“To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of ‘real materials’ – to the dry land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.”Dedication of Frank Herbert in Dune.
There has been a spectre shadowing me for almost as long as I can remember. In all my life, the name of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction epic has been impressed upon my mind. In the main bedroom of my family house, a few bookshelves sit mounted high on the wall. High enough for a child unable to reach, and residing there pressed inbetween a collection of my parent’s books, sat a copy of Dune and its’ sequel. The reason for this, is that as my mother was growing up here in London, into her lap fell what she called “her Star Wars”. The narrative threads of the House Atreides, the spice trade of Arrakis and the Fremen ecological struggle were to her, a fantasy world to be enveloped in. Those books still sit on that shelf, undisturbed as they ever were. But I used to stare at the spine of that book, and it left an impression on my mind, one that has been activated from time to time whenever I encountered the name across time. A copy of Lynch’s film sat in a neighbour’s house of mine, still in its shrink wrap. Years ago now, the surprise of that discovery helped dig up that clarity of impression the spine left on me.
So I found myself as of yet an unknown, barely disturbed knowledge of the world of Dune. The few fragments from cultural references and my mother’s own dim recollections from reading it in her youth. And where is here? Well “here” lies amidst the impending release date (already pushed back) of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, a projected two-part adaptation of the eponymous novel. With this on the imminent horizon, a copy of the first three novels graced themselves in my care under the umbrella of a gift from my mother, who had wanted me to get to grips with the story of Arrakis. It lay in my room, growing in the darkness and cacophony of a million distractions of everyday life. But if a seed is planted, with the right conditions, it will grow. By the time I had begun to submerge myself in the sweeping winds of Arrakis, it was rapturously clear that what I was reading was one of the most deftly constructed and intelligent pillars of literature I had laid eyes upon in a long long time.
Dune captivated me in a way that few stories have done, the wisdom of its’ presence breathing out through the pages. But it has also captivated plenty of others across time since its’ initial release, and its’ own internal history with film has been well-documented. Presented here then is a journey of my own; traversing from thoughts on the original novel, onto the well-documented ruins of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to transfer the novel to film (chronologically first) recounted in Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013, Dir. Frank Pavich), through the controversial adaptation masterminded by David Lynch in Dune (1984), arriving at the impending release of Villeneuve’s version. Much like Paul’s consciousness, the meaning and understanding of my relationship to the story will change with each new interpretation, what each artist chooses to take from the lineage of the imagination of Frank Herbert. So I will chronicle my perspectives as I arrive at each milestone, and leave them here as a testament to the enduring spirit of Dune.
There is a tremendous amount to be said, regarding Dune. It is a work where the ambitions of the ideas at play encircle an atmosphere of intrigue, of struggles ranging from internal conflicts of the psyche to interplanetary diplomatic tensions. The pressing of Dune’s lens to the worlds of Caladan, Arrakis and co. is one of razor sharp intensity, as it steers a course through a desert sea of high court drama, grassroots rebellion. The complicated and ever-evolving nature of leadership and those who follow.
It orchestrates a veritable strata of layers that are traversed, the scope of action in play often matched to the environmental surroundings of the characters involved. This is not done by accident, as the dedication above helps to make clear. Where Dune seemed to lift above a lot of other literature I’ve encountered, was the sheer vibrancy and clarity on which these worlds were being spoken aboutThe tension lying inherently in House Harkonnen’s vice-like grip of Arrakis is that they may have a fist enclosed around the people, but they are not emeshed into the world or the culture they are living in. Like a hawk with prey wriggling in its’ talons, they can only consider how best to feed themselves from the spoils of war.
There are plenty of internal and external dynamics to be hooked on in the exploration of Dune; Atreides & Harkonnen, the Imperial forces & the Lansraad, the Guild & the Houses, the Fremen & the rulers of Arrakis, even the Bene Gesserit & their position in the ranking hierarchies. Herbert spent plenty of time sketching out these forces caught in the chaos of an environment working out its balance. The style conveys a sense of physicality to these forces, as their interests begin shifting and moulding the psychic and physical landscape around them. Carefully detailling life on Caladan and Arrakis conveys a collective weight of how the environment comes to be around us; something we can take so easily for granted.
The story constantly shifts through a more complex set of relations than what fantasy is often funneled through; good vs bad, righteous love vs evil hate. The binary position that most fantasy readers are placed becomes a more complex beast to tame, aligning yourself to either side of a struggle will still mean shedding blood. It feels more tribal, and this is only enhanced by the story’s shifting focus as it shifts from character to character in a very deliberate arhythmical way.
