This is part two of yesterday’s Sunday Nibble, which gave a general discussion of the various successful (as in released) and failed versions of Frank Herbert’s Dune. This time around, I’m going to be comparing various elements of each of the three, head-to-head.
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
I’ll do this Academy Awards style and work my way up to the ones people really care about — actors, writers, and directors, so let’s start with the tech awards.
For this, I’ll be comparing costumes, set design, and various pieces of world building.
Remember, this was before the days of broadly available HDTV sets. While the technology had been around since the 80s, developed in Japan, legislative and industry foot-dragging and infighting really gunked things up.
It was like the VHS vs. Beta or DVD Format wars all over again. Everybody wanted to hold the only patent, and nobody wanted to work together or compromise. It was the same with TVs, where the big hold-up was going to be the ability to broadcast signals over the air that required such bandwidth.
That bandwidth existed in unallocated channels, but the telephone landline industry wanted that real estate for themselves, and badly, so things dragged on. (Yes, landline had a voice in the argument — that’s how long ago this was.)
Ultimately, the first HDTV sets hit the consumer market in the U.S. in 1998 but, as with any bleeding edge consumer technology, it took a while to become cheap enough to really catch on.
Consequently, producers didn’t exactly jump on the bandwagon to produce HD content. It was a repeat of the transition from black and white only to exclusively color TV in the 1960s. There had to be enough demand from consumers before it happened.
In 2000, that demand wasn’t there yet, so everything was still stuck in 4:3 TV ratio, with that nice, flat, even lighting. This puts Frank Herbert’s Dune at a serious disadvantage for all design elements.
Meanwhile in 1984, film, particularly 70mm, was the high-def medium, and even 8K resolution hasn’t quite equaled it yet. The resolution of a 70mm IMAX frame is the equivalent of 12K, although 35mm film was bested when 4K came around.
Here are our nominees:
1984: Bob Ringwood (2 time Oscar nominee)
2000: Theodor Pistek (2 time Oscar nominee; winner for Amadeus)
2021: Jacqueline West (3 time Oscar nominee)
I suppose that the surprise here is that the actual Oscar winner — and for the Best Picture at that — didn’t leave all that much of an impression on me, for the reasons noted above, so that he had to go with simple lines. There were probably also budgetary restraints.
In my memory, everything in the film was generally too “clean” and crisp, including the costumes, although there were some interesting choices. The Harkonnen gang’s outfits, for example, seemed to have a lot of Japanese and Eastern influences, which is actually a very strange choice given the characters.
Between the other two, Ringwood and West, it’s really hard to call, because they both did excellent jobs, albeit working with a 37-year difference in fabric and textile development. We have clothing materials now that just didn’t exist in 1983, when the film started shooting, with pre-production possibly even beginning in late 1982.
We can create the look of heavy leather, armor plate, densely brocaded fabric, patterned textiles, and on and on, and do quite a lot of it as light-weight illusions.
That leather? It’s rubberized spandex or cotton, and the armor is probably vacuum-formed plastic. As for those brocades and patterns, they’re just as likely to be very clever 3D illusions or, in other words, fancy printed patterns with nary an actual stitch or applique at all.
In 1982, if you wanted leather, armor, brocade, and so on, you were pretty much stuck with the real thing. Plastic or vinyl for armor (think Star Wars Stormtroopers) were probably the only viable alternative then, but only if you were going for solid, glossy colors. Much harder to get the look of dull, tarnished metal that wouldn’t rapidly chip off during filming.
Still — so many of the costumes from Lynch’s Dune still stick in my mind even while sticking toward more western metaphors and industrial motifs. Dune: Part One truly diversifies everything, and we see it in particular in the costumes, where which group someone belongs to is immediately identifiable by what they’re wearing.
Attention to detail with the Fremen, the natives of Arrakis, particularly honors Herbert’s original metaphors by going very Middle Eastern. Lynch’s version, not so much.
As a friend of mine described the whole series of books, Dune is basically “Lawrence of Arabia on acid, in space,” and he’s not wrong.
