Dune versus Dune by Byron Merritt

I enjoyed talking with my grandfather on many occasions prior to his death and, not surprisingly, our conversations often strayed into the realm of his greatest creation – Dune – and its marketing to the general public. There were many times when Grandpa laughed about this, because he saw Dune as something unique and far removed from the marketable world. Later he began to realize Dune wasn’t just unique but was a parable of human life that would endure thanks to the very things the book preached against. The making of the 1984 movie (directed by David Lynch) seemed the epitome of one of Dune’s no-no messages [that of creating a cult following of one man or his vision - Editor]. So if you chuckle a few times while reading this, rest assured that Frank Herbert would probably be laughing right along with you.

Humble Beginnings?

“They’ll probably want to retitle it How to Repair Your Ornithopter.” That was Grandpa’s first impression when Chilton Books – previously only a publisher of how-to books – decided to market Dune in 1963. Being a relatively new author at this point in his life, Frank Herbert simply wanted to get his work published and out to readers. Hell, he probably would have let them title it Dude, Where’s My Sandworm? if it got the book into the hands of the literary world. Thank God that didn’t happen. Dune became popular and so did Grandpa thanks to what was actually in the book (Is that a Maker on the cover, or are you just happy to see me?).

There are many Dune fans that would undoubtedly like to know what Frank Herbert would think of the new miniseries (broadcast in late 2000 by the Sci Fi Channel) versus the Lynch movie. I can’t tell you for certain – but I can give a few insights into what I know of this complex human being that was my grandfather, and how he might have perceived the two films.

“You don’t create a world of dirt and wind without getting a little sand in your eyes.” That’s what he told me one day when I asked Grandpa how Dune could possibly get translated onto the movie screen. Much of what he told me can be read in a book entitled (ironically enough) Eye, which is a collection of short stories by Frank Herbert. You can bet that I cracked a smile when I saw that title, then opened it up and read his introduction. Perhaps he was trying to tell me it’s the overly-analytical ‘eye’ that can destroy a work of literary art when it gets moved to film. In Eye he mentions what he did and didn’t like about the making of the Lynch movie (he enjoyed the Italian Renaissance feel but didn’t care for the brutal slimming down of characters and plot).

From these comments we can obviously surmise that Grandpa wanted more for the fans; more characters, more focus on water, more development of plots and more bronco riding o f a worm with Paul yippin’ and yee-hawin’! Well . . . maybe not that much more.

There is the 3-4 hour Allen Smithee version floating around in the VHS and Laserdisk worlds [Note: "Allen Smithee" is the pseudonym used by a director who wishes to disassociate himself from a particular film - Editor]. But if you’re looking for more coherency than the shorter original theatrical release, I don’t think looking there will give you much satisfaction. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick to comparisons of the original 1984 release and the 2000 miniseries.

So without further ado, let’s jump into the films and wade through the erg together. I hope you brought your stillsuit!

Starting Points (Edge: 2000 miniseries)

“The beginning is a difficult time,” Princess Irulan tells us at the start of the 1984 film. We jump over to Kaitan (the Imperial Capitol) and see the dazzling throne room with pug dogs and Guild representatives decked out in black slickers standing next to a Navigator’s enclosure. Is this how the book started? It looks nice, but it kinda threw me off my worm. In the miniseries, we jump straight to Caladan and the encounter with Paul and Reverend Mother Mohiam. So John Harrison gets accolades for sticking more closely to the novel. Way to go, John!

