Dune: The Previous Movies

In preparation for the upcoming Dune movie, release date October 22nd, I reread the book. I'm now rewatching the best-known movies: Dune 1984 and the Dune miniseries, 2000. I suppose if there's a version out there with gnomes, I'll watch that too!

First, Dune, David Lynch, 1984.

The strangest thing about this movie is that Dune is not a complicated plot. And Frank Herbert doesn't present it as complicated. The book starts by introducing the reader to Paul, not to Paul learning about Dune, not to Paul as a threat to the emperor. But Paul as the hero about to be tested and set on his quest.

The movie starts, fascinatingly enough, with Princess Irulan. But it then skips to guild stuff and honestly, who cares? 

Okay, Dune votaries may, but I don't. And when it comes to storytelling, the best approach is to quickly identify the hero's quest and/or the hero. 

Star Wars (the first Star Wars--Star Wars IV) starts with Princess Leia--that is, it starts by introducing the quest, the person and plans that will propel the hero into individual action. Lynch's Dune starts with background on Arrakis, then skips to the guild and the emperor, then skips to Paul, then produces a lot of discussion. 

The result: the movie appears to be written by people who LOVE the Dune mythos, not by people trying to tell a story. And they give too much away too early. The book--because, ya know, Herbert is a decent writer--allows the action on Arrakis to unwind naturally. The only "give away" the reader is provided upfront is the name of the traitor. Even there, the moment of betrayal is a shock to the system since it comes without warning (though later in the text than I had remembered).

Perhaps the reason for the lack of focus (I'm thinking of the film editors now) is that Kyle MacLachlan as Paul is not that appealing a character. He comes across as a yuppie who decided to take an extreme sports vacation. The Paul of the book from page one is reserved, self-controlled, reflective, unusually objective (even before his vision after Leto's death), and somewhat uncanny. His youth explains his occasional immaturity, not his inherent personality. Kyle MacLachlan in 1984 was too old to get away with this. (Interestingly enough, both actors debut the role at age 25, but Timothee Chalamet looks younger than his years, and Kyle MacLachlan looked older. Alec Newman was 26--I'll get to him later.)

I've noted elsewhere that Timothee Chalamet is a gifted actor. He also looks the part. I try not to raise my expectations too much before a release, but in other roles, Chalamet captures "uncanny" quite well. So my hopes are reservedly high-ish. (I would really rather I had none--but hey, investment is investment!).

Things I like about the 1984 version:

  1. The voiced internal dialog is quite effective. 
  2. The movie includes the scene where the Duke prioritizes the men over the spice.
  3. The Harkonnens are disgustingly awful, the ultimate decadent and self-serving aristocrats. They are memorably terrible, irredeemable bad guys. Not entirely credible as a ruling family--but effective. 
  4. So many great sci-fi folks show up! Dean Stockwell, Patrick Stewart, Brad Dourif (go figure!), Max van Sydow, and Linda Hunt, who hasn't done that much sci-fi, but, ya know, it's Linda Hunt!

Major problem overall: The movie doesn't establish Paul and the conflict upfront. It spends too much time on background details that the audience honestly probably doesn't care about (I honestly, really, totally don't care how ships gets from Point A to Point B: warp drive, spice, folding space, a magic door: whatever). It spends too much time on Caladan, reducing the last 1/3rd or so of the film to a mishmash of "and then Paul became really esteemed...fight scene!" 

The problem with the mishmash is that 1984 Paul is presented as a military leader. He isn't. He is a reluctant prophet/messiah who is trying to head off a jihad through specific choices and actions, and it is not entirely clear if he succeeded. Stilgar and others are his military arm. Without that insight, the film after Leto's death lacks any kind of character growth. 

I originally blamed this lack of growth on the book. But there's plenty of inner conflict in the book's second half. Paul gets a little boring when he has his vision, but he continues to maneuver partly in the dark. His uncertainty makes him interesting! 

Dune 1984 is a compelling example of a movie that indicates deep fan love--yet, weirdly enough, bypasses the book for the idea. It might have been better to focus on the book. 

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