Ringwood went a long way toward world building in Lynch’s film but, ultimately, it didn’t feel all that far from ours. West, on the other hand, went all-out to source her costuming not just from Europe and the Americas, but from the world.
Her take on the Bene Gesserit sisterhood alone sells it. In the Lynch version, they come off as just a bunch of women in black with shaved heads and weird headdresses. By obscuring their faces and body shapes as they make a menacing group entrance, West reinforces what’s so dangerous about them, and she turns Charlotte Rampling’s Reverend Mother into a truly formidable force precisely because we cannot ever see her face clearly.
Winner: Jacqueline West for Dune: Part One
1984: Anthony Masters (1 time Oscar nominee, for 2001: A Space Odyssey)
2000: Miljen Kreka Kljakovic (1 time Primetime Emmy nominee)
2021: Patrice Vermette (2 time Oscar nominee)
The set design for Frank Herbert’s Dune is absolutely beautiful, and parts of it have a very Art Deco feel. However, as noted previously, the worlds of that version are just too clean and pristine for Herbert’s world.
Lynch’s and Villeneuve’s are, of course, much grittier and fitting the story, although they achieve this in very different ways. Lynch’s world, in fitting with his aesthetic, is very industrial and mechanical. Meanwhile, Villeneuve’s is very natural and organic.
Remember, after Lynch became known for the low-budget indie film Eraserhead, producer Mel Brooks picked him precisely because of it to direct the studio film The Elephant Man, which was Lynch’s debut as a “legit” director.
The film is set in late 1880s Victorian England — the same time period when Jack the Ripper was active as well as the setting for the graphic novel and movie From Hell, which focuses on the hunt for the ripper but features the Elephant Man as a background character.
It’s an era of arsenic in the wallpaper and gaslights everywhere, and in Lynch’s vision of it, you can smell the faint whiff of methane from the streetlights, the sickly heaviness of oil keeping carriages and machines running, and the stench of smoke from burning coal pouring out of every factory chimney. There would also have been copious amounts of horseshit in the streets and a generally unpleasant odor from most of the people.
The Elephant Man is a film you can smell, and Lynch carries this over into his version of Dune. But, again, it’s an industrial one, especially as typified by the Guild Navigators, who arrive in the Emperor’s palace in huge metal containers that resemble train cars without windows before they slide open to reveal the glass chamber within, mutated Guild Navigator floating in a yellow cloud of spice gas.
We don’t even see the navigators in Villeneuve’s take on it, nor do we really see much of the fabled Heighliners with which they travel. In 2021, we only get the end of the trip, showing the gigantic ships having arrived in order to unload their cargo.
Lynch, on the other hand, took great interest in showing the heighliners in enormous detail, including how the Guild Steersman used the mental powers given to it by the spice in order to fold space.
Lynch lingered on the craft, both in space and descending down to a planet. Villeneuve doesn’t really focus on such craft, but just throws them into action, the one exception being some nice, lingering shots of his dragonfly inspired ornithopters, which beat the Lynch versions hands down.
Other little design details are very telling as well, like the layout and overview of Arrakeen, the capital city of the titular Dune planet, Arrakis, every bit the Middle-Eastern desert stronghold. But where Dune: Part One really pays attention can be found in the little details of Fremen Tech.
What Lynch’s design team seemed to not notice or think about but Villeneuve’s did is this: Yes, the Fremen have some pretty amazing technology. However, they also live in the desert, and crossing it while traveling lightly is essential.
We see this in Dune: Part One when Paul unpacks a Fremen supply kit left for him and his mother by the family physician Dr. Yueh, and there is an endless supply of very useful items in there, but they are all packed into very compact and specific areas and, in aggregate, also appear to be very lightweight.
The biggest example of the difference comes in the so-called “thumper,” which is a device designed to either call or distract sandworms, depending on needs. If you look at the 1984 poster above, you can even see one — it’s what Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) is carrying over his shoulder, and it’s as tall as he is.
In contrast, the Villeneuve version is really about the size of a hand-vac or six-volt flashlight — handheld, portable, and it does the job.