The men who have walked the sand teach Paul & his mother Jessica on how to navigate the dunes, “to walk without rhythm”, as they step and drag their way across the horizon to avoid alerting the maker worms to their presence. The asynchronous patterns are hard to keep up with, shifting beneath their feet, and the story scales up to a structural level. The focus whips between point’s of view, a lightning-fast sense of presience. The imagination is not just excited from the potential of what could happen, but how are the events are being seen across the space. This feature is not particularly unique to Dune, but it is amplified by the extraordinary nature of the characters. From the ground to the sky, the insight borders on colossal, vast swathes of knowledge about human relations and power flowing from all sources. And that is before the story begins to unravel the horizons of its’ vision.
Because as the environment and the ecological inhabitants churn in place, Paul and his mother Jessica are channeling a sense of vision across the pages. Jessica’s Bene Gesserit training becomes a focal point for extremely minute analysis of social conduct, dissecting layer after layer of psychological deflection, deception, privacy. These effects find their zenith however, in Paul’s gradual, shifting transformations as he grows on Arrakis. His prescients visions, dimmed and streaking through cracks in his consciousness, split open into a world where he can percieve everything around him in a way which is threaded with infinity. The mathematical undertones of analysis and investigation ripple outwards into the perception and alternate potential futures. Paul stands as a psychological crucible for the elements of the world, as they catalyse, combine and conflict around him. The plights of those around him are many, be they emotional or rational or long-term or short-term; and all of this earth is upturned in the negotiations of the land around them.
So Dune as a novel is a breathtaking, liberating experience to become drawn into. To read it is to encounter a superposition of thought which few stories find the time to be concerned with, an epic. It’s concerns cross from tiny, fleeting and delicate moments of time blinking across pages, right up to a muted understanding of a history of the environment so wide that it encompasses all imagined thought. The struggle for Arrakis and the control of the spice trade was reflecting a concern at the time of writing regarding oil and America’s supply/control of it, but the struggle for resources and their management has been a human concern for time immemoriam. There is a line by Stilgar, one of the Fremen leaders that Paul encounters, where he says “The leader is the one who is strongest, the one who brings water and security”. And in this line, like a pearl reflecting back the world around it, the concerns of Dune are laid bare alongside humanity’s existence. Water is a precious resource in Dune because it helps to bring life, and the struggle with how best to sustain life has crossed cultures, histories, peoples, has been part of our natural relationship to living in the world around us.
To draw from the well of Dune and drink in that perspective, it is a lot to ask for, but it reveals such sights, such dreams and there is something I admire in that greatly.
“I had such a great time in Mexico City, the greatest crew. It was beautiful. But when you don’t have final cut, why did I do it? I don’t know. When you don’t have final cut, total creative freedom, you stand to die the death. Die the death. And dying I did.” –David Lynch on Dune
It has been a while since I’ve returned to the story of Dune, even as it has carried me through this year in ways I am still learning to understand. Paul’s journey, the descriptions of his states of awareness in percieving experience and possible change around him, has mirrored an internal artistic flourishing of my own, as I have embarked upon the construction of a short film. It has inspired works of mine over these past months, as the climate has slowly reawakened into inhabited space and territory. The tremor of voices resounding in the cityscapes is becoming louder, and it is that siren song which drew me to a viewing of Dune (1984, Dir. David Lynch/Alan Smithee) on 70mm. Besides the story’s own impression on my life, I distinctly remember holding an unrwapped special edition DVD of this film in my neighbour’s house nearly ten years ago. To experience film is often an adventure into the unknown, and so I finally collided with the jagged peaks of Dune.
I say jagged, since Dune’s production is one of the most notorious in film history. Starting with an already interrupted attempt by Ridley Scott, famed Italian super producer Dino De Laurentiis contracted a young David Lynch (fresh of the set of his second film The Elephant Man) to make Dune.
