Sunday Nibble #90: Dune: Part One

My thoughts on the one attempted and three succeeded adaptations of Dune, part one of two.

Okay, I know. I’ve raved about the upcoming film and past adaptations and many other things Dune here before, and while the latest move adaptation did open almost a month ago, it took me a while to get to it mainly because I wanted to see it in an actual theatre — this was not one for streaming at all — but I wanted to wait until the size of the crowds died down.

Plus, I know how the theatre business works, and if you want most of your ticket money to go to the theater (who needs it) as opposed to the mega-studio distributor (who doesn’t) then wait a few weeks.

If you want the minimal number of audience members with you, go on a Tuesday through Thursday early evening, at just after six p.m.

I’m glad I finally did, on a Tuesday evening at 6:50, although I felt guilty in that I didn’t realize before I committed that this was the theater chain’s cheapie $6.50 ticket night (service charge extra.) I would have paid the double price for a Wednesday or Thursday, really.

On the other hand, psychology, it just felt like I needed this bit of self-care on a rough Tuesday and, ultimately, I’m glad I went.

My very short review of it is this: Many have tried, but most have fallen short. Jodorowsky tried and failed spectacularly in the late 60s/early 70s, much closer to the release of the original novel and, honestly, also much closer to its psychedelic roots.

That’s probably the reason this version never happened, because the director behind that one was clearly cranked out of his mind, went way over-budget, and wrote a script that original author Frank Herbert himself reported would have run well over 14 hours.

The first theatrical version of Dune didn’t come out until 1984, directed by David Lynch, and while the producers obviously thought, “This dude makes some really fucked-up looking shit,” they failed to notice that he’s also pretty much straightlaced as hell IRL.

Or maybe the correct term is “buttoned up,” which is literally true — the man always wears dress shirts buttoned all the way to the top, whether he has a tie on or not.

So, while Lynch had no actual experience via which to hook up with the real spiritual and visionary ideas in the source, he nonetheless was a visionary in terms of the arts, knew how to express things visually and how to use art design and cinematography and editing.

Ultimately, his version is a visual feast in which he does create very distinct worlds between those of the Atreides, Harkonnens, the Imperium, and Arrakis. On top of that, his theatrical release came in at two hours and seventeen minutes, which is barely enough time to really even tell the first act of the story.

Still… he had some pretty amazing cast members and some very memorable set, artistic, and costume designs, especially revolving around the Imperial Court, the Guild Navigators and their handlers, and the ships in general.

In a way, he took the way that Star Wars had turned the design of science fiction on its head only seven years earlier in 1977, and then turned it on its head again and gave it a shake. Lucas managed to steal a lot of that back by the time of the prequel trilogy, really.

The third proposed and second produced version of the book was a 2000 miniseries backed by Hallmark, of all entities, and it aired on the then-called Sci Fi under the title Frank Herbert’s Dune, presented in three parts. It was followed up in 2003 by another three-part adaptation of the books Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, probably most significant for introducing James McAvoy to a worldwide audience as Leto II Atreides.

Now, to a Dune fanboy, both of those minis together are just amazing, but the second miniseries is also way out of the scope of things here. Also, the Sci Fi version was really on a budget that focused on hiring very unknown and frequently Eastern European actors in order to put the budget into the special effects.

The two big exceptions, maybe, were William Hurt as Duke Leto Atreides in the first mini and Susan Sarandon as Princess Wensicia Corrino in the second.

But if we’re scoring over/under here… Lynch’s film was a good, “financed by 80s studio suits who wouldn’t know art if it bit their taint but were mostly wise enough to let him go,” while the miniseries was a better, “You can do what you want with the script, and we’ll finance the effects as well as long as you can make everything else cheaply as hell.”

Caveat on the first one: Yeah, the suits left Lynch mostly alone when he made the film, but they also created an extended version for TV that was so bad that Lynch took his name off it, and it aired as “An Alan Smithee Film.”

If you don’t know what that used to mean, go look it up.

The Smithee cut was 40 minutes longer than the theatrical version, but was padded out mostly by a half-hour extremely expositional prologue narrated by a minor character, Emperor’s daughter Princess Irulan, and illustrated completely with pre-production art and storyboards.

In other words, boring AF. The other ten minutes were composed of mostly outtakes and, honestly, they were originally outtakes for a reason.

So… those two and a half versions down, we come to the 2021 Part One iteration, and what’s my Dune Uber-fanboy take?

Oh, fuck, yeah. Denis Villeneuve just gets it and, wisely (unlike the other two directors) he split screenplay credit, so he did not try to do the whole thing himself.

Plus… he also did not try to do the whole thing, which was his wisest move. The book Dune would never fit into a single film, and it barely fit into a nearly five-hour miniseries. Dune: Part One is nearly half-way to that, which is a good sign.

The other good sign is that it ended at exactly the right part of the story, with the exact right line and visual, so that (for me) it didn’t feel unfulfilling. Nope. exactly the opposite.

It was the director planting his flag in the sand and declaring, “Hey. This is what I said I was going to do. Here we are. See you in Part Two…”

And I am so there for that journey.

Also amazing are the things that did not appear in Part One, which are only going to make Part Two stronger.

