The Terrible History of Dune

Image Credit: Emma Lambkin

Ross Evans takes us through the infamous adaptation history of Frank Herbert’s 1964 sci-fi classic, Dune.

They say the early bird catches the (sand)worm, but no matter how quickly a filmmaker has been able to attach their name to an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s legendary sci-fi epic, Dune has always found itself the subject of an especially difficult development process. On one hand, it’s understandable: Herbert’s universe spans six original novels and a raft of prequel, sequel and spin-off series, all while covering the commercially unfriendly themes of geopolitics and imperial power. But if George Lucas could strike gold with an interstellar allegory for the Vietnam War, why did Dune prove such an unwieldy text to adapt?

The history of Dune as a potential screen property can really be traced back to 1974, three 0years before Star Wars made history as the defining cinematic space opera and long before the franchise dominated Hollywood. This maiden voyage from page to screen was to be helmed by notorious cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, famed for the acidic freakouts of El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky’s Dune (which would later inspire a documentary of the same name), is notable for being one of the greatest films never made, with an eclectic cast set to consist of Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Gloria Swanson, and perhaps most strangely, Salvador Dalí.

 Jodorowsky’s Dune is notable for being one of the greatest films never made...

Dalí’s casting as The Emperor is a prime example of the bizarre decisions that left Jodorowsky’s film as a fascinating but ultimately doomed curio of cinema history. Dalí, set on being the highest paid actor in the history of Hollywood, demanded to be paid $100,000 per hour for his role, which Jodorowsky countered by offering the same fee per minute, before greatly reducing the character’s screen time and eventually proposing to replace the painter with a robotic double which Dalí intended to keep. Yes, really.

Alas, Jodorowsky’s vision - all 14 hours of it - just wasn’t meant to be, and the film spent the next few years sand-walking around development hell before stalling completely. The issue was a largely financial one, with Jodorowsky set to fall into the trap that doomed so many arthouse darlings looking to cross into the emerging blockbuster scene and exceed his budget several times over. So maybe it’s a good thing that New Hollywood’s bull-headed combination of creative and commercial sensibilities didn’t win this round, lest Herbert’s text wind up as a Heaven’s Gate style catastrophe, but it’s impossible not to think about what could have been. It’s hard to say if any of it would have worked, but there’s no doubt it would have been the most fascinating mainstream production of a decade that consistently celebrated creatively daring blockbusters.

But all movements end, and the rise of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas saw a significant shift from the auteur driven vanity projects of the 70s into something cleaner and more commercial. Not that this is a bad thing, as the 80s became the decade that shaped blockbuster entertainment as we know it. Audiences really became accustomed to big, spectacle heavy fare, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters and E.T., and this subsequently opened the market up for older properties to take advantage of improved effects and big screen sheen. If Flash Gordon and Batman could go from film serial favourites to box-office big hitters, who’s to say that Dune couldn’t ride that wave too?

The blockbuster-fication of Dune had been in the pipeline for some time, as Flash Gordon producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights in 1976, after Jodorowsky’s film had really started to stagnate. De Laurentiis took a more focused approach, hiring Herbert to write his own screenplay, which trimmed Jodorowsky’s 14 hour behemoth down to a slightly more workable three hour script, set to be directed by Ridley Scott, hot off of the masterful Alien. Ultimately, this wasn’t meant to be either, and with the director departing to work on Blade Runner and the rights to Herbert’s novel rapidly approaching expiration, the clock was winding down for De Laurentiis to get a version of Dune on screen. Scott’s replacement signed on soon after, and everything seemed set to go ahead to make Dune the next hit from the man who made midnight screening favourites like Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.

And if the prospect of David Lynch directing a big-budget space opera leaves you more confused than a bewildered Justin Theroux stumbling his way through Mulholland Drive, then consider this: Lynch turned down Return of the Jedi for the chance to adapt Dune. Lynch’s version is a bold, ambitious piece of work, with an eclectic cast that includes everyone from Max von Sydow to Sting. Lynch fans watching it now will also rejoice seeing a slew of actors that would go on to star in the legendary Twin Peaks, such as Kyle MacLachlan, Jack Nance and Everett McGill. Imperfect as Lynch’s vision is, there’s an awful lot to like about it, not least seeing the filmmaker’s trademark weirdness on an interstellar scale

Lynch turned down Return of the Jedi for the chance to adapt Dune. Lynch’s version is a bold, ambitious piece of work, with an eclectic cast that includes everyone from Max von Sydow to Sting

Unfortunately, neither critics nor audiences were as keen about it in 1984, with many publications dubbing it the worst film of the year. Audiences were even harsher on it; fear may be the mind killer but box-office returns proved to be the Dune killer. No one was more critical of it than Lynch himself however, and he’d later have his name removed from the project entirely in contempt for his butchered vision. It’s not hard to see why he’d be so hostile: his Dune was the victim of a particularly severe case of studio interference, with several new cuts surfacing after the film’s release, including a bizarre, made-for-TV version of the film that adds nearly an hour to the runtime. Regardless of the cut of Lynch’s Dune, it was a box-office bomb that was critically savaged, with celebrated critic Roger Ebert calling the screenplay one of the most confusing ever written. No wonder Lynch doesn’t talk about it in interviews.

After that, the property spent some time in exile, with a Syfy miniseries airing in 2000, followed by a series of unsuccessful attempts to get Arrakis back on screen. Studio interest was gradually reignited with the success of literary adaptations like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, until Legendary Pictures acquired the rights in 2016, before hiring Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 mastermind Denis Villeneuve to direct the following year. With this electric rendition of the saga of House Atreides, the cycle seemed to finally have been broken, but even when it’s running smoothly, the production of a Dune adaptation will inevitably be hindered by unforeseen problems. This time the delays weren’t creative or financial, but a result of the COVID-19 pandemic putting a halt to a number of screen productions

But lo and behold the stars aligned, and the film had its premiere at this year’s Venice film festival, before opening to rave reviews and financial success, and a recently confirmed second part is now in development. The film has won over reviewers and audiences alike, thankfully dodging its predecessor’s fate. Much like it's troubled hero, Dune had a lot to live up to, and though its journey is far from over, the future of House Atreides seems bright indeed. Frankly, it’s about time.