Recently at work, I was bringing in my really old board game, Dune (from Avalon Hill.) My office is a pretty cool place to work, and at lunch we occasionally get a game of something going. Since we’ve played some games in the past that required more than a few lunches to complete (Game of Thrones, Small World) I thought Dune might be a good addition to lunchtime strategic competitions.
One of the interns from the cubicle pod near ours saw me carrying the box, and asked if I knew that they’d made a movie called Dune. I did know that. Oh, I had that knowledge.
Back in 1984, I was very excited to see David Lynch’s adaptation of one of my favorite science fiction books. I roped my dad into coming along, since I’d convinced him to read Dune during a summer vacation trip. He had agreed that the book was great.
After we saw the movie, we agreed that unlike the book, the movie was not.
Okay, what follows might be the geekiest, rantiest thing I’ve ever blogged. Hopefully, I’ll restrain myself. It’ll be hard, because I really loved the book. I loved the world building that went into the story, the big ideas, the fact that re-reading Dune was a joy, because each time I read it I felt like I was reading something fresh and new.
Dune the movie might have been my first experience of Hollywood taking a beloved property and just not understanding it nor respecting it. Hey, I was young and naive then, I’ve since learned that that’s exactly what Hollywood does.
But I’m still annoyed about Dune.
Now, straight up: Dune the book would not be an easy thing to adapt. (The Sci Fi Channel miniseries (pre-SyFy) did a pretty meritorious job adapting Dune, less well at adapting the later books.)
- It’s long. It’s a long story.
- There’s jargon and complex backstory.
- There are lots of characters.
- A lot of exposition is told in the internal monologue of the characters.
- And it’s also very talky, where discussions between characters are full of subtext and innuendo and hidden meanings. Literally. Everyone in the book seems to be part of a faction that has a secret language, where this can happen:
Reverend Mother: Jessica, would you mind bringing me my shawl? (Translation: I need you to kill the Emperor’s second cousin. Preferably by garroting him with some shigawire.)
Jessica: Of course. (Translation: Get bent, you hag. I’m carrying Duke Leto’s child, and I’m going to produce a boy, and we’re going to name him Paul!)
Reverend Mother: Thank you dear. (Translation: Gah! Sputter! Egad!)
So I was not exactly expecting the movie to be as good as the book. I just needed the movie to be good. It wasn’t. Now, I might be biased. One of my buddies told me that had I not read the book, or had the movie been made in a universe where the book never existed, it would have been an okay science fiction movie. Sure, I can imagine that. Just like Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves might have been an acceptable swashbuckling movie had there not been a long legacy of Robin Hood stories to shine a light on how awful it was.
But I’m going to live in the now, and treat the movie like it is, an adaptation of a highly regarded work of science fiction.
I don’t really blame David Lynch for making a less than awesome Dune movie. It’s possible he did what he could with what he had. There were pressures and problems. The movie had to be made, and I’m sure there were lots of compromises. But the movie had failings, and I’m ready to list them off.
Visuals – What are They Wearing?
It’s a problem for the movie that Frank Herbert’s prose is very descriptive. He paints a scene with just a few words and it makes sense. The mind fills in the rest. After I read Dune in high school, I was given for my birthday a copy of the wonderful Illustrated Dune, with funky black and white drawings and beautiful color paintings of iconic moments in the book. The paintings in particular meshed very well with how I had imagined things. Not exactly, but in the same ballpark.
Frank Herbert described a Universe where technology had advanced so far that society had practically regressed to a less advanced time. Society was ruled by feudal lords, guarded by cadres of swordsmen. It had a very renaissance vibe.
In contrast, the movie went with some kind of 20th century European military look. A kind of Prussian brownshirt kind of deal. That might have worked had they gone back another century to late Victorian. Then it would have a Prisoner of Zenda vibe that might have worked with all the swordfighting. (Sadly, they also drop the swordfighting, mostly.)
The Harkonnen troops looked like this. Because… Space? Barbarella? There was a sale on black rubber? The art department was full of monkeys?
Why Do I Care? Well, the Harkonnens are the villains in the book, but they’re not without their class and decorum. They really shouldn’t look that much different than the other noble houses and their retainers. It’s fine to have variety, in HBO’s Game of Thrones, all of the noble houses have a distinctive look to their armor and livery.