In Lynch’s Dune, the Emperor appeared early on and, IIRC, in almost the first scene, and we learn about his entire plot right then and there. In Villaneuve’s Dune, though, the Emperor and his daughter do not appear. Neither does Baron Harkonnen’s other nephew, Fayd Rautha, so memorably portrayed by Sting in a blue clamshell speedo in Lynch’s version.

Wait, what?

And if Harry Styles does not show up as the barely-clad and arrogant challenger to Paul Atreides in Dune: Part Two, then the director is not paying any attention to the Zeitgeist.

C’mon — that is the perfect death-cage matchup, period. For one thing, I think the two are pretty well-matched physically, and (spoiler alert) the characters are probably related thanks to the Bene Gesserit and their long-running breeding program, so their physical resemblance actually works.

For another, despite people thinking that it might look like an angry nerd slap-fight in a middle school cafeteria, Timothée Chalomet has already proven that he can hold his own in fight choreography.

The only downside is believing that he’s related to Harkonnen and his nephew (Feyd’s older brother) Beast Rabban, because Styles is just too pretty. On the other hand, the same two characters in Lynch’s version were not at all attractive people and Feyd was Sting, the only nod to them being related their fiery red hair.

Oh — Harkonnen and Rabban are both bald in this one. Hm…

So that’s my take on the latest Dune adaptation and thoughts on the others, but how do the three really compare? I’ll give my take on that one in the next installment.

Hey, if Villeneuve can do his adaptation in two parts, I can do likewise with my commentary. Check in tomorrow. At least I’m not making you wait until 2023.

Sunday Nibble #34: Dune

As a kid, I read all of Frank Herbert’s Dune books but, caveat, only the ones he actually wrote, and not all of the add-on attempted canon that came later. I was also a huge, huge fan of the much reviled David Lynch film adaptation — his version, not the bastardized Alan Smithee cut — which is nowhere near as awful as a lot of idiots have made it out to be.

Although, looking at the trailer now, is just a reminder of how, well… cheesy a lot of movie-making and movie marketing was back at that time — not to mention how awful a lot of the special effects look now. But do you remember those days when trailers had narrators that had to explain absolutely everything? Pepperidge Farms remembers.

Still, I have to admit a major fondness for the Syfy Channel’s 2000 and 2003 adaptations of the first three books which, in a lot of ways, went way beyond the Lynch version in scope and depth, although at the same time went with a much more low-budget, mostly unknown cast — which gets really ironic in 2003’s Children of Dune, because this was pretty much America’s intro to James McAvoy who, well, needs no introduction.

And now, there’s a new film adaptation coming out, and it looks like maybe they’re doing it right by only biting off half of the first book now, the second to come later — and the casting is beyond amazing.

Bonus points to them for using a Pink Floyd song in this trailer, which is a huge nod to the aborted attempt to adapt the book way back in the late 60s by Alejandro Jodorowsky, with such mind-blowing ideas as the Emperor being played by Salvador Dali, Feyd-Rautha portrayed by Mick Jagger, and the director’s own son as Paul Atreides.

Soundtrack: Pink Floyd. It’s hard to imagine what would have come out of that collaboration, but it never happened.

As for the source material itself, a good friend of mine always describes Dune as “Lawrence of Arabia on Acid,” which seems pretty accurate to me. Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet this go-round) is the son and heir-apparent to a noble House that is given the task of subjugating the planet Arrakis, source of the spice melange. This substance has both religious and secular uses.

It allows Guild Navigators, star pilots mutated by OD-ing on spice, to actually see and plot routes between star systems and making the hyper-jumps entirely with their minds in a process described as “traveling without moving.”

This is what gives spice its true value, because it literally powers all space travel and commerce in the known universe. And it only comes from one planet. Arrakis.

Spice is sacred to both the natives of Arrakis and the religious order of Bene Gesserit, who have been mucking about behind the scenes trying to selectively breed the person who will become the Messiah to the people of Arrakis, thereby giving them indirect control of the planet and the spice.

The big bads of the original book are the House Harkonnen, sent to do the emperor’s dirty work, and House Corrino, to which belongs the Padishah Emperor himself, Shaddam IV.

And if all of this competing houses business absolutely reeks of Game of Thrones, just remember that Frank Herbert came up with his version sometime before 1965.

Interestingly enough, it looks like we don’t get to the Emperor in the first movie this time around, which is probably a good thing.

My only disappointment with the impending project is that there really is enough Dune material to have done it as a very extended streaming series. On the other hand, it’s the kind of the thing that really needs the same kind of big screen that was necessary to tell the story of Lawrence of Arabia.

Of course, there’s always the ideal universe, where director Denis Villeneuve pulls this off and nails the sequel, and then the Dune saga becomes the next (and very grown-up) version of the Potterverse Franchise, which has pretty much lost all of its shine for me.

But there’s plenty of material. The original Dune series comprises six books, one short of Potter: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse Dune. And god (emperor) knows, Herbert’s son went all Christopher Tolkien on his dad’s IP and spun it out into a ton of further books to rival the ridiculousness in scope of today’s Star Wars extended universe.

Perhaps I’m fanboying too much, but this trailer really does have my hopes up that there will be at least one bright spot coming at the end of 2021. I’m hoping for two, and anyone who’s been paying attention can probably guess what the other one is.

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