”Mastodon” is Rafaella De Laurentiis’s word for the movie she is producing from Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel. The statistics and logistics could describe a war rather than a movie. There are 53 speaking roles, 20,000 extras, four separate planets to be created, nearly 70 sets to be built and torn down, 900 men and women who have worked on the crew at one time or another during the last year. Two hundred of those men spent two months crawling on their hands and knees over three square miles of desert to clear it of rattlesnakes, scorpions, and every inch of cactus. Nothing grows or lives on the surface of the deep deserts of the planet Arrakis…”From “The World of ‘Dune’ is Filmed in Mexico” by Aljean Harmetz
The article is a delight to read, which is always the bizarre sad irony reflecting the truth of a hellish production. The desire to keep costs low led the film being made in Mexico, in a studio filled with the frenetic howls of chaos. Not only sharing set, crew and design materials with another running Di Laurentiis production (Conan the Destroyer, 1984 Dir. John Milius), Lynch encountered spaghetti delays, a shooting location uncovered as a dump for dead dogs, mechanical and electrical shortages, endless frustration. Illness plagued cast and crew, so said Francesca Annis (Jessica) ”You do not meet anybody here who isn’t ill, about to get ill, or just over being ill”. Not wanting to become a lecture on film history, but the phenomenon of Lynch creatively unravelling the tendrils of Dune, spilled through an tremendous amount of creative conflict in its navigation. Having accepted the role of director without having ever read Dune, or really being interested in science fiction, he signed a contract which did not allow creative final cut on the film. Working with Raffaella Di Laurentiis, the production was both unstable ground for Lynch’s artistic senses, and a battleground of director/production company concerns.
As a result the balance between artistic adaptation, production dynamics and directorial intent is one of an uneven nature. Where Lynch’s eyes and his vision are interested in exploring areas different to Herbert’s focus. The creation of a sci-fi so unconcerned with traditional science fiction imagery (the film was meant to be designed as a Star Wars for grown ups and as a result meant to be far beyond it) places it in a filmic space which inhabits neither of its’ aesthetic intentions satisfyingly. The bizarre Lynchian visions of the Harkonnen atmospheres are described by Kyle Machlachlan as being his secret focus, and it is here in which the surreal cuts of the unconscious knife run deep. Industrial spaces sick with diluted colours, bare walls and exposed pipework reflect back deliriously mad character intentions and performances. In the illustriously rendered dream imagery, the viscera of nature is matched by the delicate meditations on water. There are moments seen between the peaks of its mangled construction, where the synchronicity of those desert-drenched visions align.
Raffaella Di Laurentiis said when he finished making Dune, he “never wanted to make big movies again” and after this moved only onto small scale productions. To spend time detailing the film’s numerous frustrating choices in creative construction has been well-documented by others and I won’t add to the pile. Maybe the most agonising design choice is in how much of the Fremen’s struggle is collapsed, significance ripped from the generational struggle for the environment. That alongside more lies in the creatively sad void of Dune’s half-finished scaffolding. It is a film of ruins and unfinished mosaics; a vision half blinded by the sunshine of reality. Directing is a superposition to be put in, collapsing all the thousands of micro-choices down to a few selected canvases. As Paul walks his way through a world tearing at those precious gifts which can be corrupted; integrity, loyality, love, Lynch spent his time navigating his way through an overambitious production which collapses trying to orchestrate its own mad chaos. Dune will remain as an uneasy reminder of how difficult it is to orchestrate our expressions, in these maddening and chaotic times.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s encounters with Dune nearly destroyed him. Not many people can lay claim to having the creation of a work be so ruinous upon their ambitions, as he attempted to navigate bringing Dune to life on the cinema screen for the first time. It’s ruins lay scattered across the popular consciousness of cinema’s science-fiction obsession. The fabric of its’ artistic skin is woven and quilted into other works, other mediums across time.
And all of this, from a film which doesn’t exist.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013, Dir. Frank Pavich) is a document of Jodorowsky’s attempt in translating Dune to the silver screen long before Ridley Scott or David Lynch were ever approached to helm the project by Raffaella Di Laurentiis. In fact, H.R. Giger (famed biomechanical artist whose designs would be used for Alien) refers to her as the ‘woman who came along and took it from us’, an invisible sense of thievery in the ruins of Jodorowsky’s conceptual creation. For the documentary dives deep into the creative force behind Jodorowsky’s divine vision for the film, assembling a crew of ‘spiritual warriors’ to form the backbone to a transformative production. One which would impress upon the audience a new style of cinema; which would flood the audience with hallucinogenic impressions of a swirling tale of spice, consciousness, intrigue, power, transformation. All on the arid desert plains of Arrakis.
