Dune isn’t an easy book to bring to the big screen (and if you don’t believe me, ask Alejandro Jodorovsky): it’s long, full of characters, it builds an entire universe with its own specific terminology and with many civilizations each with its own culture, and it deals with visions, conscience and prescience (the ability to understand macro-history and anticipate it)… But the task is even more difficult if the producers of the aforementioned film force the director to compress everything in just 130 minutes. And this is exactly what happened to David Lynch during the making of his version of Dune which eventually was released in 1984.
I wrote here about the book Dune by Frank Herbert and I tried to convey the idea of how epic and complex the story is. While watching the film written and directed by David Lynch, which is almost unanimously considered a failure (especially by the director himself), I realized that poor Lynch had understood Herbert’s work well and it was his intention to adapt it faithfully. You can understand this from how all the main elements of the book have found a place in his film, including the Muad’dib prophecy, the power games of the Emperor with the noble Houses, and the role of the spice.
There are also things taken from other books of the saga, and many dialogues suggest that there was a lot more to it than what eventually was included into the final product. Great care had also been taken in the creation of amazing sets, in the spectacular special effects (which include the creatures made by Carlo Rambaldi), and in the soundtrack composed by Toto and Brian Eno. Finally, the cast was stellar: Kyle MacLachlan was perhaps a little too old, but he was a good Paul Atreides. And then think of Patrick Stewart (Gurney Halleck), Sean Young (Chani), Brad Dourif (Piter De Vries), Everett McGill (Stilgar), Kenneth McMillan (Baron Harkonnen), Sting (Feyd Rautha), Max von Sydow (Kynes-Liet) and so on and so forth! The only one who seemed a little less appropriate to me is José Ferrer in the role of the Emperor, in my opinion characterized differently than in the book. But…
…It would be hard to say that Lynch’s film was successful. Watching it with a certain knowledge of the first books of the Dune saga, it’s clear why: the film suffers from excessive cuts due to the need to tell the whole story in an impossibly short film. In a sense, the result is similar to Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings (1978).
In particular, Dune spends an hour and twenty minutes narrating the events of the first part of the book, twenty minutes on the second part, and a scarce half hour on the final part. The result is that a non-book-reader viewer ends up watching the film without understanding who the Fremen are or why they are important, since the film does not explain how strong they are in battle or why they hate the Harkonnen so much. Also, we see nothing of Paul’s rise to power in their society.
And speaking of battles, the film fails to convey the idea of the hand-to-hand fights which are described so well by Herbert, and the battles of the Sardaukar against the Atreides, and then of the Fremen against the Harkonnen and the Sardaukar, are a real let-down (I was expecting lasguns, siege weapons, explanations on why shields could not be used on Arrakis… there’s nothing of that!).
And then there are too many characters who would’ve needed more time to be developed and instead seem little more than extras. I’m thinking of Gurney Halleck, Kynes-Liet, Duke Leto himself… and Feyd-Rautha! The latter in the film barely says anything, so much so that it’s impossible to understand his role, while in the book he’s well characterized: like everyone, he makes plans and manipulates people, and he likes to fight in his uncle’s arena. In short, he’s an interesting character!
That said, the first part of the film remains excellent, the sandworms infesting the deserts of Dune are spectacular, and there are good actor performances across the board, but the second half of the movie is a mess. What a missed opportunity! That’s a real shame, because we all pay for the short-sightedness of the producers, that is Dino De Laurentiis, who had a potential jewel in their hands and destroyed it by forcing Lynch to do some sub-par job. Ciao!