Shadows of Dune

Shadows of Dune

In that time I say if I need to cut my arms
in order to make that picture, I will cut my arms!
I was even ready to die doing that.”
– Alejandro Jodorowsky

REPOST: Originally posted in December of last year. I was hoping to get my Recommends on Dune up this weekend but I have learned to live with frequent disappointments.

Frank Herbert’s seminal work is everything that the Foundation Trilogy isn’t. Big, sprawling, and epic. A genuine groundbreaker. It turned writing conventions on their heads. Dune created a deep and rich mural in words, where Foundation had only been an outline.

And I strongly suspect that the producers of the new Dune movie are pissed off right now because Apple TV appears to have stolen a march on them.  The trailer for Apple’s new Foundation miniseries looks a hell of a lot like a Dune universe should and they don’t even have their own trailer out yet. 

The question is, why do we think it looks like a Dune universe?

Because it resembles the preproduction drawings of the most influential science fiction movie that you’ve never seen… Because it was never made.

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune.

Alejandro Jodorowsky was born in Chile in 1929 to Ukrainian Jewish atheist immigrants. This usually means Trotskyite Communists who fled from Stalin, but I couldn’t find any corroborating evidence for that, because I wasn’t looking for any. Jodorowsky hated his father, (not without reason) and ran away to Paris at the first opportunity that presented itself.  He studied being a mime (nothing I can add to that) but decided to make a lateral career move from clown to filmmaker of art films. 

After some minor successes, he moved from France to Mexico and joined the Mexican surrealist, which is to say the Absurdist, movement of the early 1960s.

While in Mexico City he converted to Acid Buddhism and began infusing his chemically enhanced spiritualism throughout his work.

In 1970 he had his first success with the original ‘midnight movie,’ El Topo.  El Topo’s plot (not that it really had one) was about a Mexican gunslinger wandering in the desert, on his quest to kill the Four Master Gunfighters in order to win the love of a beautiful woman.  Like I said, the plot didn’t matter, the movie was all about the visuals. It was film as performance art. And it was an insane hit in New York.  Everyone who was anyone in the counterculture movement (to include of course John fucking Lenin) declared it the greatest thing ever.

His next movie was Holy Mountain.  And a horrifying truth was suddenly evident, Jodorowsky had had the brakes ON for El Topo.

Before writing the script, he stayed up for a solid week under the supervision of a Japanese Zen master.  Then before shooting started, he and the core cast underwent the “Arica” method, which was a sixties mosh pit of Yoga, Sufi, and Zen exercises with what was claimed to be an alchemical overlay. After doing this for three months, they lived communally in his home for another month. Once they were all brain-addled enough, shooting began.

If you have never seen Holy Mountain, don’t.  Just watch the trailer:

This one too, has a thumbnail for a plot. The main protagonist is a Christlike figure called The Thief. He goes on a quest for enlightenment that involves him climbing a mountain along with seven other pilgrims. Like I said the plot is nonexistent. What this film really is, is a bunch of vignettes strung together in no real cohesive way. Because cohesive thought was utterly impossible for Alejandro Jodorowsky. 

Holy Mountain was as insane as the process that created it. And it was enough of a success that some studio madman decided to tell him, “do whatever you want Alejandro!”

Dune was the “in” book with his crowd at that time, so he decided he was going to do that. 

Frank Herbert absolutely hated the script that Jodorwosky came up with, its resemblance to his book was faint at best. Which the mad Chilean freely admitted, “I am raping his book, but I am raping it with love.”  Well that always makes rape so much better doesn’t it?

I am Indeed and truly sorry the movie never got made. For that matter, I’m sorry there was never even any test footage shot. 

It would have starred Mick Jagger as Feyd. David Carradine as Duke Leto.  Gloria Swanson as Gaius Helen Mohiam. Salvador Dali as the Padishah Emperor Shaddam. And the one I’m really sorry I never got to see, Orson Welles as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. 

H.R. Giger was in charge of the concept art.  And Jodorowsky must have made sure he was getting the really good pills.  