Jodorowsky himself describes the conception of the project as beyond Frank Herbert’s original story, and that thought lays in my mind also, as we approach the release of Villeneuve’s upcoming film. “I did not want to respect the novel, I wanted to recreate it. For me Dune did not belong to Herbert as Don Quixote did not belong to Cervantes, nor Edipo with Esquilo.” It is interesting even in this last year sitting with the story, how its’ influence has unfolded as I’ve known the story for longer, as more people around me become accquainted with its’ ripples. The story is steeped in the waves of legends; Arthurian, Bibilical & Messianic, Islamic to name a few. Those who might want their interpreters to remain more faithful to Herbert and any precious texts would no doubt have struggled with Jodorowsky’s blinding devotion to the artistic channeling of ideas, come hell or high water.
And under the spell of the acidic hazy early 70s, under the spell of El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), Jodorowsky decided to create a tsunami of artistic undertaking, and the documentary takes us through the now empty canals Jodorowsky once carved. His producer Michel Séydoux rented a castle for him to stay in as he adapted the script. He brought onboard genius collaborator after collaborator, famed bande-dessinée artist Moebius, sci-fi cover design artist Chris Moss; both of them contributing fascinatingly detailed concept art. Orson Welles and Salvador Dali were both hunted down for their ostentatious talents, their salaries and demands rivalling each other in lunacy. Thrones of dolphins catching waste and a restaurant hired personal chef are the price of madmen. His son training six hours a day seven days a week for two years from nine years old was the price to pay lead character Paul Atreides. With the world at his feet, Jodorowsky was assembling an alarming array of talent who would go onto find success in Hollywood’s shining sun as Jodorowsky phantom moved towards it’s ill fated end. Dan O’ Bannon would later go onto to write Alien (1979, Dir. Ridley Scott), David Carradine and Mick Jagger both flew in and out of it’s orbit. Pink Floyd and Magma both signed up for the score in ecclectic meetings. Both the Algerian government and Charlotte Rampling were never able to assemble their talents (however willingly) to the making of Dune, which even supposedly including a scene involving 2000 extra defecating inf front of the palace (no really). The production heralded garguantuan horizons.
“I think that this is the most fully realized… This was completely storyboarded, completely cast, musicians, everything. His team of artists was ready to go in front of the cameras. That’s what makes it cool. It wasn’t something spoken about, it was actually something that was gonna happen.“Frank Pavich, Indiewire (2014)
Jodorowsky hadn’t read Dune before he picked the project, he called it ‘divine inspiration‘. To make a film ‘about a prophet’ is a surreal undertaking for a man navigating the experimental art world of the late 70s, strung out on cynicism and acid. The project seemed to exist like an optimistic vortex, beyond the cultural milieu of the time, sucking in those minds associated with it as it struggled desperately for financial life. It was not to be. Reluctance from Hollywood personnel left Jodorowsky’s vision encased in a tome filled with over three thousand concept drawings until Pavich’s excavations. Made with intense admiration, the original score by Kurt Stenzel is echoing of that void of wonder left behind in the meteor craters of this never-vision, this cinematic consciousness-raising cannon. Before the march of merch, Star Wars and sci-fi iconography as set dressing, it lived in the potential swirl of existence, spiralling patterns of art, its’ coils encased in amber for us to see. Arrakis as a planet entered a state of moving understanding through the universe, and Jodorowsky’s power of vision is to be respected as an artist. As a moving tribute to the spirit of artistic endeavour and Frank Herbert’s Dune.
“All the sand! It was all just fucking sand!!”Audience member
I lost my ring as I was descending the stairs after finishing Dune (2021, Dir. Denis Villeneuve), a tibetan circle of patterns. Into the red stairs it melted, as my friends and I left our premiere seats at Britain’s largest cinema viewing screen (20 metres high and 26 metres wide). I had wanted to ensure if we were to see Denis’ visions of Caladan and Arrakis, of spice and intrigue and terra, we should see it in the best possible way. To see it with clarity, nearly overwhelmed by the visions of sand dunes and sounds of sandworms crashing upon us, was important for me.
In the time of awakening, Dune represents a shard of a new future, just as it once did for David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Frank Herbert’s spirit is encased within multiple experiences now, a full Sci-Fi TV adaptation exists of the story through Dune Messiah and Children of Dune (the following books).It had become the brainchild of videogame developer Cryo Entertainment, who helped revolutionise tactical genres as well as create a work (Frank Herbert’s Dune, 2001, PC) which helped bankrupt them entirely. The ruins of Lynch’s and Jodorowsky’s expeditions lay foundations for this film, but Villeneuve has different priorities at work. Balancing the story’s in-depth character intrigue, parallel plotlines, and melody of language is a tough act with bringing people back to the cinemas at all.
