Keeping true to the spirit of any novel is an incredibly difficult challenge for a screenplay writer. The nuance of the narrative and the depth of character development is difficult to match in an impatient medium that frowns on running times longer than two hours. Dune, Frank Herbert’s opus, beloved by science fiction fans and by most accounts, the best selling science fiction book of all time, is an examplar of nuance and depth. I’ve read the book no less than a half dozen times, each time extracting more out of the complex world that Frank Herbert created. Following the story of House Atredies through the millennia Dune, along with Herbert’s original five follow-on books, are not just another science fiction serial. They collectively build a rich history, a sociopolitical and socioeconomic study of a feudal universe that is heavily dependent upon a single natural resource. The depth of development of religion and mysticism, coupled with the ecology of a seemingly barren planet is something I’ve never encountered elsewhere in any of my reading. How can you replicate this in two, or even three hours?
Ten thousand years after the Butlerian Jihad, during which the thinking machines were destroyed to save humanity, mankind has spread across the galaxy as part of a great galactic Imperium. Many great houses have emerged with fealty to an Emperor desperate to maintain control of his realm. Without computers, interplanetary space travel is achievable only through the prescient abilities of the Spacing Guild’s human navigators, who can “see” through folded space. To fold space without the ability to predict where one would emerge is to risk warping into the center of a planet or star. A religious order of Reverend Mothers, the Bene Gesserit have developed extra-human abilities, most notably to tap the collective knowledge of all of their female ancestors. The Reverend Mothers’ most coveted achievement is their curated, millennia old human breeding program to manipulate the genetics of mankind and create the ultimate super human. While all covet the spice melange for its geriatric properties, the navigators and Reverend Mothers require the drug in great quantity to facilitate their powers. Melange is found only on the desert planet Arrakis, a.k.a. Dune. Through a mining contract, currently under the control of the detested House Harkonnen, Dune is squeezed for every last bit of the spice, while its indigenous peoples, the Fremen, are pitched into a guerrilla war to vanquish the Harkonnen from their world. As a sole source supply, “he who controls the spice, controls the universe.” In re-awarding the mining contract to his cousin, the Duke Leto Atredies, the Emperor has found a way to neutralize his cousin’s growing popularity. Highly respected amongst the Great Houses, but mired in a generations long blood feud with House Harkonnen, the contract places House Atredies in an complex and precarious position. When all goes wrong, Leto’s teenage son Paul is cast out into a harsh, waterless world with a complex ecology, savage but disciplined warriors, feints within feints, and massive sand worms the size of space craft. The Fremen believe that Paul is something more; someone their elders have prophesied, someone the Reverend Mothers simultaneously covet and fear, someone who will irreversibly alter the Imperium and the path of mankind.
There have been two attempted adaptations of this book. The 1984 David Lynch movie starring Kyle MacLachlan
as Paul Atredies is what ultimately sucked me in to read the book. It was at times a visually stunning film (and at others laughably amateurish), that had the makings of a blockbuster. Alas, the cumulative talent of MacLachlan of Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Dean Stockwell, and a musical score by rock band Toto were not enough to get past the scattered editing, confusing story and uneven acting performances. It was a box office failure. Syfy (nee SciFi) developed two miniseries in 2000 and 2003 on the first three Dune books. While faring better with critics and audiences, including winning multiple Emmy awards, the series fell somewhat flat for me. The weak visual effects were a distraction from the story. It was often very clear that the audience was seeing a matte painting with imperfect “green screen” placement of actors. The costuming was in some cases outlandishly far from what was described in the books, and I had a hard time buying some of the actors after seeing the David Lynch version (I’m talking to you, William Hurt). It all smacked of a low-budget, made for TV movie.