For those who had been saying for nearly twenty years that Frank Herbert's Dune was unadaptable as a film, David Lynch's 1984 flop did little to counter their argument. Lambasted in its day, the movie was called incomprehensible, overlong, poorly written, poorly acted, and badly mismanaged. However, over the years that followed its disastrous release, 1984's Dune slowly accumulated a cult following, finding an enthusiastic audience that will defend it despite its many flaws.
And let me be as clear as I can on the matter: Lynch's Dune is a very flawed film. Most of the critiques leveled against it are accurate to one degree or another, and it's not difficult to watch the movie and see why it became one of Hollywood's most infamous failures. Lynch was never cut out for big budget science-fiction/fantasy--at least not under the pressures of worried studio execs and financial backers--and the movie was a victim of its foolish ambitions to be the next Star Wars. Dune, as a property, is made for a niche audience, and no one should expect it to transcend that audience and launch a franchise worth hundreds of millions of dollars. That said, Lynch gave it his all, and there is a lot to appreciate about his film. He stuck remarkably true to the source material, even pulling in bits and pieces from its sequels. Frank Herbert himself said that David Lynch's Dune honored his novel in all the right ways, and he continued to defend it even after Lynch took his name off of subsequent cuts.
There are differences between Dune the novel and Dune the film, of course. Whole subplots have been removed for time, characters have been simplified and sidelined, and complicated plot developments have been restructured into single scenes. These changes are all understandable and relatively mild in the grand scheme of things, but perhaps the biggest single change is in the "weirding way," the form of combat wielded by the Atreides. In the novel, the weirding way is a specialized form of martial arts, but in the film, it's a bizarre sonic weapon system. This not only opens up the story's biggest plot hole--all the "weirding modules" are shown to be destroyed when the Harkonnen retake Arrakis, and yet the Fremen manage to arm thousands of warriors with them shortly afterwards--but it also comes across as a bit goofy when people are aiming guns and blasting people with the spoken word. Martial arts weren't easy to pull off in 1984 Hollywood, but I still think Lynch could have come up with a better alternative.
This kid is so friggin creepy
One other difference that feels pretty minor but which was Herbert's biggest complaint involves the very end, in which Paul makes it rain on Arrakis. Not only does this give Paul more physical power than Herbert ever does--Paul's powers are supposed to be entirely mental in nature--but it also has some desperately terrible side effects if you stop to think about what rain would do to the sandworms, who are killed by water, and how that would ruin pretty much everything on Arrakis. Lynch no doubt included it as a way to show the bountiful future promised by Paul's messianic nature--and he telegraphs it throughout the movie by reminding us that it never rains on Arrakis--and as such, it doesn't bother me nearly as much as it bothered Herbert.
All that said, I daresay that Lynch's biggest fault wasn't in departing too much from the source material; quite the opposite. If anything, he was too beholden to Herbert's novel. Most of the dialogue is ripped word for word from the book, and while that works in some places and is delivered well by some of the actors, it often comes across as unnecessarily wordy and florid, especially in actors unaccustomed to delivering difficult lines (in other words, the actors who hadn't done Shakespeare). The biggest offender, unfortunately, is Kyle MacLachlan, who plays Paul. His line delivery is stilted and awkward, and that bogs down several important scenes.
To be fair to MacLachlan, he has to share the screen with these three acting giants
There's also the matter of "the inner voice." Several characters have their thoughts read aloud to the audience as whispers, which helps explain a lot of what's going on in the complicated plot. I'll give Lynch credit for trying to do this, but as an experiment in delivering the inner monologue you get from novels but not movies, it's a hard failure. It's wonky and off-putting, and it makes everything feel a little too self-important. As a way to try to hold the audience's hand for those who hadn't read the book, it's clever, but it also doesn't work, as demonstrated by the many reviewers at the time who still had no idea what was going on despite the attempt.
I should also discuss the homophobia. Whether intentionally or not, this film, released right at the start of the AIDS scare, does reflect an unfortunate stereotype by making the only apparently gay character, Baron Harkonnen, grotesquely covered in lesions and festering sores, while also making him pretty much the most unpleasant human being imaginable. One of the prequel novels published after the film does make the Baron's disease canon and offers an in-universe explanation for it that has nothing to do with his sexuality, but it's not really explicit in the original Dune. Therefore, on balance, this complaint is legitimate, and I don't blame anyone who sees this as an example of eighties-style homophobia. Other commentators have taken it further, though, and tried to paint the Bene Gesserits as a lesbian cult. I don't see that one, to be honest.
It's also just gross
As an adaptation, Lynch did his best and the results are mixed. While he wasn't able to do as much as he wanted, he did manage to visualize the Dune universe almost perfectly. Some of the effects work is lacking even by 1984 standards (those body shields, man), but the production designs are incredible. Even as a biased fan of the movie, I'm willing to entertain discussion of many of its flaws. However, I will not tolerate anyone who fails to appreciate the look and feel of the film, how it manages to visually represent the many worlds of Frank Herbert's novel with imaginative detail and impeccable flair. On that level at least, it deserves more respect than it usually gets.
If you want to hear more about David Lynch's Dune, including a brief history of its long journey to the big screen, I'll be publishing my video review of it on my YouTube channel this Sunday. Head on over there and subscribe so you don't miss it!
-e. magill 12/5/2019
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