In time for another attempt at a Dune movie version as the 1984 version has appeared on streaming.
Sometime, those things that are remembered fondly from childhood don’t stand the test of time. When I was wee tyke, I loved Speed Racer. My parents wouldn’t let me watch it (pinko-commie propaganda*, my Dad called it) so I had to sneak over to my friend’s house after school to view the episodes. -This is all very traumatic, so excuse me if I don’t go into all the details.- Sometime circa 1990, I found a load of VHS tapes on deep discount at the local Blockbuster** and one was a set of Speed Racer episodes. I bought it and watched it. It was awful. Horrifyingly awful. I’m sorry I watched it and wish I would have let my romantic memories of the excitement and beauty of Speed Racer live on. To this day, I have not watched a single episode in YouTube.
So what happens when something is remembered not-so-fondly? Does one dare to revisit the dark times?
If I had to guess, I’d say I read the original Dune novel in the late 1970s (the book was published in 1965, less than year before the Speed Racer comic was first published and a little more than a year before the Speed Racer TV show). In retrospect, the film would have looked like a dream project. Frank Herbert’s book is one of the classics of the science fiction world. The film, being written and directed by David Lynch, would have been a must-see, particularly after the appearance of Blue Velvet (1986). Likewise, the cast was a wild assembly of actors that should have been a real draw. Kyle MacLachlan was unknown at the time. Cast as MacLachlan’s nemesis, Sting was not. So how did it go so wrong?
David Lynch was offered the opportunity to direct The Return of the Jedi, which was released in 1983. Lynch wanted artistic control over his own project, not to be working under the shadow of George Lucas. Thus, Dune was to be Lynch’s own Star Wars. Recently, actress Virginia Madsen (who played Alia, the daughter of the Emperor, and, in a post-filming edit, narrated much of the movie) said she was signed on for a trilogy. Oddly enough, at the time Lynch was brought on board, he hadn’t read Dune nor was he a fan of science fiction.
Star Wars itself was, by Lucas’ own statements, influenced by Dune. The similarities may seem superficial and, as a matter of fact, I hadn’t noticed them before now. From the desert planet that becomes the focus of an empire to Princess Leia/Princess Alia, the comparisons jump out once you are looking for them. Apparently, they become more and more obvious if you read early versions of the Star Wars script, where the Star Wars universe was more filled out and bore a resemblance to Herbert’s future-feudalism. A serious take on Star Wars using the giant of science fiction literature seemed just what the doctor ordered.
When the film came out, it was savaged by critics. As bad as the film may have been, I always felt many critics went a bit overboard. I remember reading a criticism of the way half the dialog is made up of characters inner-thoughts. At the time I thought this was merely the script-writer having been a true fan of the book***, as this dialog pattern (and many of the details) are moved directly from book to movie. Other criticisms were dead-on. Viewed in 2019, the visual effects are god-awful, but they were bad even for 1984. How this happened is a mystery. Dune had the budget of Return of the Jedi as well as the Star Wars trilogy as a bar for what space-epic special effects should be. The battle scenes are wretched, often showing groups of a few dozen extras rushing from one side of a soundstage to another, popping off pretend shots at an unseen enemy. The screen-time blown on these pointless action scenes has to be made up by jarring cuts in the narrative part of the story, glued together by voice-over narration.
As the film was developed, the running time was one major bone of contention between Lynch and the studio. Lynch’s rough cut ran nearly four hours and his intended cut was project to be more than three. This was in line with earlier attempts. Director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work in the early 1970s was looking like it would come out in the 10-14 hour range. Herbert’s own script was estimated to be about a three-hour version. Studios, however, wanted a 2-hour-or-so length that would fit neatly into their distribution models. The result was the two-hour and 17 minute version that went to theaters. This is also the version I just watched. An additional 50 minutes was added when the film was brought to the television, but this was a studio edit and not some kind of “director’s cut.” Lynch himself has said that the whole experience of this film is too painful to revisit and he has never had any urge to restore it to something closer to his vision. In any case, he says, he knew that he would not get the final crack at editing and so he says his compromises are part of even the raw footage.
There is a good chance that the first time I watched it, I watched in on TV and saw the longer version, though I don’t remember. This may even be one reason why rewatching has shown me a film that is worse than my memories of it; the cramming of the story into too short of a running time may actually have been absent from my own original version. The special effects are also worse than I remember, but that’s to be expected.
Going back again to 1984, the studio was geared up for a merchandising bonanza to rival Star Wars. Based on the talent of Lynch (The Elephant Man, written and directed by Lynch, released in 1980) and the success of the novel, previews were positive and plans were big. Toy stores were populated with action figures, toys for boys, and even a new strategy game. All for nothing. Ironically, despite the film being such an obvious and well-known financial failure, of all David Lynch’s films, this was the biggest initial-run earner and was the number two film (Beverly Hills Cop was #1) in its opening weekend.
But let’s go back to that strategy game. A new game was developed and released through Parker Brothers specifically to tie in the with movie. Surprisingly, given its origins, it doesn’t look all that terrible. The game pieces are the major characters from the movie featuring the actors’ likenesses. You move those pieces around one of two tracks; one to build character strength and one to accumulate resources, both in service of fights-to-the-finish that will occur when two opposing pieces land on the same space. There is some strategy involved and the components appear to look pretty nice. On BoardGameGeek, it clearly outranks (for example) another 1984 game of similar look, The A-Team. Even with such praise, however, it can never hope to be more than “the other Dune game.”