One of my friends attended the Q&A with Director and Main Cast, and I wonder what they discussed as he holds up a potential vision of intelligent sci-fi in the shifting sands of culture. I say that, because Dune is a work which is tied to the mechanics of its’ own industrial creation. A joint venture between Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, this monolithic entertainment release makes certain concessions to try and envelop the global audience. I want to make clear that I have a lot of respect for Villeneuve’s vision, and I think the film succeeds in adapting the story of Arrakis to the big screen. There is big money here, smart money sure, but nevertheless requiring of its’ own financial and capital investment to make a return.
This means that subtle guiding currents run through the film; the army of House Atreides has an eerie American-esque Gulf War/Iraq quality to them, that the Arabic and Islamic elements of the script are downplayed to an extent, that battle sequences take on a HBO style spectacle but also a structural narrative which demands battle sequences play out at a certain scale in a certain routine. These choices are like oil mixed into the water. These are choices and techniques which subtly shift and change the meaning of Dune’s language, its’ spirit, its’ poetry. That is not a word I use often, but the golden threads of Dune extend in such a way through the fictions around us and before us that is hard not to overstate its’ importance as an artistic work.
I don’t want this review to just be an analytical breakdown of what is lost in translation between the dunes of the last sixy years. Where is Dune located, in the life and death of this world? As time and writing pass, I have found that ring I thought I lost in the cinema. I have listened to Denis in interviews discussing the film, in his attempt at navigation and adaptation. Locations like the coast of Norway, Budapest, Wadi Rum (Valley of the Moon) in Jordan and sand seas in Abu Dhabi. Schedules and casting and VFX and set design, Villeneuve speaks of his attempt to capture Frank Herbert’s words in the desert for real; to capture the dreams of his thirteen year old self reading Dune. Our best fictions keep us company, and that is enough to be discussed in the cinema experience of us all, beyond any one piece.
Now with the greenlighting of Part Two in recent days, the possibilities of paths continue to unfold from a nexus of hallucinogenic politics of the earth. The soil which makes our faces, our dreams, our cinemas. Dune does not dilute its’ story presentation down, it is a dense piece to unfold across a mind first coming into contact with Arrakis (like my co-writer on the site, Ed). Chalamet is Paul, navigating an heady cocktail of spiritual music (composed by Hans Zimmer), politics beyond the average range of a fifteen-year old, and visions of a mystical nature balanced against naturalistic performances with actors in a range of roles above him. Stellan Skarsgård is a Colonel Kurtz-esque nightmare of oil and evil, while other characters and actors are subtly shaped and sculpted as the demands of massive cinema release in 2021 demand. I do not want to talk on the specifics, partially because of length, but also because of the texture of Dune‘s experience in the world right now. Some casting I feel misjudged in the film, and some I wish actors were playing alternate roles. But my general opinion on the shape of Dune is awe and notable admiration, and what it is trying to do for cinema I stand by more than any of it’s individual parts.
Where is Dune located? In Frank Herbert’s book? “Either too short to make sense, or too long to get made”, in one of those ruinous visions? Villeneuve is deeply moved by the text, by the symbols of arrangement which spark thought and imagination. The film is done with reserve sure, often dour and filled with ceremony. It hides behind jagged glass, whipped by the sands of commercial and artistic concerns. There is a large testament to the scale of the “spice opera” of Arrakis and melange, thrusted onto the screen with an immersive pool of unknown worlds. It speaks towards its’ own future, calling for the audience reaction to greenlight another sequel, but also to desire in their hearts and eyes to see more. A dune is not a spiral, it has a rise and a fall. I could dissect the timeline of Dune endlessly to locate its’ heart, but the life of it lives in the experiences conjured by it, the spice in the air surrounding us all.The book crashes into it’s own future, spiralling upwards towards an ending, so why not I? There will be an end to everything eventually, just as my year with Dune comes to a close. The rise and fall of my own internal apocalypse, matched only by the crazy conditions of the world which surround us, find some solace, peace and balance in accepting the organic growth of Dune in my life.
So from Herbert to Villeneuve, thank you.
“To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of ‘real materials’ – to the dry land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.”Dedication of Frank Herbert in Dune.