In yesterday’s installment, we gave design and music awards for the best from each film, and it was a Dune: Part One sweep. This time around, the competition gets a little bit stiffer. Here we go.
The three versions, to remind you, are:
Dune (1984), directed by David Lynch
Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000, miniseries), directed by John Harrison
Dune: Part One (2021), directed by Denis Villeneuve
Let’s jump right to one of the above-the-line creative roles.
Best Adapted Screenplay
1984: David Lynch (3-time Oscar nominee; honorary winner in 2020)
2000: John Harrison (1-time Writers Guild of America Award nominee)
2021: Jon Spaihts (2-time Dragon Awards nominee), Denis Villeneuve (1-time Oscar nominee), Eric Roth (6-time Oscar nominee; 1-time winner)
Two things immediately jump out with this list of nominees. One is that the director of the film was also involved in the screenplay. The other is that only one of those directors was wise enough to collaborate, and he did it with two excellent screenwriters.
That, of course, would be Denis Villeneuve.
Oddly enough, this time around, it’s David Lynch’s Dune that comes out the weakest of the bunch. While he does manage to pare the story down enough to fit into a two-hour and seventeen minute runtime, he also takes liberties with certain elements of the story and relies entirely too much on voiceover to feed us exposition or characters’ inner monologues, particularly when it comes to Paul.
The opening narration in his version runs nearly two minutes, and is mostly a shot of the actress delivering it. Meanwhile, the opening narration of Villeneuve’s version is much shorter, and we’re seeing life on the planet Arrakis the entire time.
In the TV movie version, the opening narration is also short, about 40 seconds, and it focuses on an image of the planet.
Some changes of Lynch’s changes come out of left field — for example, the addition of “weirding modules,” which are devices that convert sounds into powerful energy beams. However, it’s only select sounds that have any effect. Naturally it turns out that Paul Atreides’ Fremen name, Muad’Dib, activates the device and blows stuff up.
This prompts Paul to realize, in yet another awkward voiceover, “My name is a killing word.” You know. In case we didn’t get it.
This addition really weakens the entire idea of the Bene Gesserit training, which relied entirely on one’s own mental and physical skills. In effect, it allows anybody with a weirding module to use their own supercharged version of the Voice, and it’s really a cheat.
Lynch also added the Guild Navigators to his movie. In Herbert’s canon, they don’t actually appear in the second book Dune Messiah, but are only alluded to. They actually have a far more mutated form than that described in the books. He did a similar thing with Baron Harkonnen, having the actor covered in rather disgusting boils and lesions, all in various stages of bloating or bursting.
What he did maintain about the Baron were his ephebophilic tendencies — that is, a sexual attraction to young teenage boys that Herbert included as 1960s shorthand for “evil.” If anything, Lynch leaned into it, adding one horrific scene in which an unfortunate servant (slave?) catches the Baron’s eye, only to be molested and then murdered when the Baron pulls out his “heart plug” (also a Lynch invention) which is rather akin to the transmission fluid check stick in a car.
Probably the biggest changes in both the Lynch and Villeneuve versions involve the first acts, but in two very different ways. Lynch choses to have his first scene be a meeting between the Emperor and a Spacing Guild Navigator which lays out the entire reason that Paul Atreides is a threat to all of them. As noted above, the Navigators do not appear in the first book, nor do they make a physical appearance in Dune: Part One.
Meanwhile, Villeneuve’s first act begins on Caladan with the Atreides family, but includes scenes that don’t happen in the book. To be fair, though, we can think of them as prequels to what we learn in the early chapters. In the book, House Atreides has already accepted taking on the stewardship of Arrakis from the Harkonnens. In the movie, we see the Emperor’s representative visit to deliver the proclamation.
In both movies, we also meet all of the family retainers — Duncan Idaho, Gurney Halleck, Thufir Hawat, and so on — before the arrival of the Reverend Mother Mohiam to administer a life-or-death test to Paul.
