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Frank Herbert's Children of Dune (2003) - TV Review

Frank Herbert's Children of Dune
Frank Herbert's Children of Dune

After the enormous success of 2000's Frank Herbert's Dune, it was perhaps inevitable that the Sci-Fi Channel would produce Frank Herbert's Children of Dune, a sequel miniseries that takes its cues from Herbert's first two sequel novels. Like its predecessor, the sequel proved to be a smash hit, earning a spot on the top three highest rated pieces of original programming for the network. It was given a bigger budget, but a lot of the cast and crew remained the same, giving the series a feeling of strong continuity even as it vastly improved its production values.

As such, I can say without reservation that 2003's Children of Dune is much more well-made than 2000's Dune. It does still occasionally give off that familiar amateur theater vibe, but never to the same distracting degree. The sets are much better--and the flaws more well-disguised--the acting is at least an order of magnitude more refined, and the visual effects--though still pretty terrible by modern standards--are about as good as you could expect from 2003 cable television. There is some notably bad CG--Alia's fighting drones, the tigers, and Leto's superspeed effect, for example--but on the whole, it doesn't always feel like FMV cutscenes from a late 90's video game. However, the writing isn't quite up to the high standards of the original series, falling short especially in the third and final episode.

But let's start with the acting. Alec Newman, who reprises his role as Paul Muad'Dib, steps it up to deliver a fine performance, hitting a few poignant emotional moments that make me wonder why I haven't seen him in more things in the subsequent years. The final scenes of the first episode are especially notable, and he also pulls off double duty as the Preacher pretty well. Also worth a lot of praise is Daniela Amavia as his sister, Alia. This is a particularly challenging role, but Amavia is excellent throughout even the most difficult aspects of her transformation into the abomination of Baron Harkonnen. Speaking of which, Ian McNeice returns in spectral form, and though he's still hamming it up and having a good time, it works a lot better here, maybe because he only feels the need to do the rhyming thing a couple of times. There's also the newly cast Stilgar, Steven Berkoff (known to Bond fans as Colonel Orlov), and Lady Jessica, Alice Krige (the Borg Queen herself). Both of these are welcome improvements over their predecessors.

Frank Herbert's Children of Dune
It seems McAvoy's been a great actor for longer than I realized

But the breakout performance, of course, belongs to James McAvoy, who plays Paul's son, Leto II, presumptive heir to the empire and future God Emperor of Dune. This was very early in his career, a few years before he'd hit the mainstream with The Chronicles of Narnia and The Last King of Scotland, but his acting is still surprisingly mature. He does rely a bit too much on the sly grin to get out of a few difficult emotional beats, but McAvoy feels nonetheless like he's on a different level than most of his fellow actors in the series. Granted, he's way too old for the character, but that's a flaw in the writing, not in McAvoy's performance.

Not all the actors are great, however. Susan Sarandon, like William Hurt before her, feels like she has no idea what she's doing here, but instead of going stiff the way Hurt does, she chooses to go in the opposite direction, chewing the scenery while making the most over-the-top line deliveries. She plays Wencisia Corrino, a relatively small role from the Children of Dune novel that is greatly expanded here into a major character, even into the first episode, which adapts Dune Messiah, a novel in which the character is totally absent. It doesn't help that her storyline--which is mostly tangential to the main plot--feels the most like the original miniseries, complete with cheap sets and more amateur actors you've never heard of.

Frank Herbert's Children of Dune
I'm not ashamed to admit I gave water to the dead when Paul was given a chance to say goodbye

This is not to say the changes from the source material, which are far more numerous this time around, are necessarily a bad thing. In fact, for that first episode, I'd say the changes greatly improve the story, even the way Wencisia is added to the conspiracy plot. Things move at a much more even pace, future events are more clearly foreshadowed, and a lot of the excessive dialogue from Dune Messiah is replaced with much tighter sequences that manage to get the same points across without being obtuse or pandering. I'm not sure how well it would work for someone unfamiliar with the source material, but as an adaptation, I'd say the first episode has some of the strongest writing of either series.

Alas, when it comes to adapting the third novel, Children of Dune, the last two episodes make some very bizarre choices that simply don't work. I can almost forgive aging up the twins--especially since it gives us James McAvoy instead of an unpredictable six-year-old as Leto--but breezing through nearly half the book and changing the locations and motivations of certain characters is much harder to understand. Granted, Alia's death is far more dramatically interesting than it is in the novel, but a lot of the emotional weight and many integral plot explanations are carelessly discarded in order to get there. Especially weird is how the story just plain forgets to explain Jacurutu or how Paul became the Preacher.

Frank Herbert's Children of Dune
Jessica and Alia have a serious height discrepancy

Perhaps there needed to be four episodes, with another episode devoted to the middle section of the Children of Dune novel, which is where most of the missing plot is found. Then the last episode wouldn't have been so rushed or lacking in necessary explanations. I want to give the writer, John Harrison, the benefit of the doubt, because his work on the original series (and on the first episode) is excellent. Perhaps the mandate to condense Children of Dune into a mere two episodes was too limiting, and maybe he did the best he could. Then again, maybe I'm giving him too much credit.

Either way, I can conclusively say that I enjoyed Frank Herbert's Children of Dune much more than I did its predecessor. I felt more emotionally invested in the characters, more sutured to the plot, and less distracted by its flaws. The production values and acting are more elevated, and I was able to sit through the entire four hour runtime in one go without getting bored or exhausted. It's certainly not perfect, but it might just be the best Frank Herbert adaptation we have so far.

-e. magill 1/16/2020

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