the impossibility of filming Frank Herbert's Dune

By Josh Gibson

Good luck, Alejandro
1: Dune In Retrospect

Frank Herbert’s Dune was a product of a time before Star Wars and the clichéd, under-imagined Sci-Fi blockbusters that crowd modern movie theaters. Its predecessors were the Victorian tales of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and pulp science fiction novels that were so technologically oriented that they lacked any sort of human element. Nonetheless, they set the basic tropes for most of contemporary Sci-Fi (dystopian societies, international or galactic politics, technological innovation, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, time travel, to name a few). Ray Bradubury’s The Martian Chronicles got close, adding some sense of character and an elegant prose style, but it too is uninspired and artistically suspect. That was the case for most of Sci-Fi until Dune was published in 1965. It set the gold standard for the genre, while avoiding just about every trope and cliché that had been made previously made available.

Everything about the novel was different: it was about a galactic empire, but one that was based not on some perfected form of politics or economics, but instead on the feudal system; it was about a civilization tens of thousands of years in the future that utilized massive, advanced starships, but thinking computers had been outlawed entirely and the ships were guided by the minds of mutants in a drug trance. It was about religion, power dynamics, drugs, ecology, sustainability, survival, love, honor, the nature of evil, commerce, messiahs, schools of thought and higher consciousness. Virtually every human concern and tendency is addressed in some way in the first book and the others in the series each manage to add countless, and more dynamic, levels. The novel is often called the most important science fiction novel of all time, and while that might be debatable, there is a lot of truth to it. One of the major driving points of Dune is collecting and transforming a planet through the clever collection and use of a rarity on a desert planet, water, and as the saying goes, the novel itself, certainly, holds water.

The Author of the Vision
In Dune, Frank Herbert raises many of the questions that have been building in importance since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and has managed to point out several of the key issues that will be critical in the future. The three themes that he projects the plot of his Sci-fi opera onto are religion, politics and physical survival. The novel works as a metaphor to shed light on how people in power are in constant and unrelenting struggle for more power. It also works as a warning for the future: with humanity pushed to such extreme situations, what will become of us? Herbert pushes these three critical themes to absolute extremes.

II. The Grand Experimenters

Alejandro Jodorowsky is a name that has disappeared and resurfaced for the past fifty years. Trained in Zen Buddhism and unraveling koans (questions that test a Zen Buddhist’s training and a form of thinking central to Dune), he constantly pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in film. His surreal western El Topo (which he wrote, directed, and starred in) made him an icon of the midnight movie crowd and set his reputation as one of film’s great crazies. He has been called a mad man, proclaimed a genius, a psychedelic warrior, kicked out of Mexico, been funded by John Lennon, spurred on the careers of many artists and was a master reader of Tarot cards. His work alone has influenced countless musicians and artists, many at the forefront of their fields, and even another director named David Lynch, who would get much further in his Dune adaption than Jodorowsky ever did, perhaps unhappily so.

El Topo, more than surrealist
Lynch’s films (not including most of Dune) are an odd combination of the recognizably human and the absolutely alien. Like Jodorowsky, he is someone who has created his own filmic language, a quality that seems perfect for Dune. His first film, Eraserhead, which he made while a student at AFI, is one of the most iconic and strange films ever made. The infamous baby in Eraserhead is a perfect metaphor for Lynch’s talent. You see it, you know what it is and yet it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen or experienced before.

That's a special effect
Like Jodorowsky, he is a visionary and an iconoclast, smashing presumptions and recreating the universe through his own crazy vision. In a better world, both of these experimenters would have created two parallel and dissimilar versions of Herbert’s Dune. In an even better world than that, one ruled by artists and thinkers, Lynch and Jodorowsky would collaborate to create the most surreal experience of all time, a film experience that no one would ever get over. If only.

There are better times coming soon

III. The Most Influential Movie that was Never Made

While Jodorowsky has been very well known in the counter culture and among the fans of avant­garde cinema, he’s hardly a household name. With the release of Jodorowsky’s Dune, more people are getting a glimpse of his wild genius. The documentary tells the story of Jodorowsky’s attempt to film Herbert’s Dune and claims that we potentially lost one of the most powerful films of all time. Work on the movie began before Star Wars and catches a moment where the Sci-Fi film might have found a more daring and fruitful form than what we have today.

