It takes a fearless filmmaker indeed to adapt Dune. Atop its rich linguistic, political, philosophical, religious, and ecological foundations, Frank Herbert’s saga-launching 1965 novel also happens to have a plot “convoluted to the point of pain.” So writes David Foster Wallace in his essay on David Lynch, who directed the first cinematic version of Dune in 1984. That the result is remembered as a “huge, pretentious, incoherent flop” (with an accompanying glossary handout) owes to a variety of factors, not least studio meddling and the unsurprising incompatibility of the man who made Eraserhead with large-scale Hollywood sci-fi. The question lingered: could Dune be successfully adapted at all?
Well before Lynch took his crack, El Topo and The Holy Mountain director Alejandro Jodorowsky put together his own Dune adaptation. If all had gone well it would have come out as a ten-hour film featuring the art of H.R. Giger and Moebius as well as the performances of Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Alain Delon, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dalí.
But all did not go well, and cinema was deprived of what would have been a singular spectacle no matter how it turned out. At least one element of Jodorowsky’s Dune has survived, however, in the latest attempt to bring Herbert’s complex bestseller to the screen: the music of Pink Floyd, heard in the just-released trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, starring Timothée Chalemet as the young hero Paul Atreides (as well as Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, and a host of other currently big names), scheduled for release in December.
If a credible Dune movie is possible, Villeneuve is the man to direct it. His previous two pictures, Blade Runner 2049 and the alien-visitation drama Arrival, demonstrate not just his capabilities with science fiction but his sense of the sublime. Beginning with its setting, the desert-wasteland planet of Arrakis, Dune demands to be envisioned with the kind of beauty that inspires something close to dread and fear. (The first director asked to adapt Dune was David Lean, perhaps due to his track record with majestic views of sand.) Villeneuve has also made the wise choice of refusing to compress the entire book into a single feature, presenting this as the first of a two-part adaptation. And as a lifelong Dune fan, he understands the attitude necessary to approaching this challenge: “Fear is the mind-killer,” as Paul famously puts it — so famously that the trailer couldn’t possibly exclude Chalamet’s delivery of the line.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.