The Harrowing History of Adapting 'Dune'

Dune Adaptation

Frank Herbert’s novel has long been a holy grail for filmmakers. But will we ever see a great ‘Dune’ adaptation on the big screen?

Rumors have spread like wildfire that everyone’s new favorite actor, Timothée Chalamet, is in talks—if not locked in—to play Dune’s keystone character, Paul Atreides, in director Denis Villeneuve’s (Enemy, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) upcoming adaptation of the sci-fi novel. On the surface, it’s a report worth celebrating. The prospect of Chalamet and Villeneuve working together in any context should be thrilling. But—for reasons far beyond Chalamet or Villeneuve—this is not your typical casting gossip; rather, it is a serious step forward in the production of a potential disaster. 

Legendary Entertainment confirmed the alleged production of an adaptation in February 2017 with Villeneuve attached to direct. They took another step forward when they revealed two months later that Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich) would pen the screenplay. Now, casting choices are being revealed. Soon enough, it will be a star-studded picture hurtling towards an ostentatious blockbuster release. There is nothing innately wrong with any of this. However, if you are familiar with the cinematic history of Dune, you should recognize the problem immediately. Simply put for anyone who isn’t familiar: this project carries a lot of baggage.

It should go without saying that no book is actually un-adaptable, no matter how inventive or seemingly inconceivable on screen. In a world where films with a nine-figure budget rest in the creative control of their many contributing artists (writer, director, cinematographer, production designer, effects team, conceptual artist, etc.), that statement rings truer than ever. However, that is not the world we live in. The business of Hollywood is much too concerned with financial risk reduction to allow such inspired flourishing, and Dune has been tied up in this mess of art and commerce for over forty years. 

I am not suggesting that no one is ingenious enough to undertake the immense artistic responsibility of doing justice in translating the novel to the screen. History has proven that false. I am suggesting that the nature of the story combined with the circumstances—both historical and contemporary—of adapting this specific project are such that a brilliant and profound final film might be practically unachievable. The history goes like this.

In 1965, author Frank Herbert published what is now one of the best-selling science fiction novels of all time: Dune. The premise is vast and intimidating. It is set in the year 10,191. Humans have evolved to inhabit planets all across the universe. Though the metaphors to our world are clear, almost nothing on these planets is recognizable. The story centers primarily on the Atreides family and an evil group called the Harkonnens on the planet Arrakis, which is home to the incredibly valuable, transcendental, and mind-expanding spice Melange. Wildly imaginative and compelling, the novel was met with soaring critical acclaim from the get-go. Less than a decade later, in 1974, experimental Chilean visionary, Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain), embarked on a journey to create the first film adaptation. 

Jodorowsky’s vision was majestic, ambitious, and highly collaborative. He set his sights on the exact artists—who he called “spiritual warriors”—he believed could help him achieve this dream of a film and relentlessly pursued them. High-profile involvement snowballed over the years. He assembled a dream team of concept artists—made up of renowned experts Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Dan O’Bannon, Chris Foss, and H.R. Giger—to storyboard and develop the entire film shot-by-shot on paper for an eventual studio pitch. Fun fact: this group would go on to be responsible for the vision behind Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi picture, Alien several years later. 

At a meeting in a McDonald’s, he persuaded the disinterested Pink Floyd (who were finishing up Dark Side of the Moon at the time) to score the film by scorning their listlessness, shouting at them, “I offer to you the most important picture in the history of humanity! We will change the world. And you are just eating Big Macs.” Likewise, he convinced Mick Jagger, Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Udo Kier (introduced to him by Andy Warhol), and others to take on roles in the film. He rejected the collaboration of visual effects trailblazer Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) because he was not spiritually invested in the project. Jodorowsky was not messing around. 

Together, over three years, he and his dazzling team compiled a massive book that included every single shot, every creative decision, every piece of concept art, etc. to pitch to Hollywood’s major studios. They secured meetings with every major studio in the heat of a drastically changing Hollywood. Studio executives were just beginning to narrow their stranglehold on the industry by suffocating creative control. They were shifting creative power from the minds of directors to the financial concerns of studio representative producers. Jodorowsky’s pitch fell on deaf ears. It mesmerized the studios, but no one was willing to take on the expensive, lengthy, and singular revelation under the control of Jodorowsky, who they considered a lunatic. And Jodorowsky would not budge on any aspect of the production, not even its 800+ page-long screenplay which would have made for a 14-hour film. It fell apart and so did he. 