Jodorowsky went on an extraordinary quest to find the spiritual warriors (as he calls them) that he needed to complete what he viewed would be his ultimate masterpiece and maybe the ultimate masterpiece. He would only consider the best artisans and he would choose them not only for their skill, but also and most importantly the proper outlook. He aimed to make a movie that would have the same philosophical and spiritual effect on its viewers as LSD, envisioning a film that would change in a fundamental way the way humanity worked. Humorously enough, Jodorowsky hadn’t read Dune before he began creating his adaption of it. He simply had a sense that the story was exactly what would spur a revolution, that it was the ideal tale of cultural transformation and that it could manifest a similar change in the real world.

Throughout the pre-production process, he pushed himself to extremes. Even the first scene of the film was ripe with ambition, as he aimed to create the most extreme long shot and zooming sequence in film history (a long shot of the universe that compresses through countless levels of cosmos before closing in on a single person in a spaceship). His vision continues like this with such exaggerated scope and goals that, even in the concept stage, it became an immense feat of the imagination.

A series of otherworldly coincidences leads Jodorowsky to some of the most creative people of the time. He teams up with Moebius, the infamous comic and conceptual artist, and together they make a full storyboard of the movie that includes every single change of angle and shot. It is hundreds of pages long. Moebius creates some of the most interesting character designs ever conceived, extending the world of Dune into a visual language that is undeniably fresh and fitting. The two visionaries meet with Doug Trumbull who created the special effects for 2001: A Space Odessey and halfway through the meeting Jodorowsky decides that the most renowned effects artist in Hollywood is too vain to be a part of his picture and they immediately leave. They then go to a tiny theatre and watch the film Dark Star and immediately Jodorowsky decides that the special effects artist for that film, Dan O’bannon, is the man he needs for his film.

His crew extends constantly and the members grow in number as well as in reputation: David Carradine, Pink Floyd, the avant­garde metal band Magma, Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, H.R Giger, Chris Foss, and his own son, who he trained in martial arts, for the role of Paul Atreides. Every step of the way, there is a phenomenal story of how these people got involved with the film as if by magic and certainly by chance.

What’s shocking is how many of their careers explode after being involved with Jodorowsky’s Dune. H.R. Giger, Moebius, and Foss went on to create the modern visual language of science fiction. Their designs have been featured in countless films, posters and book covers. None of this would have happend without them first being pulled from smaller industries and taken into the tornado of Jodorowsky’s visionary excess. The Alien movies are based on what Giger and Moebius did for Jodorowsky and that look morphs into Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the countless other adaptions of Phillip K. Dick. In fact, without that look, does anyone understand how to translate Dick’s vision into film? Not likely. What’s clear is that all serious Sci-Fi comes from Jodorowsky’s work on Dune and you wonder what might have happened if he had been allowed to actually film it.

Stolen from Dune

IV. Lynched on the Dune

One of the amazing aspects of Dune is how it managed to torpedo two of cinema’s great, crazy geniuses. After Jodorowsky, came David Lynch, and it is not a, but the low point of Lynch’s amazing career. Anyone who has seen Twin Peaks, or Blue Velvet, knows that Lynch is a man with a knack for finding a way of telling a story that is not a story. This is evident in the first scene of Blue Velvet where every shot is so perfectly composed that you know everything, can anticipate each moment, before it ever happens. Shots of white picket fences and flowers fade as a man, suffering some kind of stroke, writhes on his front lawn. Then Lynch inserts a shot of his dog trying to lap up the hose water that sprays out from his hands—it might be one of the greatest and most gratuitous cuts in this history of cinema. As he lies there the camera pans down and travels through miniature blades of dark grass and we eventually find ourselves confronted with scrambling beetles. Somehow Lynch makes this all seem inevitable and normal. This is a man who seems destined to direct Dune.

