Few films have faced as many impediments to success as David Lynch’s Dune (1984) — and the cinema gods aren’t done with it yet.
The definition of divisive, this adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi epic about young Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan, excellent in his film debut) fulfilling his messianic destiny on the spice-mining planet Arrakis squeezes nearly 700 pages of text into 137 cinematic minutes. The challenges stemming from a similar ratio likewise doomed Brian De Palma’s perfectly fine translation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), which displeased critics who, based on their assessments, desired a visual rehash of the satirical novel.
While both films are considered unfaithful renderings of their respective works, that knock is arguably the laziest and most misguided gripe one can lob against a literary conversion to the screen. Books and movies are, of course, different mediums, and precise replications of literature in film form are both impractical and impossible. More thorough examinations of adaptation theory are readily available, but the gist is certain elements that work on the page are less successful onscreen, and therefore necessitate alteration — often at the expense of source material fidelity. In short, if you want the book, read the book.
With that tired attack neutralized, the focus can return to Dune as a film and why this flawed, awkward, yet compelling work has received such a mixed response for nearly 40 years. Enhancing this debate is the film’s recent availability in arguably its crispest presentation thus far: less than two months before Denis Villeneuve’s star-studded take on Dune hits theaters and HBO Max on Oct. 22, Lynch’s film makes its 4K debut in a slick, supplement-filled package from Arrow that could very well bring more appreciators into the fold, but will most likely prove to be another sermon to the fringe choir.
The fresh eyes might, however, be able to see past the stumbling blocks surrounding the film’s creation and release. Fresh off an Academy Award nomination for Best Director for The Elephant Man (1980) — a slightly more accessible film than his trippy directorial debut, Eraserhead (1977) — Lynch turned down George Lucas’ offer to direct Return of the Jedi (1983), feeling he wasn’t right for the material. With studios desperate to crank out the next Star Wars, producer Dino De Laurentiis soon convinced a simpatico Lynch to helm Dune, an endeavor in which the filmmaker “saw tons and tons of possibilities for things [he] loved.”
Both stories may take place in space, involve a hero’s quest, and feature numerous strange intergalactic creatures, but Dune’s idiosyncrasies render it far less accessible than the Skywalker saga. For viewers who prefer the creative, unintentional (?) camp of Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980) to the pulpy cliffhanger thrills of the 1930s Flash Gordon serial that deeply influenced Lucas, such deviations from the early ’80s blockbuster norm are welcome. But they didn’t play well upon release for many critics, including Roger Ebert, who called Dune “a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.” Seeking a film removed from Lucas’ “high tech” ways that “looks like a throwback” to the Flash Gordon serial, Ebert, his critical peers, and numerous viewers found neither in Dune.
Though intermittently fond of Lynch’s visual acumen throughout the filmmaker’s career, Ebert was consistently baffled by the writer/director’s storytelling style for nearly two decades and didn’t warm to his work until the G-rated, hyper-approachable The Straight Story (1999). Even before his Dune pan, Ebert referred to The Elephant Man’s ambiguous opening scene — an early Lynch calling card — as “inexcusable” and was comparably dismissive to its “equally idiotic closing scene in which [disfigured protagonist John] Merrick becomes the Star Child from 2001[: A Space Odyssey], or something.”
And yet, it’s flourishes like these that make Lynch a standalone talent. Dune is filled with exquisite, tactile production design that provides an intoxicating sense of alien place, beginning with the trench-coat-clad, proto-Matrix Spacing Guild ambassadors and their superior, geriatric-Slimer-like Navigators with their gas-emitting anus/vagina/mouths. The director quickly doubles down on these unusual images with additional exaggerated character details — the extreme eyebrows of House Atreides’ head of security Thufir Hawat (Freddie Jones) suggest a multiverse Martin Scorsese who didn’t kick his cocaine habit — and a complex overarching code of conduct across planets that’s rewarding to decipher.
With aid from Toto’s heroic “Main Title” theme, Lynch establishes Paul as an extremely likable and potential-filled figure from the start, which provides a strong through-line amidst the rampant weirdness — a balance that Lynch would again mine with MacLachlan in his masterpiece, Blue Velvet (1986). And while Paul’s early sparring with combat trainer Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart, whose mullet and pug-clutching battle approach later in the film combine to form a special brand of strange), surrounded by blocky, 3D-prism shields felt dated even one year after Jedi’s sophisticated effects work, they’re nevertheless rendered downright charming with such a pleasant, relatable figure (that hair!) at their core.