Costumes (Edge: 1984 film)

Bob Ringwood did a stellar job on the ’84 production. His elegantly designed costumes enhanced the beauty of the entire film. We begin to see this when Mohiam (Sian Phillips) is asked to leave the throne room once the Guild representatives arrive, and she flows off the screen in her black aba robe. Throughout the 2000 miniseries, however, I had problems with the costumes. I think Theodor Pistek tried too hard to come up with “something different”. The repulsive headdresses nearly made me vomit. When I saw Reverend Mother Mohiam (Zuzana Geislerova) in the miniseries, I laughed out loud at the white mutant butterfly poised on her head.
Acting (Edge: 1984 Film)

For the most part, the acting in the 1984 film shone far and above the miniseries. For the most part. If I could single out one character I hated in the Lynch film, it would have to be the Beast Rabban (Paul Smith). Yeah, let’s push an oompa loompa out of the way and rip out some cow tongue to chew on so I can show everyone how tough I am! And did he have any lines in the movie? Maybe four. So perhaps placing this idiot savant in charge of Arrakis after the fall of House Atreides wasn’t such a good choice, Uncle Vladimir.

No commentary on the Dune films would be complete without mentioning the main character, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan in the movie, Alec Newman in the miniseries). After watching both films, I began to realize something: I had trouble believing Kyle in the ’84 version. This is a 15-year-old kid? He seemed like an adult from the get-go, which made his transformation into adulthood (and godhood) less satisfying. Alec did a fine job. I know some of you will pitch a coriolis fit about this, but Paul acting snotty and throwing tantrums at the beginning of the story sat well with me. He’s 15 for crying out loud! Do you have teenagers in your home? Do they act like Kyle or Alec?

Undoubtedly, Lady Jessica is my favorite character (Francesca Annis in the film, Saskia Reeves in the miniseries). But thank s to the depth of character that can be developed in a longer movie, Saskia Reeves played very close to Miss Annis’ level. Other notables in both versions were Duncan Idaho (Richard Jordan in the movie, James Watson in the miniseries), Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer in the movie, Giancarlo Giannini in the miniseries), Shadout Mapes (Linda Hunt in the movie, Jaroslava Siktancova in the miniseries), and Stilgar (Everett McGill in the movie, Uwe Ochsenknecht in the miniseries). But when placing relative unknowns in the miniseries against the likes of Jurgen Prochnow, Freddie Jones, Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, and Max Von Sydow, one can see why I gave the higher mark to the ’84 film.

The Sets: Internal and External (It’s a tie)

The ’84 film had some impressive sets, no doubt about it. But were they really that much better than those in the miniseries? I didn’t think so – for a couple of reasons: Kaitan is clean and beautiful in the miniseries, while all we get to see in the ’84 film is an interior shot of the throne room. It was a damn fine throne room, but so was the office of the Emperor in the miniseries. Castle Caladan was definitely better in the ’84 version, mainly because it looked like a castle and not the latticework of metal tubes we saw in the miniseries. Giedi Prime flopped in the ’84 film because it looked filthy with sickly green interiors and felt very un-Landsraad-like. Giedi Prime in the miniseries seemed evil but tidy. Dune itself is tough to judge. The ’84 film was shot in an actual desert (big plus!), while the miniseries’ desert scenes were filmed on a sound-stage – an obvious sound-stage with horribly fake backdrops. I had to force myself to continue watching whenever this atrocious set came onscreen, and whimpered at the money-saving goals it represented for such a good TV production. However, we see much more of the city Arrakeen, added sietch scenes, and the lush palace garden.

Special Effects (Another Tie)

For an ’84 film, the effects weren’t bad. Looking at the film even now, it’s surprising how well Kit West Mechanical (the FX company) did their work with CGI still in its infancy. The worms were believable, the Atreides’ body shields intriguing, and the waking dream sequence of Paul handled well. My biggest beefs with the effects in the movie were the “flying iron” ‘thopter, some terrible post production blue dye added to the actors’ eyeballs, and a few grainy shots involving the worms (e.g., Paul conquering the worm for the first time and the Baron flying into one’s mouth at the end). The miniseries handled its special effects (by Ernesto Farino) well also, for the most part. The shields were believable when Paul and Gurney are sparring, the guild heighliners were excellent, the Navigator was interesting with its incredibly deep, blue eyes (but it seemed too bat-like), the ‘thopter looked – and sounded – real, and the worms were the best. Magnificent! A large portion of the budget went into these sandworm shots and it shows. Special effect gripes for the miniseries: the absurd CGI mouse that looked like a cross between a fuzzy doll and a cardboard cutout. My daughter could create a more believable mouse with papier-mâché.