Basically, he has to put his hand in a box that uses direct nerve induction to cause the sensation of pain. If he pulls his hand out, then the Reverend Mother will kill him with her gom jabbar, which is a poison-tipped needle.
Villeneuve’s specifics here differ from the other films in two ways. Actually, three. In the other films, the boxes are large and shiny, while in Villeneuve’s the box is small, rough-surfaced and probably made of wood.
Second, in the other two films, the gom jabbar is a device mounted on a thimble-like object on the Reverend Mother’s finger. Or, in other words, she has a lot more control over it. In Dune: Part One, it’s pretty much just an oversized needle that she holds in her fist, pointed at Paul’s neck. This makes it a hell of a lot more dangerous.
Finally, in the first two versions, both directors felt it necessary to show a cutaway view to the inside of the box to reveal the skin on Paul’s hand burning and blistering. Villeneuve, on the other hand, relied entirely on his actor to sell it — and his actor did.
As for the changes made by Villeneuve et al, they serve more to make this a story about an oppressed indigenous people, the new group of colonizers that replace the old oppressors, and the question of whether the Fremen will actually be better off — especially when the former group of oppressors just comes roaring back onto the scene.
Not that Herbert’s book wasn’t always about this too. It’s just that Lynch focused on imperial politics, and so inadvertently centered the colonizers instead of their victims. But of course.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening narration. In the books as well as the other two adaptations, it comes from Princess Irulan, the Emperor’s daughter, taken from the pages of one of the many history books she wrote long after the fact. In Dune: Part One, Irulan doesn’t even appear, and the opening narration goes to Chani, the Fremen woman who will become intimately connected to Paul.
It’s an immediate and welcome change to POV. Another big change is gender-flipping the role of Dr. Liet Kynes, Imperial ecologist to Arrakis and Judge of the Change, i.e. overseer of the handoff of power from House Harkonnen to House Atreides. Villeneuve and company also give the character a very different and much more meaningful death scene.
Of course, the biggest change in Dune: Part One is in its title, so it’s not an adaptation of the entire book. However, the adapters chose the exact perfect moment to end it, as well as the right exit line. Of course, this leaves out a few important characters, like the Emperor, his daughter, and Baron Harkonnen’s other nephew Feyd Rautha, but that’s why there’s another film on the way.
I don’t think there’s any question here at all, although Frank Herbert’s Dune is a close runner-up.
Winner: Spaihts, Villeneuve, and Roth for Dune: Part One
And now we come to the big tamal, as it were. Who played which role better? By default, David Lynch’s Dune wins for Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer), his daughter Princess Irulan Corrino (Virginia Madsen), and Feyd Rautha (Sting), but only because they don’t appear in Dune: Part One and because the miniseries versions were really pale shadows of the movie versions.
The characters where it’s really hard to decide between Lynch and Villeneuve are mostly Atreides retainers, and here they are:
Richard Jordan (1-time Emmy nominee; 1-time Golden Globe winner) vs.
Jason Momoa (1-time SAG Awards nominee)
I was really taken with Jordan’s performance in the original film to the point that I had to track down his other work in Logan’s Run and the TV miniseries from the same year Captains and the Kings. The former was easy to catch up with in revival cinemas all through the 80s and 90s. The latter, not so much until late in the days of VHS, right before DVDs took over, and I was able to pick up all the episodes for really cheap.
Anyway, I found him engaging, ideal for the role, and with a purity that made what I knew was coming later (as a fan of the books) even more tragic. Plus he died at only the age of 56 in 1993 due to brain cancer.
So, I was leaning heavily toward Team Jordan, but then I saw Momoa in the role and, sorry. He had all of the same engaging traits that Jordan did, but also a physical presence that Jordan did not but which the character needs.
Winner: Jason Momoa for Dune: Part One
Patrick Stewart (4-time Primtime Emmy Awards nominee) vs.
