Throwback Thursday: Delving Into Frank Herbert’s Dune

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

In compiling the list of space opera films I wanted to cover before CONvergence 2017, I added one of my favorites: David Lynch’s would-be opus Dune (1984). However, when I had my one-year anniversary column at Twin Cities Geek, I covered the entire oeuvre of Lynch (which you can find here). So as not to repeat myself, I’m going to focus today on 2000’s adaptation of the classic, the Sci-Fi Channel’s Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Barbora Kodetová as Chani and Alec Newman as Paul.

Chani and Paul have a discussion about blue eyes.

The same major plot points are in this version: the Atreides taking over the planet Arrakis from the evil Baron Harkonnen. Schemes and backstabbing ensue to the point where the young Paul Atreides and his mother are believed dead, but they end up banding together with a desert race of warriors called the Fremen, and Paul ends up conquering the planet and universe. There’s a lot in the novel to unpack, and the miniseries was probably the best way to introduce us to this world.

The Atreides clan looks out over the dunes.

When they have their masks on I think of Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat.

While hewing much closer to the source material, this version only adds a couple of scenes for Princess Irulan that weren’t in the original novel. This allows her character to be a little more three-dimensional, since in the book she is primarily relegated to epigraphs that don’t give her much to do. The biggest standout in regards to actors is William Hurt as Duke Leto Atreides, and he gives the role a much-needed gravitas, world weariness, and empathy (something lacking in his Lost in Space character). Otherwise, most of the other actors are passable. Comparing them to their big screen counterparts is a tough sell. While Alec Newman isn’t bad as Paul, he doesn’t have nearly the same amount of charisma that Kyle McLachlan brought to the role. Scenes where he’s supposed to be uniting the Fremen feel a little underwhelming because of this. Matt Keeslar as Feyd-Rautha, the evil Baron’s nephew, comes across more as a blow-hard jock than a credible threat to Paul.

A space guild member conspires.

The royal rooms are appropriately ornate.

The screenplay and direction by John Harrison is very straightforward. And I’m actually amazed at what he was able to get on screen for just $20 million dollars and almost five hours worth of running time. He tries his best to costume a lot of people in opulent settings. Some of the hats are not the best choices. But he does a lot with a little, so kudos on that front. I also think it’s a stronger adaptation. If someone hasn’t read the novel and wants an introductory way into the universe, this is the way to go. It’s a lot cleaner than David Lynch’s. I recently sat some friends down to watch the extended Lynch version, and when it was over they felt they should have taken notes. There’s a lot of exposition. Luckily the mini-series has the ability to space that knowledge spew out a little better.

Irulan's outfit is covered by butterflies.

Princess Irulan doesn’t like butterflies.

Frank Herbert’s Dune was successful enough to allow for a sequel. The biggest misstep is that it tried to combine two thematically different novels into one. In 2003 we received Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, which was a combination of 1969’s Dune Messiah and 1976’s Children of Dune. This is where the plot gets away from them. I can understand why they did it. Children of Dune has a lot more intrigue to it, but it wouldn’t make as much sense without Dune Messiah. The standouts are Susan Sarandon and Alice Krige chewing up the scenery as they plot destruction, and a young James McAvoy as Paul’s son Leto II definitely ups the charisma factor.

Leto II walks into the dunes.

James McAvoy looking appropriately intense.

Children of Dune had the same size budget but tries to fit twice as much information into a shorter runtime. Though considered moderately successful for the channel, it didn’t do as well as they’d hoped, and it’s no surprise that we didn’t get future installments. A new film version has been in and out of purgatory hell so many times over the past couple of decades it might not make sense to hold your breath for a new adaptation. With the success of Game of Thrones, and with how cheap digital effects have gotten over the past 15 years, I think the best way for a new interpretation is to give it a full series; do a book each season. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a good way to spend five hours if you have an afternoon, but I would still recommend the original novel.

 

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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