevitable that the Jihad will be released by the people who hold him as their messiah. The Paul of the film is not conflicted by this vision and is more occupied with his revenge, and the film ends not with the unease of what will be unleashed, but with the neat ending of Paul bringing rain to Arrakis (which doesn’t happen in the novel).
This is overall the compromise that often happens when books are translated to film–they are different media with different tools for telling a story, and the length of a book versus the shorter run time of even a longer movie means that things have to be condensed, summarized, or sometimes left out entirely. When it comes to Dune, no matter the opinion on Lynch’s choices for visuals, he comes very very close, far closer than many other adaptations.