This “movie” was to be over twenty hours long. That being the stripped-down version.  No one was quite sure how any audience was supposed to watch the thing.  Marathon sitting? Come back to the theater each night for about a week?  In the case of the latter, does the audience member have to pay for each separate chapter? No one knew because this problem had never come up before.

I have zero love for hippies but there was such a mad audacity to the project I can’t help but admire the ambition behind it.

It was, however, clearly and obviously doomed from the start.

George Lucas was barely able to get the drastically less ambitious Star Wars made for eleven million. And Jodorowsky was going to try to film his version of Dune for twenty million? The budget was way too low for what he wanted to do (because he knew nothing about special effects) and there was no way in hell any studio was going to back something that was not only going to be R rated but defy the best efforts of any marketing department to come up with a coherent reason for normal people to come see it. And remember, twenty million was potentially a studio killer back then.

Regardless, Jodorowsky assembled his pre-production pitch book and marched it around the studios for about ten years trying to get funding for it.  That book has become a legend in the industry.

Dino De Laurentius eventually optioned it, waited for a time limit to run out, and kicked Jodorowsky off the project.  He then hired the slightly less deranged David Lynch to make it.

While Lynch was nuts in his own right, he was clearly a more functional madman.  He actually got his version of Dune made.

Lynch appears to have respected Jodorowsky’s intentions.  There were a number of choices he made that just don’t make sense otherwise.  Casting Sting as Feyd feels like a callback to the original choice of Mick Jagger in that role. It wasn’t Jodorowsky weird, but it was definitely weird. 

But the film had a lot of fundamental problems.  Jodorowsky’s script, (the one with the immaculate conception because Leto had been castrated and Paul being killed by Feyd at the end of the movie), obviously had to be chucked.  Lynch had Frank Herbert himself do the first draft and this was a huge mistake.

Herbert was a good author, but that skill set does not transfer seamlessly into being a screenwriter.  Anyone who has read the book knows that there is a shit-ton of internal dialog. Herbert just had the characters’ thoughts being conveyed by voice-over while the actor mugged on-screen in time to it.  When it comes to voice-over, less is better but non-existent is usually best. Voice-over narration of internal thoughts is a huge drag on any film’s action.  And just about all of the characters were constantly doing it.

Then there was the barrage of accents. In the Star Wars Galactic Empire, the Imperials mostly have Oxbridge accents. However, in Lynch’s Dune, they were all over the place. On Caladan alone, you have German, Oxbridge, and American accents.

Another problem was audience expectations. In 1974 the Lynch version of Dune would have enjoyed much more success than it did in 1984 because in those ensuing ten years Star Wars had changed the rules of the game.  Special effects had to reach a certain standard by then and Dune didn’t meet them.  On top of that, Eighties blast-flicks had already changed the film school grammar on how action scenes were to be shot and Dune was drastically behind that power curve there as well.  Generation-X was the primary film-going audience by then and Dune didn’t meet our standards for those things.

However, its biggest problem was its producer. Dino De Laurentius was very active in the development of the film.  He didn’t know anything about Herbert’s work and didn’t really get it. Consequently, his typical river of “production notes” was incredibly corrosive.

The worst crimes against the film were the mid-production budget cuts and the cutting room butchery that was inflicted upon it prior to release. Although, in truth, both were sadly unavoidable.  

Dune was drastically overbudget during production and everyone in the industry was still keenly aware of the Heaven’s Gate (1980) box office disaster. Lynch’s first cut was over four hours long.  This was originally supposed to be a feature of the film but was downgraded by Dino, into a bug.  Big cuts were made, leaving a film that was nearly incoherent.  David Lynch was furious.  When a longer cut was finally made using his footage he demanded his name be removed from it and the Director’s Union backed him on it.  That version is credited to Alan B. Smithee.

Dune bombed, killing any chance of a sequel.

