When I read Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune back in 1980 while I was in the 7th grade, it was the most epic text yet to pass my eyes. Herbert’s sci-fi saga of royal families battling over a desert planet’s supply of a precious, space-expanding spice is complex in its political and religious dimensions as well as its unique terminology. In the time since its publication, the book has inspired numerous other authors, artists and filmmakers including George Lucas, who partly based the Star Wars saga’s Tatooine on Herbert’s dry, barren landscape.
Dune didn’t become the basis of a movie itself until 1984 (more on that later). However, outré Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky of El Topo and Santa Sangre fame/infamy was nearly the first to adapt Dune for the big screen in the mid-1970’s. His strenuous efforts to produce “the greatest movie never made” are recounted in Frank Pavich’s fascinating new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which is now playing theatrically in Los Angeles and New York City and opening in other cities next month.
“For me, Dune will be the coming of a god,” the 80-year old but still vibrant Jodorowsky proclaims during the three-year conversation Pavich had with him on the subject. “I wanted to make something sacred, free, with new perspective.” The filmmaker also reveals that he wanted to “fabricate the effects of LSD” with his vision, which would have run approximately 17 hours and cost nearly half a billion of today’s dollars. Jodorowsky and the ambitious artists he recruited (whom he dubbed “spiritual warriors”) storyboarded the entire film and shopped it around to every major studio, but all balked at the price tag. Interestingly, his key team members Dan O’Bannon, H.R. Giger and Chris Foss moved on together to develop 1979’s now classic Alien when Dune fell apart.
Most tantalizing, though, was the big-name cast Jodorowsky had secured. David Carradine, then popular as the star of TV’s Kung Fu, would have played the heroic but doomed Duke Leto Atreides, father to Dune’s messiah-in-training Paul (to have been played by Jodorowsky’s then 12-year old son, Brontis). The eccentric, surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was cast as the calculating Padishah Emperor, and surely would have been a sight to behold. Actor-director Orson Welles would have appeared as “that floating fat man” (one of the most memorable lines from the 1984 Dune), the ruthless — and homosexual — Baron Harkonnen, with Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger playing Feyd, the Baron’s vicious nephew. Jodorowsky’s recollections of how he got his eclectic actors to commit to the film are very funny.
Jodorowsky’s Dune helps to illuminate the tension-fraught dance between ambition and commerce that endures in Hollywood to this day. And while the documentary is effective at revealing what might have been, it also invariably leads one to reflect on what has since been accomplished in terms of film versions of Dune. Producer Dino De Laurentiis gained the rights to the book soon after Jodorowsky’s long-planned adaptation hit the skids. De Laurentiis, coming off such late-1970’s schlock as Orca and Flash Gordon in addition to his poorly-received remakes of King Kong and Hurricane, was looking to literary adaptations to help salvage his respectability (his Oscar-nominated 1981 film of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime was the most successful in this regard). Dune fit the bill, but DeLaurentiis took a significant risk when he hired oddball director David Lynch to helm it.
Lynch only had two previous feature films under his belt, the bizarro cult classic Eraserhead and the more mainstream but fairly small-scale The Elephant Man. At a then-astronomical budget of $40 million, with an all-star cast and hundreds of extras, Dune was a massive undertaking. The film was a critical and financial disappointment upon its release in late 1984 but I consider it underrated, especially for devotees of the book. It is an impressively faithful if necessarily streamlined adaptation, though heavy on industrial-looking art direction and grotesque make-up effects. In hindsight, the DeLaurentiis-Lynch version also seems to pay homage to Jodorowsky’s in several key ways: the casting of more contemporary rock star Sting as Feyd; the not-bad choice of pop band Toto to compose and perform the music score in lieu of Pink Floyd, which Jodorowsky had wanted; and a number of visual flourishes, including “in vitro” shots of Paul’s developing, super-powered sister.
Cable TV’s SyFy Channel (then known as the SciFi Channel) and writer-director John Harrison took on the task of creating a more complete version of Dune in the year 2000 via a 4½ hour miniseries. It is faithful almost to a fault, and one realizes how smart Lynch was to synopsize much of the political-religious intrigue and simplify Herbert’s dense dialogue as best he could. The miniseries is certainly a more colorful affair than the often dreary-looking ’84 movie, while British actor Ian McNeice has a gay old time playing Baron Harkonnen (especially whenever he speaks in verse) and the frequently shirtless Matt Keeslar makes a fetching Feyd.
According to Michel Seydoux, who would have produced Jodorowsky’s ill-fated Dune, “You can’t make a masterpiece without madness.” If that is true, the best cinematic version of Dune may be yet to come.
Jodorowsky’s Dune: B+
Dune (1984): B-
Dune (2000 miniseries): B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.