Script (Edge: 2000 Miniseries)

“You want to touch my weirding module, Muad’dib?” How many scenes are there with these damn things in the Lynch movie? Too many, that’s how many. All of this time could have been much better spent on actual pages within the Dune novel. Although Harrison had to change some things for the miniseries (most notably the expansion of Princess Irulan’s role and Jessica throwing up to show her pregnancy), his adaptation was far superior. I’m going to jump in my ornithopter and fly across the Great Pan to show you how much more of the book was included in the 2000 miniseries versus what was left out in the 1984 film, so bear with me:

The ecological significance of water on Dune (e.g., the water seller soo-soo sooking! out front of the Arrakeen Palace, the explanation of water’s value during the dinner table scene, face-masks on stillsuits, Paul crying and giving water to the dead, dew collectors, Stilgar’s spitting episode, and Jessica talking with the Shadout Mapes about water when viewing the palace garden); Fenring, Otheym, and Jamis are given roles; Stilgar and Duke Leto actually meet; Turok is seen with Duncan as Duncan forms an alliance with the Fremen for House Atreides; the gradual development of Paul from teenager into manhood; nudity in the sietches is acceptable during relaxation of stillsuits; the Fremen orgy after Jessica takes in the Water of Life; the death of Dr. Kynes is shown, as is the function of spice blows and how they occur; the Crysknife is addressed as the sacred weapon of the Fremen (“May your blade chip and shatter.”); Cave of Ridges and Sietch Tabr are actually named; the religious zeal of the Fremens is much more believable and focused on as they imprint upon Paul as their savior (Mahdi!); the necessary brutality of the Fremen children (one throws a knife into the back of a Harkonnen which ends up saving Otheym); the internal power struggles of House Harkonnen as Feyd makes an attempt on the Baron’s life; Gurney’s belief that Jessica is the Atreides traitor and attempts to kil l her; Paul drinks the Water of Life and goes into his coma. Chani figures out the cause of his coma and brings him out of it (straight from the book); Paul remains dedicated to Chani but the marriage to Irulan is seen as a must to preserve the empire; and it doesn’t rain at the end!

Where do we go from here?

How would Frank Herbert rate the two? Who knows. I feel he would’ve been pleased with the miniseries because it addressed many of his complaints from the ’84 movie.
I don’t think it’s possible to get a book as complex as Dune 100% percent accurate on film. I don’t think it’s possible for most novels. Take Blade Runner, a truly fantastic SF movie. But if you read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, upon which the movie is based, you have to wonder about the script writing process. So where do we go from here? Will they ever get it exactly right? Will Irulan get to touch Paul’s thumper? Will there be more Dune movies? Yes. The Sci Fi Channel is producing a sequel miniseries (tentatively titled Children of Dune), also directed by John Harrison, which combines the novels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. Shooting recently began in Prague and many actors from the first series are reprising their roles. Susan Sarandon will headline the cast by playing Wensicia, a ruthless princess eager to restore her deposed family to the throne.

Dune fans have asked me, “Which version do you prefer?” It’s a tough question to answer. I liked the 2000 miniseries very much, but it didn’t feel like Dune, which is what the ’84 film did phenomenally – through its costumes, sets and exceptional acting. Neither film is perfect, but I think they’ve both given Grandpa something to smile about as he rides a Maker in whatever universe awaited him after ours.

Copyright 2002 Byron Merritt

Byron Merritt lives in Pacific Grove, California and works as a full-time emergency room nurse and part-time writer. He’s taken first and third places in local writing competitions and has posted numerous science fiction stories on the internet at various webzines. He attributes much of his writing ability to genetics – his grandfather is none other than Frank Herbert. Byron is currently working on multiple science fiction and fantasy short stories, novels and novelettes.

Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Byron Merritt, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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