Josh Brolin (1-time Oscar nominee)
Keep in mind that Star Trek: Generations was nearly a decade in the future when Dune came out, so that Patrick Stewart did not have the same connotations at the time. He was just some bald, British actor. Still, he did make an impression on me as the character tasked with teaching Paul how to fight, and pretty much forcing him into his lessons.
Brolin’s take on the character does the same as well, and their scenes are pretty similar. However, Stewart brings a lot more humanity to the character, while Brolin’s Halleck is just kind of a dick. Plus I can only ever think of him as Thanos now.
Winner: Patrick Stewart for Dune
Freddie Jones vs. (1-time BAFTA nominee)
Stephen McKinley Henderson (2-time SAG Awards nominee, 1-time Tony Award nominee)
Although it’s one of those “if you know, you know” instances in Villaneuve’s version, Mentats are very important to all of the Great Houses mainly because they serve as human computers, which is a necessity because the Butlerian Jihad 10,000 years earlier outlawed all mechanical computing devices.
Thufir Hawat is Mentat to the House Atreides, and while Freddie Jones has a certain gravitas for the role, Henderson just walks away with it by pure physical presence. He sort of embodies the grandfather we all wish we’d had as kids.
Winner: Stephen McKinley Henderson for Dune: Part One
Dr. Yueh: Dean Stockwell (1-time Oscar nominee) vs.
Chang Chen (1-time nominee, Asian Film Awards)
This one is the hardest call of all for one simple reason: Stockwell was an iconic actor who passed away only a few weeks ago and, in fact, after Dune: Part One was released. If this had been an actual Oscar ceremony, he might have just won based on that — although that’s not always the case. Just ask Chadwick Boseman. Or Heath Ledger. Hm. What’s the difference, again?
Stockwell was a Lynch regular, and probably most well-known for his role in the TV series Quantum Leap, but also memorable for his turn in Blue Velvet, which came out two years after Dune.
But the elephant in the room, of course, is the name “Yueh,” which is of Chinese origin. And while Herbert’s books are set nearly 8,200 years in the the future, it’s definitely a future that includes Earth. So, while the ethnic and national sources of names may have completely broken down by that point, it’s also clear in Herbert’s universe that the certain planets and societies have managed to remain insular and tribal.
For example: The Fremen of Arrakis, the Spacing Guild, the Bene Tleilax, or Planet Ix.
Still, while Stockwell was memorable in the role, this one has to go to the first actually Asian actor to play him. Not to mention that his whole “being a doctor” acting goes way beyond anything Stockwell did. In fact… I really don’t remember Stockwell’s Yueh doctoring at all.
Winner: Chang Chen for Dune: Part One
Piter de Vries
Brad Dourif (1-time Oscar nominee) vs.
The Harkonnen version of Mentats, this one is really a total no-brainer. Dastmalchian has a couple of scenes where he’s basically background, and then he dies. Meanwhile, Dourif’s take on the character embodies the mental mania that would be going on in a human computer’s head.
Another Lynch stalwart, he also appeared in Blue Velvet. Keep your eyes on “Raymond” in this disturbing sequence from that film, which also features Dean Stockwell. Dourif has this uncanny ability to play both almost lovably dorky and incredibly creepy at the same time.
I guess there’s a reason he’s the voice of Chucky, after all.
Though probably no fault of his own because his character had nearly no development in the script, Dastmalchian loses out.
Winner: Brad Dourif for Dune
Duke Leto Atreides: Oscar Isaac for Dune: Part One
Shadout Mapes: Golda Rosheuvel for Dune: Part One
Dr. Liet Kynes: Sharon Duncan-Brewster for Dune: Part One
Chani: Zendaya for Dune: Part One
Stilgar: Javier Bardem for Dune: Part One
And now it’s the time you’ve been waiting for — the top three acting awards, best director, and best picture, but… crap. We’ve run out of time again and have to pre-empt Wednesday’s regularly scheduled article, so tune in tomorrow for the grand finale!