There are few films in history that have a stranger track history than Dune. With several failed attempts at creation, various edits and unfavourable reviews, it has become both a cult hit as well as an eye-rolling expression of Hollywood’s decision making. In this article, we’ll look at the history behind Dune, the different director’s vision for adaptation, as well as why so many different versions have never come to fruition.
The novel on which all of this is based on, Dune, was written by Frank Herbert and published in 1965. A sci-fi cult classic, the story revolves around the desert world of Arrakis, where the most valuable substance in the universe, a spice called mélange, and an empire, which holds the planet closely. It has spawned many sequels and is often praised for its political and social messages.
By 1971, the film rights had been optioned by Arthur P. Jacobs, producer of the various Planet of the Apes films. However, he died before development could begin. Following this, in 1973, the rights were passed over to Jean-Paul Gibon, a leader of a French consortium and producer of a variety of French films. Alejandro Jodorowsky was brought on to direct and began to plan a grand vision of the book, with music from progressive artists such as Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel, and design by H.R Giger (who would eventually work on Alien). The cast would feature Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. The script was 14 hours long, with vast quantities of storyboards and notes that ultimately led to the film being too expensive to continue. A lot of these storyboards were sent to major studios, inspiring later films such as Star Wars, The Terminator and Alien. Several members of Jodorowsky’s assembled team, such as Giger, went on to work on the latter. Studios rejected many of these ideas that Jodorowsky pitched, and he would not compromise his vision. The project, unfortunately, was over.
However, the film’s rights were held by producers until 1984, with, finally, the release of David Lynch’s version of Dune. A critical and box office bomb, the film initially did not live up to the build-up of its release, as well as how heralded the book was. It has since, like many 80’s sci-fi films, garnered a cult following. Lynch has since distanced himself from the film, after the studio restricted his vision and denying him a final cut, mirroring how they dealt with Jodorowsky when he was at the helm of the project. In 2016, it was revealed that the project was originally intended to be a trilogy, and was pitched to actors as ‘Star Wars for grown-ups’.
The initial rough cut of the film was over 4 hours long, and Lynch’s original final cut was over 3. The studio, Universal, demanded a standard 2-hour long version that was in line with their current sci-fi films and ordered reshoots, voiceovers, and many cuts to reduce the run time to 136 minutes. This infuriated Lynch, who even removed his name from the credits of the televised version of the film.
At this point, we have had two high profile versions of the film – one unfinished, and one finished, but a flop. It would seem at this point that Dune cannot match the scope of the novel, and studios were unwilling to allow filmmakers their freedom to attempt it. In a somewhat typical story of movie death at the hands of Hollywood, fans began to believe that their beloved Dune would never make it to the big screen in a way they were happy with. But then, in 2000, SyFy produced a miniseries based on the book, Frank Herbert’s Dune – and it was well received by critics. Finally, could this be how Dune was always meant to have been portrayed? The series won 2 Emmys in 2001, for cinematography and visual effects, and adding new content and subplots not fully explored in the original text. It garnered a sequel in 2003, Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, starring James McAvoy. This also won an Emmy for visual effects. Some fans, however, did not enjoy these adaptations, claiming they were too far from the books.
In 2008, Paramount began development again on a new film. Peter Berg was tapped to direct, not known for his science fiction filmmaking, but rather, slick and fast-paced action films. The project was dropped two years later after Berg removed himself from the project. Once again, a big screen adaptation of Dune seemed impossible. The rights relapsed, and the project was dead until 2016 when Legendary became the next in a long line to acquire them. This time, a more fitting director was attached – Denis Villeneuve. After Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, he has more than proved himself capable of high concept sci-fi. Eric Roth, famous for films such as Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, has also signed on to write the screenplay. It would seem this is the best shot fans have had in many years at a successful reboot of a Dune film.
So why has Dune had such a difficult journey to the silver screen? Perhaps the timing was never right. With modern day filmmaking, many ‘difficult’ books have made it to the screen with varying degrees of success, such as Cloud Atlas and Ender’s Game. We’ve reached an age where anything is possible – whether or not a studio will allow that is another question. Villeneuve has often been allowed his artistic freedom, with Blade Runner 2049 clocking in at a whopping 2 hours and 44 minutes. Another question though, is whether or not audiences are ready. Yes, fans have been rabid about it for many years, but general audiences are wholly different. Blade Runner 2049 was a critical darling, but a box office disappointment. With the current king of cinema being Marvel, it’s interesting to ponder on whether a Dune film in the next few years will be welcomed by audiences. Only time will tell. One thing is for certain – Hollywood has finally found the right people for the job.