But nothing in Game of Thrones is bizarre and stupid. The Harkonnen analog in Game of Thrones, the Lannisters, have a classy, rich, and stylized look. The same could have been done for the Harkonnens.
In the book, Arrakis (the real name of Dune) was home to a fiercely independent group of people called Fremen. They were desert dwellers and had adapted well to the harsh arid environment. The dressed sensibly in light colored robes which provided camouflage and protection from the sun and wind.
Under their robes they wore an ingenious article of clothing called a stillsuit. I always imagined the stillsuit to be analogous to longjohns, but obviously for the desert and not the Yukon. A Fremen would not be a Fremen without their water-recycling canteen/bodysuit.
The movie makers made the fascinating decision to have their Fremen only wear stillsuits. Black stillsuits. Heavy, black, rubber, sticks out like a sore thumb in contrast to sand, super hot stillsuits. In the desert.
What. The. Expletive.
I think I read that the actual shooting was super hard on the Fremen extras. They faced a real danger of heat stroke.
I’m not surprised. Even if the costumes really worked as water recyclers, the black rubber would be extremely hot and exhausting to wear. This choice just seemed bizarre on the movie makers. And expensive and unnecessary. It would have been easy enough to occasionally show a full stillsuit, worn under robes, to convey the information that all of the desert dwellers had them.
Why do I care? The Fremen are just the stand-out awesome element of the book. They survive where no one should. They freaking ride giant sandworms. They are the toughest of the tough and the baddest of the bad. They deserve to be respected and they deserve to be presented accurately. The Fremen are not just mannequins to show off a costume.
Visuals – What Are They Flying?
I’m not going to go into great detail on every single weird object that looked nothing like its counterpart, described so beautifully in the book, but ornithopters need to be brought up.
Herbert does not describe many vehicles. We can assume that the cities have cars, that there are sailboats on Caladan, the wet world that the Atreides leave behind for Arrakis. But Herbert does describe the industrial spice harvesters that collect the spice that bursts onto the surface in the desert. These harvesters are huge, and giant wing-shaped craft called carryalls ferry the harvesters to the sand for mining, and extract them when the signs of an approaching worm are detected.
I’m not worried how the movie represented them. Even if Star Wars (the real Star Wars) got it right.
I do have an issue with the movie’s depiction of the light aircraft that support the operations. Scouting, shuttling personnel. The bird-like flapping winged ornithopters.
The Illustrated Dune book I had read depicted the ornithopters as sleek, elegant craft. The winged vehicles strongly resembled the inspiration from where they took their name, Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machine sketches.
I’m not sure how the movie ‘thopter could fly, since it looked like a shoebox, or maybe a fat blocky cow. With… a demi-parasol on the rear? What the hell, man?
The movie design just missed the very organic and elegant designs of the book. The book ‘thopters were ingenious, the movie craft were inexplicable.
Why Do I Care? It strikes me as disrespectful to not only stray so far from a beautifully described craft but to end up with something so hideous and blocky. What utility does the design hold? Why does it look like that? Why does it look so bad? Did they have no money for the art department? Had the stillsuit expenses eaten into everything?
Things Missing From the Movie
I already know that as an adaptation, things will be omitted from the movie. I also know that the various director’s cuts put in many things that I was missing, like Paul’s duel with Jamis and various points surrounding the water-of-life and its relationship to the drug that makes Reverend Mothers. I’m not faulting the movie for not having them. But I can fault the movie for putting in stuff that wasn’t there. Or bizarre changes.
One of the more enigmatic characters in the book is Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the leader of the noble house that opposes House Atreides, and with the help of the Emperor, architects their destruction.
Baron Harkonnen has many distinctive attributes. He’s enormously fat. He’s so fat that he wears a device which uses anti-gravity to help suspend his great bulk. He’s broodlingly humorless, and dangerous. He’s brilliant.
Despite his obesity, his genetics were so valuable that the Bene Gesserit had hoped to complete their eugenics breeding project from a union between a child from the Baron’s daughter, Lady Jessica, and the Baron’s nephew Feyd-Rautha. The Baron was a shrewd, political ally of the Emperor. Discreet. He would be invited to social engagements held by other nobility.