Paul’s firm, valiant foundation not only makes his journey one worthy of support, but helps make Dune’s wilder elements all the more palatable. Without his clearly just cause, such uncomfortable Lynchian stretches as the hideously evil — and downright hideous — Baron Harkonen (Kenneth McMillan) gazing lustfully at his hunky henchman Feyd Rautha (Sting) for lengthy periods might feel wholly random instead of the actions of a madman who’s a foil for our protagonist and deserving of being vanquished along with his entire twisted ginger household.
Still, not every element is triumphant — some glaringly so. Lynch often feels out of his element attempting to marry the tone for which he would soon become identified with Herbert’s literary sci-fi milieu, resulting in numerous head-scratching bits of dialogue. And while the practical special effects that bring Arrakis’ spice-producing sand worms to life are largely successful, shots of Paul and the planet’s native Fremen people hooking into the beasts’ sides to ascend and ride them look sadly passé.
Furthermore, fight scenes between house Atreides and Harkonen on Arrakis play like bad ballet choreography, and rear-projection solutions to convey attacking sand worms and characters falling from great heights clash with the surrounding seamless visuals. And regardless of how well the film’s eccentricities work for each viewer, it takes a special person to experience Paul’s pint-sized sister Alia (Alicia Witt) concluding the film with her Daffy Duck-esque pronouncement that her brother “is the Kwisatz Haderach!” and feel confident saying Lynch stuck the landing.
The film’s critical and box-office failures obviously didn’t prevent Lynch from subsequently amassing a loyal following, though Dune remains a contentious point among the director’s most ardent fans, despite its saturation with the kind of bizarro details that define his later, increasingly impenetrable work. Part of its inconsistent embrace likely stems from Dune being the last time the filmmaker didn’t have final cut, which resulted in his three-hour vision losing nearly a third of its footage, necessitating copious voiceover narration to fill in the blanks. And while Lynch also wasn’t involved with the butchered, three-hour TV version (1988) that he disavowed, forcing the change of his directorial credit to Alan Smithee and his writing credit to Judas Booth, it’s the theatrical cut that’s widely available — and continues to get dragged by its maker. As such, while the auteur’s distinct flourishes are present in Dune, the widespread sense that the work is compromised essentially disqualifies it from being “Lynch canon,” if there is such a thing.
Over the next quarter century, Dune continued to gain polarized support and opposition as Lynch’s body of work grew, and at last became a point of comparison with another onscreen version in SyFy’s 4.5-hour Dune miniseries (2000), which was applauded for its faithfulness to Herbert’s novel, but little else.
Then, just in time for Dune’s 30th anniversary, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s grand plans for a Herbert adaptation in the early-mid ’70s were chronicled in Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014). While thoroughly entertaining, largely due to the octogenarian Jodorowsky’s exuberance recounting what he’d envisioned, the film also plays like a 90-minute Lynch diss. But as tantalizing as it is to picture a 10-plus hour project from the imaginative director of The Holy Mountain, in collaboration with the creative team that went on to make Alien, a cast that includes Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Udo Kier, and Amanda Lear, and accompanied by music from Pink Floyd, the simple fact remains that Jodorowsky’s film doesn’t exist and Lynch’s does.
Villeneuve’s film, though, is also real and further threatens to push Lynch’s Dune to the margins of history as it seeks to establish itself as the definitive adaptation. MacLachlan is confident that the advances in special effects will give the new version an advantage over the early ’80s’ mechanical-heavy technology, which he feels “didn’t have the sophistication yet to do what really needed to be done.” Likewise blessed with the gift of hindsight, Villeneuve also has the advantage of avoiding the less successful components from Lynch’s film, which left him “half-satisfied” and convinced that another movie needed to be made of the book, but with “a different sensibility.”
With so many forces working in Villeneuve’s favor, Lynch’s flawed but singular film seems destined to remain under-appreciated and viewed as a misguided relic by comparison. But in an era where blockbuster fatigue keeps pace with coronavirus infection rates, perhaps Lynch’s bastard will at last attract the audience it’s long deserved.