INFLUENCES: David Lynch’s Dune

Attempting to bring Frank Herbert’s mighty mystico-socio-political series of Dune novels to the big screen has had a somewhat fraught history, to say the least. Back in the seventies, for instance, when I was a teen obsessed with sci-fi literature and art, I was highly intrigued by artist Chris Foss’ conceptual drawings (seen in his Dragon’s Dream book 21st Century Foss) created for Chilean film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed adaptation of the first book in the series, Dune. Bizarrely, he cast Salvador Dali as Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV and also asked Orson Welles to play Baron Harkonnen. As well as Foss, he also brought on board the comics illustrator Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and HR Giger (one can only wonder what the film would have ended up being like with people like that involved). Needless to say, the whole thing collapsed due to extravagance.

Other attempts have also been made by producer Arthur P Jacobs, who asked David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India) to take on directorial duties; and also the late Dino De Laurentiis bought the film rights and hired Ridley Scott (Alien) to direct a version as well, but after just seven months he walked out due to personal reasons and also a realisation that the film would be a massive and lengthy undertaking, something he felt he couldn’t commit to.

In the present, efforts are once more being made to bring it to a cinema screen near you. However, just as in Jodorowsky and Scott’s day, the production appears to be plagued with problems. This time it’s Paramount Pictures who are trying their best to get it made, but already it appears that directors have come and gone even before a single frame has been shot (Pierre Morel and Peter Berg, both named as directors, have both left the production). Pre-production has already begun, with a release date slated for sometime in 2012 (according to IMDb), but it’s now increasingly looking likely that it’ll never see the light of day – with more pressure being piled on Paramount because the option they have will expire relatively soon.

Despite all the difficulties, one director did manage to film Frank Herbert’s novel – David Lynch. However even this version carried on the tradition of having less than a smooth journey from script to screen. Lynch himself has stated that pressure from financiers and producers curtailed his artistic freedom and vision, meaning that when it was eventually released in 1985 he distanced himself from the project. The compromises he would presumably have had to make in order to satisfy the various camps necessarily resulted in a diluted film, a fact that was reflected in the lukewarm critical reception it received.

Since then, like so many other films that were panned on their initial cinema showings, Dune has built up a cult following, of which I proudly consider myself a member. I saw the film before I read the novels and, even though the film was in some respects confusing, I absolutely loved it. I locked into the arabic-influenced mysticism immediately – and the scene where Paul Atreides (played by Lynch mainstay Kyle MacLachlan) is standing in the desert, waiting for the sandworms to appear, and played out against Brian Eno’s haunting Prophecy Theme, positively sent shudders through me.

Even on a superficial level, however, it had everything that would instantly draw me into both Lynch’s vision and the world of Arrakis, politically and socially, that it portrayed. You have internecine intrigue, political and familial struggle between the warring houses of Harkonnen and Atreides, the promise of an all-powerful saviour (the Kwisatz Haderach) who would set things right, linked to the efforts of a religious order of nuns to prevent the birth and maturation of that saviour. Plus it took place within star-spanning societies and hierarchies, worlds very much different from our own. On top of that it starred many well-known names of the time: Kyle McLachlan, Francesca Annis, Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Freddie Jones, Everett McGill, Jürgen Prochnow, Patrick Stewart and Dean Stockwell amongst many others. Each of the actors instilled their performances with an authenticity that brought great depth and complexity to the film.

I have often felt that Lynch’s version has been much-maligned, both then and now. Having subsequently read the novels, I can see how difficult it must have been for the scriptwriter to condense all that convoluted plotting and subtext into a comprehensible screenplay. Even just that first instalment in the six novel series is pretty daunting reading – inter-relationships, personal and political, are extremely complex and weave a tangled web, indeed. Added to that are deeply abstruse philosophical and socio-political themes that are integral to the narrative – is it any wonder, then, that it’s had such a chequered cinematic history.

Forget what the critics at the time said about it – I suggest you hire it out or buy it, watch it, and just let the atmospheres and intrigues seep into the pores of your skin, and enjoy a celluloid spectacle that was both forward-looking for its time and yet redolent of the era when it was made. It’s definitely nowhere near as bad as it’s made out to be.

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2 Responses to “INFLUENCES: David Lynch’s Dune

  1. Sefton Disney Says:

    I’m delighted to discover I’m not alone in my fondness for Lynch’s “Dune”!

    I’ve always thought the movie was unfairly maligned as well, Simon. Not only do I think it’s actually a pretty decent adaptation of the novel, I think it’s also a surprisingly “Lynchian” one… far more so than most Lynch fans give it credit for. It’s a very unusual example of a big-budget SF movie that is very much still a personal vision.

    In some ways, I think it was almost too faithful to the novel – for example, it’s always struck me that the much-criticised voiceover was a literal adaptation of the internal, italicised monologues which are so much part of the novel.

    Also, I think a large portion of the movie’s non-fan audience might well have been completely unprepared for a SF movie containing such deeply strange ideas as reality-warping spices and mile-long worms, and the deeply mystical and/or kinky vibe of a lot of the scenes… this was a time when “The Empire Strikes Back” was considered “dark” by many, after all…

    Technically, I think it’s extremely impressive. Many of the effects would be difficult to pull off today; Given the technology of the mid-80s, I think Lynch and his crew did an amazing job.

    Like you say, a film that is nowhere near as bad as it’s often portrayed, and one that deserves reappraisal.

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