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Film & TV

Why David Lynch Failed to Capture the Greatness of Dune

Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer, at left) confronts a Guild Navigator early in David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune. (Movieclips/via YouTube)

In writing about the greatness of Frank Herbert’s 1965 epic sci-fi novel Dune in the latest issue of National Review in advance of the release of Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming film version, I alluded to “a misbegotten prior adaptation.” By that, I meant director David Lynch’s 1984 attempt to bring Herbert’s vision to screen. Lynch, then fresh off The Elephant Man (and having turned down the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi), is now probably best known for the exquisite weirdness of his work, particularly as manifested in the TV series Twin Peaks. Yet he largely considers Dune a disaster, a product of his inexperience with large-scale film production and of over-interference by the studio.

Writing for, however, Lincoln Michel finds something to admire in Lynch’s Dune: It is quite appropriately weird:

It’s not that the criticisms of the film are all wrong. The awkward pacing, the confusing plot, the big exposition dumps in dialogue. It’s a mess. But it’s a beautiful mess that’s far more memorable than the average aesthetic-free, polished-to-dullness blockbuster SFF films of today. So while we all wait for Denis Villeneuve’s version of Dune—one I have some hopes for, I should say—to be released and replace it in the pop culture consciousness, I want to praise David Lynch’s Dune for keeping science fiction strange.

To say that Lynch made a weird film is like saying water is wet. But put Dune in context. It was released one year after Return of the Jedi, a film more concerned with corporate toy sales than otherworldly visions. Science fiction literature was still full of mind-expanding ideas and boundary pushing concepts of course, but Hollywood was successfully turning the genre into something safe, kid-friendly, and prepackaged for the masses. In this context, Dune was a breath of fresh spice in a mutated human’s space-folding aquarium.

There is something to this, I think. Dune created an immersive world somewhat rooted in our own — all the characters are human after all (well, except the Harkonnens) — yet also wholly distinct from it. At its best, Lynch’s Dune does capture that. Michel is right to identify this scene as one of the best in that movie — even if it also is guilty of a big exposition dump:

My main problem with Lynch’s Dune, aside from the obvious criticisms, is that it doesn’t get the book, especially some of the stuff that makes it weird. As I explained in the magazine, Dune does not depict a simple hero’s journey of Paul Atreides, its main character. It is, rather “a warning about the dangers of false messiahs, of trusting overly in charismatic leaders, and of mixing politics and religion.” Lynch’s Dune does not capture this subtlety. Hence, Paul’s travails in the film are fairly rote and conventional and seem almost superficial, leading inexorably to some triumph that feels relatively unearned and is not presented as somehow marred or malicious. Moreover, Lynch’s Dune ends with a narration stating that Paul

had become the hand of God, fulfilling Fremen prophecy. Where there was war, [he] would now bring peace. Where there was hatred, [he] would bring love. To lead the people to true freedom, and to change the face of Arrakis.

Yes, Paul fulfilled Fremen prophecy . . . because he and his mother, a member of the all-female Bene Gessert religious order of civilization-manipulating psychics, had taken advantage of prophecies “planted” on Arrakis at some prior time. As for bringing peace and love where there was war and hatred . . . immediately after Dune ends, Paul leads the Fremen on a jihad that, by the time of Dune Messiah, the first Dune sequel Frank Herbert authored, has “killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely de­moralized five hundred others.”

And as for changing the face of Arrakis: This large-scale ecological transformation is something hinted at in Dune, but not meaningfully achieved on the desert world until the reign of his son Leto II, the God Emperor of Dune. And it’s a good thing, too: The sandworms of Dune, whose life cycle produces the spice (drug) mélange on which civilization depends, are fatally allergic to water. But Lynch’s Dune ends with Paul having magically produced rain on Arrakis. This is not in the original text. If it were, all the sandworms would be killed; off-screen in Lynch’s Dune, if it were being semi-faithful and insisted on keeping the rain but insisted on showing the results, you would hear the behemoth moans of the sandworms as they expired.

So while David Lynch’s Dune, despite some of its obvious flaws, does capture some of the essential weirdness of Frank Herbert’s vision, it fails on account of a lack of faithfulness to the text that makes the story less weird than Herbert had made it. Whether Villenueve will succeed where Lynch failed remains to be seen.


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