Thursday, August 23, 2018

Neglected Gem: David Lynch's Dune (1984)

Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Muad'dib in Dune. (Photo: IMDB)

In any list of the worst book-to-film adaptations, you’ll find David Lynch’s Dune somewhere near the top – universally acknowledged as a shallow, baffling, unsatisfying adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal novel, which suffered from an infamously tortured production process. In fact, to even call it “David Lynch’s Dune” is to invoke the spectre of this troubled development, which left Lynch so disgruntled that he hid behind the “Alan Smithee” pseudonym and even modified his writing credit to read “Judas Booth” (a mash-up of Judas Escariot and John Wilkes Booth) in subsequent cuts of the film. Pointing the finger at studio interference and a lack of creative control – including being denied final cut – Lynch seemed to respond to Dune’s critical and financial failings by dodging the issue of quality within the material itself and instead focusing on the ways in which he had been stifled. Dune remains a strange black mark on his filmography, frequently cited as his worst film and a disaster from top to bottom – which I think does a tremendous disservice to the things that make it not just a worthy addition to the Lynch canon, but to the epic fantasy genre as a whole.

Make no mistake: Dune is not without its problems. Universal Pictures and the Dino De Laurentiis company were convinced they were making “Star Wars for adults,” a creative direction that resulted in confused and messy approaches to early script adaptations (especially since Herbert’s novel is totally unlike Star Wars in terms of subject matter, tone, or style – and this made for an ultimately ironic blip in history, since Lynch turned down Lucas’s offer to direct Return of the Jedi in favour of Dune). Ridley Scott, Rudy Wurlitzer, and (famously) Alejandro Jodorowsky all took swings at putting together a cogent adaptation, but none was able to gather the necessary funding, or wrangle a creative team that was willing to tackle such a hugely ambitious project. By the time Lynch agreed to write and direct, Dune was already a tangled mess, and its script had already been through six rewrites before it was ready to shoot. The result, of course, is a weirdly half-hearted approach to Herbert’s epic material, the work of an uncharacteristically detached director who struggled with an inability to find the human drama amidst all the novel’s vampire ducal politics (and who failed to balance that stuff meaningfully against the more interesting messiah story at the centre of the novel). What’s more, Lynch’s desire to realize the material in an interesting way resulted in an intolerably self-indulgent running time – the film really should have stuck with Scott’s original idea of splitting the story into two films, ending at the show-stopping sequence of Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) taming the sandworm, and leaving his ascension to godhood and the collapse of the ducal empire to a sequel. Our own Phil Dyess-Nugent compared Lynch’s Dune to the late-stage work of Stanley Kubrick, in its single-minded focus on “the inessentials,” and even in hindsight it’s difficult to disagree.

So despite Dune’s successes in other areas, its weak fundamentals gave critics and audiences little reason to care about the story of Paul, and his evolution from the privileged son of Duke Leto (Jurgen Prochnow) to the foretold leader of the Fremen of Arrakis, armed with godlike psychic power. It’s too bad that this attitude has endured, because Lynch’s Dune is an audio-visual feast, very much of a kind with his other strange, semi-subconscious works like Eraserhead (or later, Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks). Lynch’s obsession with tiny details, his mastery over mood and atmosphere, and his Malick-like proficiency at recreating human experience at both a micro and macro scale might actually make him the best possible fit for a Dune adaptation, given the style of Herbert’s prose. The novel is written from an omniscient perspective, letting the reader into the head of not just its de facto protagonist, Paul, but nearly every character who appears, opening windows into the thoughts of enemies, lovers, assassins, and side players – and so too does Lynch’s direction, giving us admiring voice-over narration from warrior-bard Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart) as he watches Paul train, tightening for an extreme closeup on the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit (Sian Phillips) as her inner monologue marvels at Paul’s ability to survive her test of pain, and even letting us know, through his tortured thoughts, that the trusted physician Yueh (Dean Stockwell) will betray his beloved Atreides patients long before that fatal blow actually comes. The dreams that precede Paul’s awakening to his true power – haunting him even as a pampered boy back on his home planet, before his family relocates to the titular desert world – are quintessential Lynch, voids of untapped emotion, abstract landscapes of strange and evocative imagery like falling droplets of water, zephyrs of sand that blow and shift in and out of focus, and the piercing blue eyes of a girl he's never met. Lynch’s focus on such “inessentials” may have done Dune a disservice as a profitable piece of entertainment, but in the decades to follow would nonetheless inspire a new generation of creators, who have ensured that the film’s legacy lives on today in film, video games, literature, art, comics, music, and more.

