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

Why did the likes of David Lynch, Ridley Scott, or Alejandro Jodorowsky failed to adapt Frank Herbert’s masterpiece?

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 remove. There’s nothing you can do with it, except read it over and over again and appreciate the genius of 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.

Why?

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 possibilities for the 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.

Some say that Lynch’s 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 low budgets, poor casting choices, and not being ambitious enough.

And this is why everyone has failed to adapt this novel into a movie. Frank Herbert’s Dune is ambitious. It is just as ambitious as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It has a narrative just as complex as the Game of Thrones Universe.

“Plots within plots within plots.”

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 Dune.

The cast is impressive, I dare say that.

And the director showed us his definition of a sci-fi art film with Blade Runner 2049. Also, I think it’s a great idea to split the novel into a two part series. It’s only logical to do so, given the way the plot presents itself within the pages of the novel.

At the same time, I hope that Villeneuve won’t be spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a convoluted mess of CGI and melodramatic dialogue scenes.

Maybe this is what ultimately makes Dune nearly impossible to adapt into a movie. It is such a multi-layered story that it could be easily adapted into an action movie, a sort of superhero movie, it can be spiritual, almost religious, philosophical.

And I think that each director that has set his mind to adapt Dune has always tried to make it his own, to change it according to his own style and philosophy of art, and this could have proven to be the fatal flaw.

Frank Herbert’s Dune has and always will belong to its author. It is a creature that cannot be put into a box and shipped to cinemas worldwide. It cannot be altered unless one wants the movie to alienate die-hard fans and confuse those who never read the novel.

In other words, Dune has the type of personality that doesn’t play well with others, especially brilliant directors such as David Lynch or Ridley Scott.

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

      1. And better than the other two interpretations… hopefully. Although, apart from the flaws you mention (low budget and cast problems) I think that the miniseries beats the movie hands down, myself. One of my favourite scenes is the ‘Cleansing of the House‘, I think that was masterful.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Three things I love about Dune: one, it’s a future parallel to what is happening now and for years…the elites’ plans within plans within plans and they never quite get it right (because they are corrupt as Hell); two, It seems to mesh Messiah (Christianity) with “the Mahdi” as well as “jihad” (Islam…heck I learned more about Islam that I ever would have learned other than reading Koran); three, the meshing of tech and fuedalistic priestly notions such as Benejesuits and the creatures that run the space travel agency (I forgot the name of these folks..haven’t seen it in a while).And finally, the best line in the whole movie that relates to “fear” propogated by the media over corona virus–Fear is the mind killer.

    Liked by 1 person

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