Visually, I get that Lynch was trying to show that thumpers were signaling devices, as well as show us that they worked by, well, thumping the sand, and he did this by having the tall shaft with some kind of unit on top of it, so we could see that something was, indeed, moving inside.
But… a thumper was never designed to be a signal to other Fremen, so there was no need at all for anything that visible. It was meant to signal to sandworms, and that signal traveled entirely downward into, well, sand.
That’s just one of many examples, but the most telling.
Winner: Patrice Vermette for Dune: Part One
1984: TOTO (5 time Grammy nominee; 4 time winner)
2000: Graeme Revell (11 time BMI Film & TV Award nominee; 11 time winner)
2021: Hans Zimmer (10-time Oscar nominee, 1-time winner)
Each soundtrack for each film is a product of the time it was made and the medium it was made for. TOTO would have been a perfectly rational choice in 1984, especially considering that only four years earlier, the campy sci-fi epic Flash Gordon came out with a soundtrack by Queen that was rather successful, so why not another rock band?
It also made sense because in 1983, TOTO won their four Grammy Awards, so they were in a pretty good position to be in demand.
The problem, of course, was that this was the height of the age of synthesizers but also right before sampling technology got good enough to emulate real instruments. And rather than write their score and then transcribe it for an orchestra, TOTO went the DIY route, and it shows.
Synthesizer “string” sounds in 1984 were anything but, and the effect nowadays is to give a strangely dated feeling to the music. To be honest, I couldn’t remember anything about the soundtracks from either 1984 or 2000, so had to look them up and give a listen. Hooray, internet!
Anyway, while some of the TOTO stuff is very melodic, it does suffer by not having been recorded analog. On top of that, there are several very cringe moments when they unwisely unleashed their electric guitars, especially when Paul and the Fremen (which also sounds like a band) ride a sandworm or House Atreides finally kicks Harkonnen ass at the end. (Spoiler!)
Meanwhile, Graeme Revell’s material takes advantage of either a full orchestra or the much-improved state of sound synthesis in 2000, or possibly both. It’s got some beautiful moments but, again, it comes from the land of TV instead of film, so its main raison d’être, sadly, is to keep the viewer keyed in on the emotional content of the scene while they’re looking away and being distracted by their phone, kids, pets, SO, or whatever.
Which brings me to Zimmer and Dune: Part One and, as with the costume design mentioned previously and the casting yet to come, he remembers one thing: The world of Frank Herbert’s Dune was diverse and not Eurocentric.
In fact, Arrakis/Dune is quite clearly a stand-in for the Middle East, Saudi Arabia in particular, for one specific reason. The all-important “spice” in Herbert’s universe is essential for all space travel and, hence, inter-planetary commerce. Without it, the system falls apart.
Translate to late 20th century Earth and, ta-da… fossil fuels. Now, granted, unlike in Dune, Saudi Arabia is not the sole source of black gold — Texas and Alaska, for example, would not have had such disproportionate wealth in the U.S. at one point in history without it — but Sudi Arabia was an important enough producer that imperial powers took notice.
In this case, “Imperial” is specifically Great Britain, which is how that whole Lawrence of Arabia thing happened in the first place.
That’s all just backstory to Zimmer’s score, though. Where he absolutely succeeds is in keeping it orchestral — or at least milking current sound technology to its fullest to keep it sounding realistic — and in making it world music.
His score is an amazing combination of Western, Middle-Eastern, Asian, African, and Indigenous musical modes, rhythms, and sounds, and it does as much to build this world as everything else. There’s not even a question here, and this could easily be Zimmer’s 11th Oscar nomination and second win. I’m calling it now.
Winner: Hans Zimmer for Dune: Part One
And, will you look at that? Just like any awards show, we’re running way over time, and we haven’t even gotten to the ones you’re really interested in yet. Let’s play the “In Memoriam” segment for those cast members who are no longer with us. As it turns out, they were all in the first film. Then, we’ll pick it up after the break tomorrow, in Dune: The Awards Show, part two.