The movie gave us this:
Er… uh… gross?
So, uh, what the hell? The Baron was a leper maybe? Or never bathed? Was a plethora of boils considered the fashion on Geidi Prime? I have no idea. Maybe Lynch had no idea.
I guess they were trying to make the Baron hideous and repellent. Mission accomplished. It also made him look ridiculous and cartoonish. The Baron, rather than being cold and brooding, was manic and over the top villainous. Flying around (the subtle anti-grav support of his weight from the book being turned literally into the ability to *fly*), cackling, and pulling out the heart-plugs of random flower-arranging slave boys. We get it. He’s evil. He’s like a demon vampire or something.
Why Do I Care? Because I’ve seen villains done better. Like, in the book the movie was based on. I mentioned when I talked about the Harkonnen over-the-top costumes, House Harkonnen was brutal and repressive, but it was a major noble house. They had their class and decorum. They weren’t demon-space-clowns. Boiling them (see what I did there… the Baron’s boils… never mind) down to this caricature of overt and obvious super-villainy visual excess makes them ridiculous, and taints the entire movie.
Go watch Game of Thrones and observe Tywin Lannister. Despite not being hugely obese and being pretty straight sexually, Tywin is a much better Baron Harkonnen than the clownshoe pretending to be the baron in Lynch’s movie.
Early in the film, we’re introduced to a Guild Navigator. They are in the Dune universe (we meet one in Dune Messiah immediately) so seeing one in the movie is not so bad, because the Spacing Guild is an important and powerful player in the Galactic Empire. From the description in Dune Messiah, I always imagined them something like this:
The movie went along with this:
Now, I’m actually okay with this. I mean, it’s clearly not right, but there is so much wrong with the movie visually that I have to stop throwing stones somewhere. The art designers decided to take the idea of a human that had become kind of fish-like from living all its life in near-weighlessness, and mutated from constant exposure to the spice melange, and turn it into a huge, no longer identifiably human-descended manatee-monster-thing.
Princess Irulan wondered what it would be like to mate with a guild navigator. Princess Irulan would have to really be into some very weird stuff if she was wondering what it would be like to be intimate with that crusty, bloated whale. Seriously.
But, I’m letting that go. I have a different issue with the navigators.
I mentioned that in the books, the navigators spent their time floating in their ships, breathing in an atmosphere laced with spice. It’s an established fact of the books that the spice melange, which is only found on Arrakis, can produce a prophetic trance. Much of Dune deals with the consequences of seeing the future.
The ability to see the future is what makes interstellar travel safe. Humanity has the technology to move at interstellar speeds. Before spice, what they lacked was a safe way to navigate. The prescient ability to predict the future, specifically to predict a course for the starship that gets it safely to its destination, is the method of navigation. This is consistent with how spice works throughout the books. It’s why spice is important to the Spacing Guild. It’s why Paul’s control of Dune was enough to bend the Spacing Guild to his will.
In the movie, the navigators don’t have this ability. Instead, they have the miraculous ability to “fold space” and teleport ships from one planet across interstellar gulfs, to another planet.
Okay. I mean, that’s kind of cool. It just doesn’t make sense.
Why Do I Care? This concept of folding space comes out of nowhere, is unsupported, and is an unnecessary change. The ability to predict the future is already built in with spice and it would be an easy and elegant concept to introduce and explain why the navigators are called navigators and not worm-holers.
It might not be that big a deal. But it is to me.
Things That Were Added
There wasn’t much added to the movie, which is good. But what was added just ruined things. And weirdly delighted my buddy who defends Dune and just can’t get behind my criticism.
Let me try to lay the groundwork. In Dune, the reason that there was a feudal society of noble houses and armies of swordsmen was due entirely to the advancement of technology. With the invention of the personal shield, a force-field small enough to protect a person against anything moving over a certain speed, guns and other armaments were rendered nearly obsolete. But swords and daggers could be used in a controlled, slow enough fashion to bypass a personal shield and strike its target. I’m not going to try and justify the chain of events on why this would result in future feudalism, it’s enough of a speculative fiction concept that is interesting and ties the book together.
