Can Dune be done? Should Dune be done? Bringing Long Books to the Screen

herbert sandworm dune
If you walk without rhythm, you won’t attract the worm.

Until the last generation, when Peter Jackson proved The Lord of the Rings could not only be made into a successful film — but be so off-the-charts good that it took home 11 Oscar Awards — it was unheard of to succeed at translating most of the great sci-fi and fantasy epics of literature to the big screen.

That’s not for lack of trying. Larry McMurtry’s  Lonesome Dove book-to-film effort was a grand feat, but it’s the mini-series scale that made it work. The book is too big and involved to be made into one cinema-length film. Nowadays it would be at least a film trilogy, but I don’t think it needs a reboot — the 1989 miniseries is already a flawless snapshot of the last gasps of the Western Expansion. So they could make a new movie with these characters, yes, but I’d say it’s time to move on and  tackle other works of genre literature. (Also, who’s going to try improve on Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval?)

Watership Down is another epic tale in a brick-sized book, but it’s a hard sell, being entirely from the point of view of rabbits. And it’s absolutely not for children: the themes are mature and often mesmerizingly frightening. (The rabbits even have their own word for being stuck in a “mesmerizingly frightened” state — called Tharn –). The 1978 animated feature has its fans, but most people who’ve loved the book pretend the “movie” doesn’t exist. (Seriously, it’s like a long scary drug trip.) Hazel’s troop of rabbits could now be done with puppets, animatronics, or CGI — instead of animation —  but the question here is “Why?” We’ve seen entire CGI movies like Avatar, and they can be lush and sweeping films, but it still remains that Watership Down must be seen at rabbit-height and from rabbit-eyes. It would take a very special studio or director to take that on. This is probably why nobody is chasing this particular story at the moment.

Here’s a full length video of Watership Down, if you’re curious:

In  the Post-LOTR and Harry Potter world,  the densest, longest, and most involving books can come alive on film…with inspired directing, gobs of studio money (and little studio interference), the right acting ensemble, and legions of dedicated crew members. Not to mention a crack PR team dropping hints and teaser trailers to excite the fans. (See: anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

The key to adapting epic novels to the big screen, it seems, is respecting the source story. Behind the sets, Sir Ian McKellen (as Gandalf) would pace around Peter Jackson with this LOTR novels, saying, essentially, “Peter!That’s not how Tolkien wrote it!” This is probably one of the many interconnected reasons why Lord of the Rings, previously considered unfilmable, worked so well.

It’s not that a script can’t deviate from a source, but the result should clearly be recognizable from it. Book fans will be waiting for certain beats, beloved details, fantastic settings worthy of a grand story, and most of all: a faithfulness of essence to its literary origins.

There’s a line between slavishly book-faithful recreations (as in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), and movies that recalls its novel by name only (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, AKA Blade Runner, or Lynch’s Dune).

So, yes, finally. We get to Dune. It’s been tackled several times, although none were recent enough to benefit from the current seamless FX at our disposal. (Which doesn’t excuse anything at all. Look back on the practical effects of Star Wars: A New Hope, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, and tell me those films failed — they don’t.)

david lynch dune
Lynch’s Dune – looks good, tastes bad.

Lynch’s 1984 Dune remains a problem, and its not from poor effects. It’s mainly that Lynch took Herbert’s book, tore a few pages he liked from it, and threw away the rest. It’s only “Dune” because the characters have the same names, there are Fremen and there are Sandworms, and Arrakis, the desert planet, is still called Dune. Otherwise, it’s a sprawling, sometimes grotesque mess, bearing little likeness to the story they aim to tell. I admit they got to the story’s conclusion just fine, but the path to get there was completely unorthodox. I know Lynch’s Dune has its fans, so I’ll let it lie.

scy fy dune
SyFy gives Dune a try. Definitely more Herbert, but definitely still wrong.

When SyFy made Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000) into a television miniseries, you can see there were many attempts made to be faithful to the book…but Sy Fy also took liberties in the telling. The main arguments I’ve heard seem to coalesce around the casting, that the actors didn’t look like the part, or didn’t act like the part. I’d say in both versions they got Jessica right, and Chani, and Irulan, for that matter, but the men’s roles are hit or miss. I think they got a lot more right than wrong, and crafted a personable, sensible, enjoyable tale without a whisper of heart plugs.

In my grading system, I’d give Lynch’s Dune a D+. (While I thought it was overall atrocious, he got a few things right, and that’s where the + comes in.) I’d give SyFy’s Dune a nice fair B score. It crumples a little as time marches on, but at least it’s recognizably Dune. SyFy even went on to combine Dune Messiah and Children of Dune as a second mini-series, which was ambitious, welcome, and mostly effective.  That one gets a B as well; maybe a   B+ — I’d have to see it again.

jodorowksy dune
Jodorosky’s Dune. Third time’s a charm?

A lot of people mention Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), which isn’t actually a movie. It’s more like an appetizer for a film, or a promise of Dune. You can watch the movie-length documentary for $3 on Amazon, or check out the free trailers on IMDb. However, if you watch the video, you can’t help but notice that it’s even stranger than Lynch’s version. There’s a lot of people who want to see this one picked up by the studios, but I’m not one of them. I want to see the story the way Herbert saw it in his mind’s eye.