The Atreides cruisers arrive on Arrakis in this still, which showcases the film's extraordinary production design by Anthony Masters.

This is primarily due to Dune’s unique aesthetic, which straddles lines between the old-world elegance of classical fantasy, the bleak futurescapes of Blade Runner, and the lived-in rebel grunge of Star Wars. Each locale and faction is given its own suite of styles and colours that make the journey through the film’s myriad settings a varied and vibrant one. The Atreides are Soviet-inspired, garbed in tight-fitting military tunics with fur-lined cloaks and medals dripping from every chest, sheltered by dimly-lit oaken walls and ceilings that make their stronghold feel like the belly of some giant, labyrinthine galleon – all honour and warmth and tradition. Their hated rivals, the Harkonnens, plot horrific schemes and indulge in incestuous vices in the midst of Randian industrial cityscapes humming with electricity, their Art Deco furnishings bathed with toxic green light – all venom and leather and hateful technology. Dune itself, the realm of the blue-eyed Fremen, is a place of harshness and prophecy, Biblical in scope, whose orange-yellow waves of rolling sand – and the massive worms that swim beneath – have become an instantly-recognizable piece of pop culture imagery. The film is simply marvelous to behold, and constantly conjures new ways to dazzle and surprise the senses. Jodorowsky’s early attempts at an adaptation enlisted the work of H.R. Giger, Jean Giraud, and Chris Foss to set a visual course for the film, and much of that early influence survived under Lynch’s care. Jodorowsky’s Dune, brilliantly catalogued in the documentary of the same name, would have crumbled under the weight of its vaulting ambition. I doubt it ever would have seen the light of day, let alone made for a comprehensible space fantasy epic. But because Lynch allowed its aesthetic and stylistic spirit to live on in his own adaptation, Jodorowsky’s Dune did make it to the screen – it was just called David Lynch’s Dune instead.

The aesthetic brilliance of the sets, costumes, cinematography (by Freddie Francis), and even the soundtrack (composed and performed by Toto, most memorably in a searing guitar melody that accompanies Paul’s taming of the worm) may have been lost on audiences who saw through the special effects and decided it was a cheap affair. Dune’s matte paintings, rear projections, and miniatures are works of exquisite craftsmanship, but they’re certainly not notable for their realism, and I suspect this alienated audiences who had become accustomed to the more convincing work of directors like Steven Spielberg, who was extremely popular at the time. Realism wasn’t Lynch’s goal (nor was it Herbert’s), and this aspect of the film is easier to appreciate from a modern standpoint, where, like nearly everything from its era, its unconvincing effects are a given compared to contemporary film, and the artistry of its visuals and sound are better appreciated.

The cast members take well to the material, too, and are almost universally perfect for their roles. The standout is MacLachlan, who captures both the haughtiness of a young ducal heir and the growing awareness that he is meant for more than his station prescribes, tapping into a sense of power and presence that belies the boyish exterior (a feat he would replicate to much greater effect two years later in Lynch's Blue Velvet). But supporting players like Francesca Annis (as Paul’s mother Jessica), Max von Sydow (as Guild emissary Kynes), Everett McGill (as Fremen leader Stilgar) and Kenneth McMillan (as the grotesque Baron Harkonnen) – along with Stewart and Prochnow – make lasting impressions, even amongst such a large ensemble. Lynch, by necessity, impatiently hops from scene to scene, so many actors are only given precious minutes (or even seconds) of screen time before the film moves on and they’re never seen again, but they make the most of it, resulting in a film that is full of striking characters whose inner lives and histories feel rich and broad beyond the borders of the frame.

Lynch came off badly after the film’s release, but in hindsight, I think he should have stood by his so-called sell-out hackwork. He managed to apply his unique sensibilities to a story that I found impenetrable until I had Lynch’s visuals to match with Herbert’s convoluted drama, and a strong cast to embody it. The novel is actually quite similar to the film in that its minute detail is rich and vibrant, but its larger structure – its clumsy placement of characters in an evolving plot and its inability to generate clear mind’s-eye imagery – is lacking. In this way, it might be a more perfect adaptation of Dune than many fervent fans of the book may have been able to perceive. Dune is a “neglected gem” in the most literal sense possible, in that it’s an outwardly beautiful objet d’art whose inherent value is questionable, but whose aesthetic value cannot be questioned – left in a drawer to gather dust by an indifferent film intelligentsia, but able to produce brilliant refractions of colour and vibrancy when brought back into the light.

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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