The reason that House Corrino is the Imperial House is because the Emperor has the deadliest fighters in the galaxy. The dread Sardaukar are shockingly brutal and effective fighters, and none of the noble houses dare challenge them with inferior troops.
But Duke Leto has assembled an entourage of historically great fighters. And their training was excellent. The Emperor was worried that Leto’s men might be approaching Sardaukar levels, and he acted to nip that in the bud.
Following the death of his father and the defeat of Atreides forces in Arrakeen, Paul discovers that the Fremen of Arrakis are ideal soldiers. The harsh environment has rendered them as a people hard as nails, they were a knife oriented culture, they hated the Harkonnens, and their numbers were vastly underestimated by the Empire. There were believed to be thousands of Fremen. There actually were millions.
Eventually, Paul and the Fremen force the Emperor to arrive in force on Arrakis in response to crippling raids on spice harvesting. Through a combination of the strategic use of atomics, a bigass sandstorm, Fremen controlled sandworms, and his crazed sandworm-tooth knife wielding Fremen, Paul’s forces butcher the Imperial Sardaukar, capture the Emperor, and Paul cements power by marrying the Princess Irulan. Boom.
In many ways, the movie followed the same plot, but missed a critical aspect, and added something so extraneous it just made the movie awful.
I am talking about the weirding module aka the deadly megaphones of doom.
In the movie, the Emperor makes some reference early on that he wants to eliminate Duke Leto, since he has been forming a new army based on sound. I had no idea what that meant.
Before leaving for Dune, Paul gets some instruction time with his combat instructor, Gurney. It’s in using the weirding module, which is some kind of sonic ray gun.
Okay… that’s nothing like anything from the book. I’m sorry for being so nit-picky, but it was just out of left field. “Weirding Module?” Weirding was a term from the book, but it meant “witchy” or referred to the Bene Gesserit Tai Chi fighting. But this is just a different kind of gun.
Speaking of guns, everybody is packing heat. The Atreides soldiers carrying big blunderbuss rifles. The Harkonnens are toting submachine guns.
The Emperor’s Sardaukar, famed for their melee prowess, also show up to fight primarily slinging lead. The Cyrano de Bergerac blade-centric feel is pretty much abandoned.
Except by the Fremen. The Fremen are still carrying their crysknives, legendary blades crafted from the teeth of dead sandworms. What could be more kickass than that?
Oh. But then Paul gets them all to use his cool sound guns. Because, yay. Now everyone is carrying a gun.
So, the most badass hand to hand fighters ever don’t even get to fight with the second most badass hand to hand fighters ever. Since either no one’s carrying blades or using the ones they have. It’s just shooting and shouting.
I shouldn’t overstate things. There are projectile weapons in the books. It’s just that they aren’t really emphasized, and usually consist of low-power, relatively slower poison dart throwers, to penetrate shields. But it’s the skill with bladed weapons that has the focus in house warfare.
Why Do I Care? I care about the addition of sound guns for several reasons. It was extremely unnecessary, and replaced something much better from the book. The crysknives of the Fremen were just as cool as Fremen stillsuits or their worm mode of travel. Diminishing the value of the Fremen iconic weapon and replacing them with guns was worse than lame. In fact, replacing the emphasis on dueling martial prowess in favor of mundane firearms was a stupid move overall, and removed one of the cool underpinnings of the book’s society.
One of the core themes in the book was the focus on human potential. The Bene Gesserit were trying to breed a messiah (under their control.) Duke Leto was trying to train men to be the fighting equals of the Sardaukar. The mentats that were necessary in a computerless society were the products of tremendous mental training. And the Fremen were the product of harsh biological and environmental pressures that produced shockingly capable warriors.
The sound modules didn’t make all of the above irrelevant. Only the two coolest parts, the Atreides soldiers and the Fremen.
Both Dune the book and Dune the movie end rather unsatisfying.
In the book, Chani is less than happy that to secure power, Paul must marry Princess Irulan. Paul’s mother Jessica, herself not Duke Leto’s wife but a Bene Gesserit concubine reassures Chani that although the two of them were technically concubines, history would call them wives.
It’s anticlimactic, but still fitting. Dune has action, but it also had intrigue, politics, philosophy, and big ideas. It is nice to end on a reflective moment.