Although, Westwood’s groundbreaking Dune games were based on Lynch’s film (at least visually). I was curious enough to check, House Ordos only appeared in the Dune Encyclopedia, (which now goes for $750 a copy and I distinctly remember throwing mine away when I was transferred to Okinawa, damn it!)

Anyway, the property vanished from Hollywood for another sixteen years until the Sci-Fi Channel decided to produce its own version of Dune as a mini-series. 

Sci-Fi’s version was cheaper but more coherent than Lynch’s version.  Sci Fi Channel put a lot of their budget into their turn-of-the-century mini-series events. Which is not to say they had a lot of money to work with.

Sadly, Sci Fi’s Dune is not aging well.  Late 1990s CGI looks awful by modern standards, although the sandworm still looks pretty good, (probably where they spent the bulk of their effects budget).

There were some substantial story changes made, Princess Irulan was not a nice girl in the books and was re-written to be more sympathetic in the series.  She was married to a man she was in love with, but who didn’t love her and refused to share her bed.  She ends up raising his children by another woman as her own. 

Dune did well enough for Sci Fi that they produced a second mini-series that covered the events of Dune Messiah and Children of Dune in 2003.  They wanted to do God-Emperor but in 2004 Battlestar Galactica blew off the doors off, leaving Dune in the dust and Sci Fi didn’t have the money to make both.

Dune went back into the wilderness for another seventeen years.

Warner Media is high-rolling big time on this property. It doesn’t really lend itself to being a franchise but that is obviously what they are planning.  They have already greenlit a series for HBOmax named; Dune the Sisterhood. 

The reason why is obvious, their three biggest franchises are all struggling.  The magic has gone out of the Harry Potter universe with the Fantastic Beasts series. And the DC Comics world is a legendary train wreck, comparable only to the final season of Game of Thrones.  Speaking of which, there were originally six Westeros spinoffs in development for the launch of HBOmax and thanks to George R.R. Martin and his monolithic writer’s block, none of them were ready at the launch of their streaming service.  

Starting fresh with something that has an established name had real appeal, despite the fact that Dune does not have a track record for being a major moneymaker.

There is also the question of, will it be too woke to be entertaining? 

(NOTE: Having now seen it, I can attest that while it has some Woke Washing, it is not Woke.

I had known that Zendaya had been cast as Chani. And the choice is actually defensible, “Chani was a young woman, dark-skinned, very skinny with an elfin face with big eyes all blue like black pits with no white in them.” 

Although this choice presupposed that Liet Kynes had been race-bent.  My reaction was fine it hardly matters these days. Except that it turns out he has also been gender-bent. Liet Kynes who was the leader of the extremely patriarchal Fremen is now a woman.

The actress who plays Kynes recently gave an interview where she went on at great length about how feminist and empowering this version of Dune will be.

So, yeah.

Maybe, they are just making sure the press will be nice to them.  And I will freely grant that Timothee Chalamet is a perfect choice for Paul. Maybe, this version of Dune will finally be a good one. I notice they are using David Lynch’s design for the stilsuits so at least they have a vision even if is someone else’s.

But I strongly suspect that a good and representative version of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece will remain a mirage in the desert that filmmakers strive for but never reach.

Not that it really matters.  Not to HBOmax.  

The Dark Herald predicts that Dune will be dumped on streaming next year.

(NOTE: Called it.)

This film had been originally planned as a billion-dollar summer tentpole.  It might have failed at that and failed as big as Lynch’s version BUT I strongly suspect it’s going to be extremely successful as a loss-leader for HBOmax.  That isn’t in stone yet but at this point, I’ll be happy to put money on it. The trailer below was dropped in October and has 28 million views and that’s only on the official Warner Media channel.  Compare that with Black Widow’s 22 million views and dropped way back in April.  Or even Warner’s own The Batman with 25 million views and dropped a month before Dune’s trailer.

My initial reaction to the trailer was that this is fine for people like me who are familiar with the property but what about the normies?  It turns out there is a very high level of interest from the general population.

And lets face it, this looks way more grown up than The Mandalorian.

More bad news for Disney.

Okay, I’m done here.

Share this post