The Normal and Shocking
Somehow when he attempted to direct Dune this mixture of psychotic shock and normalcy went missing. It is pretty obvious that the interests who were in control of the film’s budget had a lot to do with this, but after a promising first half hour Lynch loses control of the material. You can see the film it should have been, but the rest is a disappointing mess, so disappointing that Lynch insisted that the film get the dreaded, “directed by Alan Smithee,” credit.

A great many things were missing from this project. First and foremost, Lynch was denied the final edits. The producer (of this iteration) Dino De Laurentiis commissioned Frank Herbert to write the screenplay and he managed to cut his eight hundred-page novel down to a one hundred and seventy-five-page screenplay (about three hours). De Laurentiis than hired Ridley Scott, who soon quit the project, but would in six years direct the seminal Blade Runner, which began the Dick revival. De Laurentiis then hired Rudy Wurlitzer to rewrite the script, which became the final, lopsided, very un­Lynchian, final film that we have today. What a complete disappointment.

V. The Philosophy

One of the most powerful aspects of Dune is that it has a philosophical and political framework, although most readers aren’t aware of it until reaching the appendix at the end of the book. The appendixes of Dune go into great detail about how a council is made up of varied representatives from every religious sect in the known universe. One of their goals is to formulate the ultimate just truths of religion and detach them from their previously self­righteous ideologies. This culmination of poly­religious philosophy is essential to the story, but never present in any of the film reiterations of it.

A Ferocious Philosophy
It is as if Jodorowsky and Lynch saw that they had an opportunity to use the story as a means to present their own ideas, while jettisoning Herbert’s. This may be part of the problem in bringing the novel to cinematic life. One of many statements that Dune makes is that even with truth and logic presented unabridged and uncompromised, the denizens of the universe will always fall back on more tribal, idealist, partisan philosophies and symbols. One might say that this is what happened in the multiple attempts to produce Dune. Although Jodorowsky and Lynch’s motives are easily more admirable than the producers who would gladly throw away Herbert’s rich story for a wider demographic and higher profit margins, the question remains: can ideas such as Herbert’s ever find a mainstream cinematic language?

VI. A Broken Model

The Hollywood movie model seldom allows for massive visions such as Herbert’s. Most of our radical filmmakers work on a much more intimate scale. This is because Hollywood is entirely based on profit and not on the intellectual or emotional value of the films themselves. Some would claim that what else would expect from a business, after all the goal of a business is to maximize profits. So instead of Jodorowsky and Lynch we get James Cameron. Cameron’s Avatar is the highest grossing theatrical release of all time and Cameron is also the most obvious and prolific thief of all time.

I make money
The amount of properties and artists whose works Cameron appropriates and copies without permission is staggering. The list includes but is certainly not limited to: the Halo franchise, paintings by Roger Dean, Fern Gulley, Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, Paul Anderson’s novel Call Me Joe, The Winds of Altair by Ben Bova, Desertion by Clifford Simak, Judgement on Janus by Andre Norton, the comic franchise 2000 A.D., etc., etc., etc. The fact of the matter is that Cameron, if anything, is a consistent and dependable director and an expert at taking existing properties and making them easy to sell (Terminator 2, Aliens, Titanic, etc.). Is that what it takes to produce some of the most successful films of all time? Consistency? Dependability? Digestibility? It’s certainly not what animates Jodorowsky and Lynch. One can only imagine Cameron’s Dune.

VII. Value of Science Fiction and Experimentation in Cinema

Science fiction itself is based on experimentation, as is science itself, and, as such, experiments are a necessary requirement of the genre. This is visible in every aspect of Dune, so much so that many aspects of the book have become cornerstones of the science fiction genre. Herbert created a huge wealth of material and artistic descendants and they have tried to come to terms with his vast vision. This is as it should be.

The Machine
This lesson becomes more and more necessary as creative fields become both overcrowded and homogeneous. Science fiction and film are both connected to technology and it is technology that is changing the world. We don’t need a complacent Sci-Fi, but one dedicated to the type of revolution Herbert created, along with the ones Jodorowsky and Lynch attempted and ultimately failed to complete. Maybe some crazy producer will go up to both of them and say, “Here’s a tremendous amount of money, go do it, make Dune again.” It’s not likely, but we can always dream.

©Josh Gibson and the CCA Arts Review

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