This isn’t the way Hollywood wisdom would have it end. So, instead of this nice human moment, we ended up with some weird ass superhuman moment.
Paul makes it rain on Dune.
Bullshit. That makes no goddamn sense.
Paul, through the eugenics program of the Bene Gesserit, his Mentat conditioning, and surviving an overdose of the mind-expanding Reverend Mother spice drug, has become something special, the legendary Kwisatz Haderach. But he’s still human. He’s Not The Mighty Thor!
It’s just a crappy thing to do. Sure, it seems impressive to studio executives who just don’t get it. But raining on Dune makes no sense. Not to mention poisoning the sandworms that the Fremen worship. And therefore ruining spice, which is the most important thing in the universe, to everyone.
Now, I can’t really blame the studios. When I was a kid, first reading Dune, I expected something like Paul making it rain on Dune. Apparently, the studio’s wisdom matched my High School unsophisticated expectations.
One Last Thing.
This is going to be super nit-picky, but it’s something that drove me bonkers in the movie. I apologize.
Early in the book, Paul is sitting alone in a room with his back to the door. His fighting instructor, Gurney Halleck, comes in and really gives Paul a hard time about this. He insists that Paul needs to sit facing a door, so he can be aware of threats. Gurney is really serious about this. This leads into Gurney pulling a knife and attacking Paul. They both activate their personal shields, and Paul is convinced that Gurney is literally trying to kill him.
No, Gurney just wants to make Paul understand what it means to fight for your life, to be constantly vigilant and aware.
There’s serious subtext to the scene (like there is in nearly every Dune chapter.)
- Paul is always in danger, even in his home. He must be alert.
- Gurney trusts that Paul can handle himself, provided he has proper warning. Gurney is not insisting that Paul have a bodyguard, he just wants Paul to position himself tactically so as not to be put at a disadvantage. Gurney respects Paul’s fighting ability.
The movie approximates the scene, with some minor changes, and one freaking huge stupid change.
There’s the room. You can see the chair, where Paul’s back would be to the door. Gurney comes in accompanied by Dr. Yueh and bizarro-browed Thufir Hawat, the mentat. I was okay with them in the scene, we need to streamline introductions. Gurney gives Paul crap as in the book, and then he activates his shield belt, pulls a knife, and comes at Paul.
What is not shown in the photo above is that there are 8 Atreides soldiers at the wall opposite the door, armed with blunderbuss guns. They are standing at attention and are obviously guarding Paul. Which makes Gurney giving him crap kind of dumb. Super-dumb.
Gurney: Paul! You have your back to the door! I could have snuck up and stabbed you.
Paul: Dude, I think you’d be full of holes before that happened.
Although, those guys are possibly the worst guards in the world. Once Gurney attacks Paul, they don’t move or twitch. Paul still thinks that Gurney is trying to kill him, but doesn’t think to call for help, or find it weird that the guards don’t do anything to assist. Maybe they actually were on break, and Paul was hanging in their rec room. And standing at attention was taking it easy for Atreides soldiers.
That makes more sense. By that I mean, no sense at all.
Why Do I Care? Because it freaking bugs me. The scene would nearly work as well in the movie as it did in the book, had the room not been filled with guards. Their presence sucked all the air out of the subtle points being made in regards to Gurney’s concerns and appreciation of Paul. Instead, it just served as a bridge for weirding-module training. Like that’s so freaking important.
It just underscored the fact that although someone read the book, in the rush to adapt it, all sense of what the scenes meant was lost. It was representative of how the story was hollowed out to be a movie.
Was There Anything I Really Loved About The Movie?
Pugs make everything better. (Had the pug been carrying a knife, that would have redeemed the whole movie.)
Most images from David Lynch’s Dune, obviously.
Illustrations of the (robed) Fremen, Baron Harkonnen, and Sandworms are from the excellent Illustrated Dune.
Illustration of Creature from the Black Lagoon found at http://cdn1.bigcommerce.com/server4100/deb25/products/283/images/705/creatur_sm_em__23256.1363295605.1280.1280.jpgIllustration of the Guild Navigator found at http://images3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20100416061617/dune/images/2/29/GW213H181.jpeg
I make no claim to the artwork, but some claims to the text here, so there.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2013 Some Rights Reserved