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The Evolution Of ‘Dune’

By November 8, 2021November 9th, 2021No Comments

Dune has had many lives. Bust out the Spice and get ready for another walk through giant killer sandworm-infested deserts because Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi masterpiece is in flight again. Right now everyone is buzzing about Denis Villeneuve’s recent incarnation that came out a few weeks ago. However, the Dune legacy goes deep…and there’s a lot more to come. Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) has a sequel scheduled to drop in 2023 and a TV adaptation in the works.

Dune 2021Dennis Villeneuve

The director’s vision for Dune hopes to be large enough to contain the size and scope of the original story, between the two-part film and HBO series, Dune: The Sisterhood. He is the second director to bring Dune to the silver screen and one of many to develop an adaptation. In fact, so many have taken a crack at Dune that some readers feel the story is meant to live only on the printed page. The legacy of past Dune film adaptation attempts is a universe unto itself…

Adapting The Unadaptable

Frank Herbert's Dune Series

The sheer scope of the Dune Series is enough material for at least ten films. Villeneuve will have only adapted the first half of the first book, even after Dune: Part II. So, what is it about Frank Herbert’s iconic sci-fi novel that makes it impossible to contain in a single film? Well, it takes place thousands of years in the future but there’s more to it than that. There are plenty of sci-fi films that take place in different realities that don’t require such extensive exposition to bring viewers up to speed. For instance, look at Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). The first Star Wars gives the viewer a sense of that entire world. It could have stood on its own two feet without a sequel. That is if it wasn’t such a cash cow that prompted a franchise resulting in eight more films and countless other products. 

But Dune doesn’t necessarily lend itself to corporate exploitation in the same way a film like Star Wars does. Obviously, turning a profit is Warner Bros. chief concern with every film. This is especially true with a big-budget production like Dune. However, the choice to stretch the book into two feature films and a TV mini-series is primarily an artistic one for Villeneuve. The slow-moving treatment of Dune certainly amplifies the tone. We feel as if we too are on a journey through space, in a time so far off in the future that conscious beings are accustomed to saying more telepathically than verbally.

Directing a Dune adaptation has reportedly been a lifelong dream for Villeneuve…and there are many others who have held the same ambition. Actually, the history of Dune adaptations is arguably much more interesting than any of the films. 

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘Dune’

Master surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky had big plans to direct the original film adaptation of Dune before David Lynch got his hands on the project and turned it into a cult classic panned by critics and adored by (many) fans. Dune’s star-crossed past created generations of Dunephiles who are forever eager for the next wave. 

Jodorowsky's Dune

So, where to begin? Anyone familiar with Jodorowski’s work knows his version of Dune is the most spectacularly weird space oddity that never was. Cinema is forever at a loss because this project never came to fruition. Jodorowsky’s Dune would have set the record straight from the start along with enjoying the status of being the greatest film of all time. Those who would claim otherwise are simply ignorant. 

Pre-production Mayhem 

The cast was set to include: Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Gloria Swanson, and ‘70s French disco queen Amanda Lear, among others. The Holy Mountain and El Topo director optioned prog-rock greats Tangerine Dream and Gong before finally deciding that Pink Floyd and Magma would score the film. In 1976, Frank Herbert met Jordorowski in Europe to scope out the pre-production and found the director had already spent $2mm out of the $9.5mm budget. Salvador Dali’s salary to play The Emperor was set at $100,000 an hour. If Dan O’Bannon’s script were filmed, it would have translated to a 14-hour feature. Frank Herbert reportedly said the pre-production book, “was the size of a phone book.” 

French illustrator Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, finished the concept art and storyboards. The script was done. The all-star cast was set. Then, the financial backing dried up. As a result, this tower of Babel of ‘70s excess never came to be…and the world is a lesser place for it. Scriptwriter Dan O’Bannon was committed to a psychiatric hospital after the failure of his epic script, possibly the most epic to have ever been written. He went on to write twelve more scripts that never saw the light of day before finally hitting on Alien. Now, that’s a determined writer. They simply don’t make them like they used to. The infamous pre-production book for Jodorowski’s Dune featuring Moebius’ storyboards and the massive Dan O’Bannon script circulated throughout Hollywood in the ensuing years.

Jodorowski's Dune pre-production book

This relic of an unrealized epic recently went up for auction via the prestigious British auction house, Christie’s. The price is currently at 35,000 euro but don’t worry–there’s still time to place your bid!  

Dino De Laurentis Acquires The Rights

After Jodorowsky’s Dune took a dive, legendary Italian producer Dino De Laurentis bought the rights to all of the Dune books in 1978. The famed Fellini and Rossellini producer was coming off a string of films working with the likes of Sydney Lumet, John Sturges, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman, and William Friedkin, among many others. Now, one of the fathers of Italian cinema was going to take a crack at Dune. De Laurentis hired Frank Herbert to write the adaptation of his own book, which resulted in a 175-page script. De Laurentis thought the length of the script was unacceptable and fired Herbert.

Ridley Scott’s ‘Dune’

After Herbert’s forced departure from adapting his own work for the screen, De Laurentis hired Two-Lane Blacktop writer Rudy Wurlitzer to write the script. Ridley Scott signed on to direct and spent seven months working on the project before dropping out to direct Alien. During that time Wurlitzer had come up with a first draft that was a more manageable distillation of Herbert’s script.