The time is right to try Dune again, using a well-funded production studio, a director who is comfortable with an epic scale,  and detailed sets in grand desert locations. I want to see world-building. Toss in some smart humor, dynamic ensemble casting, and of course, magnificent sandworms: make me long to be a rider. The movie should be a visual delight, engulfing the audience so much you’ll think you can smell the sietches, taste the spice, and feel the grit of sand, sand, sand.

So, it’s exciting news that director Denis Villeneuve plans to try his hand at a multi-film Dune. He says he hopes to make Dune into the Star Wars movie he never saw. “Most of the main ideas of Star Wars are coming from Dune, so it’s going to be a challenge to [tackle] this,” Villeneuve said. “In a way, it’s Star Wars for adults. We’ll see.” (Read the Dune News page on IMDb.)

It ‘s a promising start. We’ll record the news for this Dune project as it comes along.

While you wait for the right version of Dune to thrill you, entertain yourself with Fatboy Slim’s song Weapon of Choice. The lyrics are definitely Dune-inspired, even if the setting isn’t. But watching Christopher Walken putzing  around an empty hotel is a whole lot of awesome by itself…

Which version of Dune is your favorite? Do you think it will be done right by Villeneuve?

Jill Florio

Co-Creator of RunPee, Chief of Operations, Content Director, and Managing Editor. RunPee Jilly likes galaxy-spanning sci fi, superhero sagas, fantasy films, YA dystopians, action thrillers, chick flicks, and zany comedies, in that order…and possesses an inspiringly small bladder. In fact, that little bladder sparked the creation of RunPee. (Good thing she’s learned to hold it.)

4 Replies to “Can Dune be done? Should Dune be done? Bringing Long Books to the Screen”

  1. Dune is easily my favorite sci-fi book and I’ve read it more times than I can count. I’m all for any attempt to remake it because none of the adaptations have hit a home run yet. I don’t hold a lot of hope that this new instalment will be great, but I’ll watch it nonetheless.

    1. Yes. Exactly. Dune’s on my small list of “best books ever”, assuming I count the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings trilogy as one “book” each. I’m doing a re-read of my favorite novels: I started with Watership Down, then moved on to The Hunger Games, The Dragonriders of Pern, Lonesome Dove, and now Dune. I’m curious to see how Ender’s Game holds up, next. (I even re-read the Twilight books, and it’s now clear to me they are AWFUL. I don’t know why I liked them when they came out, nor why I punished myself to complete a full re-read. They are the literature equivalent of Twinkies.)

      I’m not sure Star Wars took its cues from Dune, but I’m willing to think about it.

  2. Some extra thoughts on Dune, a little deeper:

    I just realized I read one of the best chapters ever in a book ever, and it’s early on in Dune. And it even features an insane amount of head-hopping, which isn’t bad if the writing is good enough, clearly. (See also: Lonesome Dove)

    It’s the chapter where Duke Leto takes Paul with Kynes into the desert and they see Wormsign for the first time. Leto saves the men and damns the spice crawler, and Kynes turns to their side in spite of himself. It has all the exposition we’ve been craving, like the Council of Elrond chapter in Fellowship of the Ring. So much has been held back, appropriately, so by the time we encounter Spice and Worms for the first time, we are completely gripped and begging for more.

    I re-read this chapter twice and am incredibly impressed in a way that I didn’t notice before being a reviewer/editor. It’s economical, emotional, and SHOWS rather then tells who the Atriedes are. (And it’s amazing too, with the epigraph with “In My Father’s House”…such efficient use of exposition)

  3. A small thing I noticed on this re-read that passed over my head all the other times: Leto yells for the crew on the spice crawler to leave their ship, and he calls them Desert Dogs. This time it struck me how cool that was, since he’s used to a sea planet, and men at sea have historically been called Sea Dogs, or Salty Dogs. In this book, much was made earlier in the chapter about how on Caladan they had sea and air power, and on Arrakis it has to be desert power.

    So within one chapter (the one I mentioned above) he’s already adjusted to thinking of desert power, but in stress resorts to calling them ‘dogs’. He still has the wherewithal to put “desert” in front of it and not “sea”, but his habit is still in place. And it works: the men come boiling out the crawler at his summons. He saves them from the worm with literally two minutes to spare, in an overladen ‘thopter. Keynes becomes their man, when he was prepared to sabotage their rule. And thus the entire Atreides saga is set for the reader.

    It also made me think — and I would suggest this is a high probability — that the Atreides family probably started their history as violent sea pirates. Sea Dogs is a very piratey phrase. So I’m thinking they were once very ruthless but competent pirates, and eventually moved into positions of power and political planetary rule, and became domesticated. As has occurred on Earth in many countries over millennia.

    And as we know, House Atreides is destined once again to become a deadly violent force, in a galaxy-spanning war where MILLIONS (billions?) will die in a terrible jihad.

    If so, this is some incredibly sophisticated world building. And it’s all in a throwaway line I missed until I turned 50.

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