Abandoning Jodorowsky, but clinging to much of what he had envisioned, producers kept at it for years, eventually recruiting writer/director David Lynch (Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks) to helm the project. This part, of course, requires much less explanation. Released in 1984, the film was a critical and financial failure. Lynch—one of the few directors that can even be justifiably mentioned in the pioneering company of Jodorowsky—is a fine prospect for the film, but he largely regretted signing on. He cites the incessant, vexatious interference of producers and financiers as the reason he was unable to create the project he had imagined. He was ashamed enough of the final cut the studios decided upon to remove writing and directing credits from his name when it eventually premiered on television.

All of this culminates in the richest evidence that Dune might not be adaptable in today’s studio-driven Hollywood. We gave the project to two of film history’s most extraordinary, innovative creators. They both wrote the screenplays. One was unable to secure financing. The other made it to the director’s chair without the allowance to direct the film the way he wanted to. Sure, Lynch’s Dune is a cult classic nowadays. But, very few qualified film historians or critics argue on behalf of its greatness. Lynch himself admits that it’s terrible. Both projects failed in their own right. 

In the early aughts, SyFy (then stylized as Sci Fi) produced two Dune miniseries under the helm of John Harrison titled Frank Herbert’s Dune and Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune (an adaption of two of Herbert’s sequels), both of which were well-received. However, the budget and personnel have not aged well in the eyes of viewers, and the adaptations were relatively tame in their presentation of the enormous cosmic world created by Herbert. Ultimately, they don’t do the book(s) much justice. Most recently in 2008, Paramount Pictures began developing their own adaptation under the poorly chosen direction of Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor, Patriots Day)—a writer/director who specializes in hyper-American tonality and is, perhaps, one of the last directors in Hollywood that should have taken on the colossal project. He dropped out nearly a year after beginning (no surprise there), and Paramount bailed on the project entirely a couple years later. Legendary Entertainment acquired the rights in 2016 and brought Villeneuve and Roth on soon after. Now we’ve arrived at present time. 

Smothering studio control aside, I can imagine the question: “What’s wrong with Villeneuve?” He seems like the perfect guy for the job, I agree. Since 1998, he has showcased his incredible ability to direct all kinds of feature films. With Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), he proved that he can synthesize stunning originality and large budgets to satisfy casual moviegoers, critics, cinephiles, academics, producers, and studio executives alike. Or, so we thought until Blade Runner 2049 shocked many by betraying its projected numbers and bombing at the box office. The creative wonder’s financial disappointment led Villeneuve to reflect quite openly about the project in interviews. In a conversation with The Telegraph in February 2018, Villeneuve cited one of the producer’s label of the film as “the most expensive art-house movie in cinema history,” rolling in at around $185 million, and stated plainly, “it would not be a good idea for me to make a movie like that twice.”

Yet, here he is, attached to one of the most original, abstract, past-production-plagued epics in film history. It requires a gargantuan budget and a bold arthouse approach to conceptual creativity. It is supposed to be a two-film project, which means Villeneuve is doubling down on one of the major popular detractors of Blade Runner 2049—it’s 2-hour and 44-minute runtime. Moreover, it is backed by a huge studio that will assumedly play a large role in creative development—something huge studios have proven they cannot bring ingenuity to time and time again. 

Thus, the production forks at two potential paths, neither of which offers a promising film. It will either prioritize financial success and stampede down the path of a stale, standard blockbuster bore, or risk hinging itself on ingenuity and incur the gaudy, garish, and misplaced efforts of studio producers who bypass depth for glitz. There is a third route, of course. It could be a vivid and stunning film that does the book right and slaps all of my concerns across the face simultaneously. But, we have every reason to believe otherwise, especially in the wake of Blade Runner 2049’s box office plummet, which Legendary certainly took notes from.  

All of this said Villeneuve is a wonderful director. Chalamet is a deserved star. Legendary Pictures has a better record than any of the six major studios with blending originality and large budgets (e.g. The Dark Knight, Inception), but their most soaring successes are all Nolan films. Not to mention, their past several in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), Pacific Rim Uprising (2018), Kong: Skull Island (2017), and The Great Wall (2016) have left much to be desired. So, I will not be the fool that says a great film in this circumstance is utterly impossible. There is a sliver of a chance and we shoot all be rooting for it, but it is only a sliver.

Jodorowsky and Lynch have shown us that studios aren’t willing to produce an adaptation of Dune that will substantiate Herbert’s imagination. Perhaps, that is why Villeneuve said it would be a bad idea to do something like this again. In her successful attempt to convince her then-lover, Salvador Dalí—who had not read the book—to work with Jodorowsky on Dune, singer/actress/model Amanda Lear told the surrealist painter, “It’s not just science fiction. It’s a philosophy.” Without the guaranteed inventive freedom of film’s greatest minds, and budget that can match the ambition of Frank Herbert, can we ever truly see the philosophy realized on-screen? 

Luke bleeds film and music, got his master's in film & ethics at Duke, and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or basketball.