This is because in 1979, Avalon Hill released a Dune game that, surprisingly enough, retains a very high player rating (again, using BoardGameGeek) to this day. In fact, it is essentially tied for the 5th best Avalon Hill game of all time – with a nearly identical rank to Advanced Squad Leader and Civilization. It may even be possible that I bought the Dune game first and then bought the book as a follow on to the game, as opposed to the other way around. That makes the very high score even more surprising personally – I’ve actually played the game. Recalling impressions from as much as 40 years gone, as difficult as that may be, I didn’t think of it as one of the best Avalon Hill games ever made. As I remember, I wasn’t entirely impressed with the game’s ability to immerse one in a feeling of reliving the novel. Compared to my other Avalon Hill games, it didn’t seem to have much going for it as a wargame. What I had never done then, nor have I done it since, was to play a large, multiplayer game. One would imagine that the best Dune session would have one player for every faction present in the game, six in total. Back in the day, I was lucky to get a second who wasn’t a younger sibling.
Now that a new version of the movie is coming out next year, there is bound to be a resurgence in all things Dune. Like several tries before, the proposed cast for the movie looks excellent and director Denis Villeneuve certainly has some success under his belt (Sicaro) as well as some warning signs (e.g. the fine-sounding but unfulfilling Blade Runner 2049). Naturally, some enterprising concern grabbed the boardgame license and has re-implemented version of the classic due to come out before the movie hits or misses. Computer titles will almost certainly be in the offing, particularly considering the importance of Dune II in the development of the RTS genre.
There are a range of other Dune spinoff products, although I’d say considerably fewer than one would expect given the popularity of the source material. I watched the mini-series when it was live on TV. At the time, I thought it wasn’t bad for a Sci Fi channel production and perhaps a little better than the Lynch film. There were a few games besides the Avalon Hill and the Parker Brothers versions. There was an RPG that got crushed during licensing machinations. There was a collectible card game (1997) and a more recent print-and-play dice-based game (2015). For the computer, there was Dune 2000, a graphical remake of the classic Dune 2 – perhaps a little to much “re” and not enough “make.” There was a disaster of a computer adventure/action game based off of the mini-series. Last but not least, as I just found out, there was a total conversion mod for Civilization IV.
The Dune mod is built upon the Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword version, which itself seems to have gone mostly by the wayside, despite still having some of the most interesting mods and scenarios yet done. I downloaded the Dune Wars: Revival version of the mod, a 2015 rework of the original (called Dune Wars). The setting is that you find yourself on Arakkis post-apocalypse (of some sort). Each of the major entities (including a few beyond the standard houses) has the Settlers unit, poised to found a new colony. In other words, it’s a Civilization game.
The standard features of a Civilization worlds are converted over to the Dune universe. So there is the desert, impassible to many of the ground forces, rather than ocean. Water replaces food as the critical resource to sustain life. In addition to barbarians (the black flagged force in the above screenshot) the landscape is crisscrossed by sandstorms and marauding worms. The backstory is that, in addition to all Arrakis development being destroyed, connectivity to the greater universe has also been cut off. Domination in this game means reestablishing control over Arrakis and reconnecting to the intergalactic trade or transforming the planet into the water-filled paradise of the prophecies.
Workers upgrade the land but, substituting for the usual developments, you must use technology to harvest water and (of course) Spice. Shown in the above screenshot, workers have ventured out into the impassible desert to construct spice harvesters. They look better on a live screen, as they scuttle around picking up spice and spewing clouds of sand. It is a cool upgrade visually and some of the specific substitutions are inspired. As a means of reliving the book, again not so powerful. Of course, is this really any worse than Dune II and trying to portray the novel as an RTS?
I fished around a little bit in the Mod’s menus. I guess I really didn’t expect to find it, but it seems like an interesting direction to go with this would have been to build a world set up for the book’s opening. The fact that it isn’t done suggests it probably isn’t doable. I can imagine quite a bit of work (both map design and scripting of events) going into a project but producing something that isn’t any more engaging than the random-map/start-from-zero version that already exists in the mod.
We’ll get to see the newest try at the movies next year. It is possible that the book and the greatness within it simply cannot be translated to another medium, no matter what kind of resources and determination you have available to you. It seems like there is a movie, or a game, or a TV series waiting in here somewhere, but I sure can’t say what those magical missing features are that would make it all work. Or maybe…
Until I started writing this article, the connection between Star Wars and Dune was not at all obvious to me. Now, it is the most obvious thing in the world. Star Wars didn’t exactly bring Dune to the big screen but maybe it took what could be taken and came close. Had Star Wars been more serious and a little darker, it may well the version of this story we credit with getting it right.
*To be honest, when I watch some of the 70s cartoons today, I think he may have been on to something.
**How old do you have to be so that last sentence doesn’t sound like complete gibberish?
***Thus my surprise, again very recently, to learn that David Lynch was not a fan of the book. One must assume that this was simply his take, upon reading the book, of how to put it onto the screen. Herbert, himself, was pleased to hear much of his dialog survive the move to film intact. In fact, Herbert has speculated that a major problem is the cutting of the films running time, leaving necessary scenes out of the final product.