Why Frank Herbert’s “Dune” Is So Difficult to Adapt into a Movie

This could easily be a one sentence post.

Because it’s Frank Herbert’s Dune.

But, well, let’s elaborate on that.

First of all, there are two, maybe three works of fiction that have the same level of complexity that Frank Herbert managed to imagine into existence. His attention to detail, to making this future world come to life, almost creates a hallucinatory experience.

I have read Dune once per year ever since I was fifteen years old, and every time I find out new details, every time it feels like a dream from another life.

His vision cannot be easily understood or even translated. We may think we can. His son certainly thinks he can, but the bitter truth is that not even Frank Herbert himself managed to recreate the mastery of his first novel. Somehow, after the first three books of the series, it all becomes convoluted and much too philosophical to make for a great story. It is easy to get lost (and/or bored) by so many iterations of Duncan Idahos.

The first novel is one of the few works of art that are perfect. There’s nothing to change, to add, to subtract. There’s nothing you can do with it, except read it over and over again and appreciate the mind that wrote it all into existence.

I also think that a vast part of the novel’s appeal is comprised of elements that are not easily transferred to a different kind of medium. Why? Because Dune describes a world that is vastly superior to our own in so many ways. Not only technologically, but intellectually as well.

Ever felt dumb when you were a kid and there were grown-ups around you talking adult stuff?

Well, that’s more than half of Frank Herbert’s vision of the future.

Also, there are a lot of subtle nuances in terms of the relationships between the characters, a certain dynamic that is difficult to understand without following Paul Muad’dib’s exact train of thought.

He is a Messiah.

Let me put it this way: there are many movies tackling the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but not many that try to offer a more comprehensive view of his life.


Because it is difficult. The Crucifixion and the events leading up to it show us the most human parts of a Messiah. Events that we can somehow relate to.

Now think about the scene with Jessica and Paul in the tent in the desert. When he realizes he is Kwisatz Haderach. How difficult it is to convey that into words, let alone film such a scene. The revelation of thousands and thousands of future, the way such a vision alters one’s consciousness.

Attempts to adapt Dune as a film began as early as 1971. Arthur P. Jacobs, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Ridley Scott tried and failed to bring their visions to the screen. Finally, in 1984, David Lynch’s Dune was released.

This movie failed because the technology wasn’t there yet. There’s a great need for quality special effects in Dune, considering the technological achievements of the society described, and the strange world of Arrakis.

But there’s more to it, I think. You know the difference between haute couture and pret-a-porter? Well, something like that. The characters are much too extravagant and eccentric, the costumes are just… it all seems as if 1600s fashion has been brought back to the future.

Yes, the world described is feudal, but it’s not like the 1900s never happened at all.

The two mini-series, mini-trilogies, how you’d like to call them suffered from a low budget, poor casting choices, and not being ambitious enough.

I won’t analyze them, because they’re really bad, except for Brian Tyler’s fantastic soundtrack for Children of Dune.

I believe this is the word to describe Frank Herbert’s Dune. Ambitious. It is just as ambitious as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Is is just as complex as the Game of Thrones Universe. It is a world that is the kind of epic that requires an unlimited budget and a director with a vision similar to that of Herbert’s. Not just someone who’s passionately obsessed with the novels, but someone who understands the world to be translated into a movie.

Lastly, I’d like to address Denis Villeneuve‘s signing to direct a new adaptation of this masterpiece. After watching Blade Runner 2049, I am skeptical. It could be another “art film”, with a vision of the future that makes us want to live in the present for as long as possible.


13 thoughts on “Why Frank Herbert’s “Dune” Is So Difficult to Adapt into a Movie

  1. Dune is amazing and a piece of work that is probably best suited for the medium in which it is in, book form. A can see a video game coming close to getting Dune right but a film, not really.

  2. Mini-series okay (but they should have gotten McMillian to re-play the Baron, and I missed Sting). Extended version of original much better. I will say this–the best novels or trilogy’s ever (and Dune is among them) are very hard to translate into motion pictures. Right again, Cristian–Dune is too perfect.

  3. He who controls the Spice, controls the universe! Could be a good side post topic? There has to be a writer and director that want to take this massive adaptation on? You’ve written several books, you’ve got a sound understanding of it’s scope. Maybe it’s destined to be you?

  4. …likely there’s not much choice but to either reduce and-or extend story, being very careful in the use of digital (BR-49… missed, I think, in that way) and soundtrack (entirely, not just music.) dune is one of those books that… smells, feels, senses are first-most in Dante-esque way and history as determinate as story.

  5. Like you I read the Dune series generally once a year. I am reading God Emperor of Dune at the moment. Unlike you though I like all of the six books, although Dune is obviously a classic. I saw the David Lynch film when it was first released in Australia in the eighties and it was awesome (Jean-Luc Picard as Gurney Halleck was great!) although the editing was all of the place. I didn’t even mind the little David Lynch inventions such as the sound/module projector things. I won’t talk about the mini-series, I prefer not to think about it.
    Frank Herbert’s philosophy/evolutionary theory is interesting though. A lot of his ideas are akin to Lamarckian evolutionary theory (i.e. a living things actions shape its evolution) as well as the discoveries made in epigenetic research. Anyway always great to find another Frank Herbert fan.

  6. Hey, I liked the 1984 version. According to Rotten Tomatoes, 2/3 of the people who watched it liked it. Critics were split 55-45 in favor of it. Some polls have it as high as 85% favorable. This is by no means a bad movie. Given the technical limitations of 1984, they did as good of a job as could be expected.

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