However, Scott realized the project would have to result in two feature films and would require at least two years of pre-production before principal photography could begin on the first film. Scott’s older brother Frank died unexpectedly of cancer during the months he spent working on the script with Wurlitzer. The experience of losing his brother brought the director’s own mortality into focus and he realized that life is too short to spend two and a half years working in pre-production to adapt Dune. Scott handed the project back over to De Laurentis and went on to direct a script by Jodorowsky Dune alumnus Dan O’Bannon. This turned out to be Alien, a career-maker for both the director and writer. 

David Lynch’s ‘Dune’ (1984)

Dune 1984

Hot off the commercial and critical success of The Elephant Man, David Lynch was a sought-after director in the early ‘80s. Lynch was so hot, he even turned down an offer from George Lucas to direct Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi. Why? He wanted to sign on with De Laurentis to have a crack at a Dune adaptation–and what an adaptation it was. Finally, a director was bringing this behemoth through to production. Lynch worked on the script for six months alongside The Elephant Man co-writers Eric Bergren and Christian De Vore. However, the director took matters into his own hands after a while due to creative differences.

Lynch went on to write five more Dune scripts before shooting finally began in 1983 using the 135-page sixth script. While shooting, Lynch came up with his seventh draft of the script. This would have been the final three-hour version of the film if the studio gave him final cut. Famously, the studio did not give Lynch final cut. 

Sting in David Lynch's Dune

Dune was shot at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City. The $40mm budget film boasted 80 sets built on 16 sound stages with a crew of 1,700. The eclectic cast features (now) cult-cinema icons and ‘80s pop culture heroes. These actors include Jack Nance (Eraserhead), Max Von Sydow (The Seventh Seal), Dean Stockwell (Blue Velvet), Brad Dourif (Wise Blood), Patrick Stewart (Star Trek), and British rocker, Sting. David Lynch even makes a brief cameo as a “spice miner.” Kyle MacLachlan stars as Paul Atradies in his first-ever feature film role, sparking a career-long working relationship with Lynch as the director’s “alter-ego.” 

Kyle MacLaughlin Dune 1984

A Critical and Box Office Failure

Despite extensive advertising and merchandising campaigns before its release Dune was a domestic failure. The film grossed only $27.4mm on a production budget of $42mm. Roger Ebert’s short, dispassionate review panned the film and everyone involved, which no doubt had an impact on ‘80s public opinion. 

“This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.”  

Long before the rise of the internet, movies lived and died in the press. Critics like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael wielded mighty power through their typewriters. If Ebert said something was great, people rushed to see it. If he thought something sucked, well…you know. Audiences today are much more receptive to Lynch’s Dune. The kitchy special effects are now hilarious and Lynch’s career of strange, dreamlike films place this intended blockbuster into context. It’s like a big middle finger to the Hollywood establishment, and we love Lynch for it. The studio so butchered his intented three-hour cut that the director eventually disowned the film, asking to be credited as Alan Smithee, a pseudonym directors of the past have famously used to distance themselves from a project. 

‘Dune’ TV Miniseries (2000) 

Over the ensuing decade, executive producer Richard P. Rubinstein acquired the rights to all six of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels and hired John Harrison to write and direct a miniseries adaptation. Rubinstein and Harrison had worked together on several of George Romero’s horror films in the ‘80s. The three-part miniseries starring Acadamy Award-winning actor John Hurt (Altered States) as Duke Leto aired in 2000 on the Sci-Fi Channel. In an interview with The New York Times, Hurt said he was drawn to the project because of his love for the novel and the political implications in Herbert’s writing. 

“I was a science fiction junkie … [Harrison] captured Herbert’s prophetic reflection of our own age, where nation-states are competing with the new global economy and its corporate elements.”

‘Frank Herbert’s Dune’ and ‘Children Of Dune’

Frank Herbert's Dune 2000Children Of Dune 2003

Frank Herbert’s Dune wound up becoming the highest-rated miniseries for the network and won two Emmy Awards in 2001 for outstanding cinematography and special effects. Producer Runinstien said his aim was to be as faithful to Herbert’s version as possible. This adaptation spawned another mini-series in 2003, Children Of Dune, based on Herbert’s novel of the same name. Children Of Dune also aired on the Sci-Fi Channel and was well-received by television audiences. 

Dennis Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ (2021) 

Based on Dune’s box office success this time around, Warner Bros. Pictures greenlit a sequel a week after the film was released. Within the first month, Dune grossed nearly $300mm on a production budget of $165mm. Unlike its Lynchian predecessor, this Dune incarnation has been generally well-received. Critics and audiences are praising the film for its stunning visuals and inclusivity. 

Liet Kynes Dune 2021

Villeneuve’s version places even more female characters at the center of the story, including a gender-swap of Liet-Kynes, the imperial paleontologist of Arrakis. Max Von Sydow, the legendary Swedish actor and Ingmar Bergman favorite, played the role in Lynch’s version. This time, British actress Sharon Duncan Brewster has stepped into the role. Her performance elicited praise from publications like Vanity Fair, who hails Duncan-Brewster as Dune’s secret weapon.

‘Dune: Part II’ (2023)

Dennis Villeneuve says he is currently writing the second installment of Dune. Warner Bros. Pictures recently greenlit the sequel based on the success of Dune, which came out earlier this month. Reportedly, the sequel will focus more on Zendaya’s character Chani, who is helping Timothée Chalamet Paul Atraedies to fulfill his destiny. Stay duned…


Patrick Salway is a writer, musician, and actor living in Los Angeles. Follow him on social media @blone_noble and @veneer_publications. Listen to VENEER. 

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