Oh, Great, the New Dune Screenplay Is Finished. Yay?
Dune author Frank Herbert’s son Brian announced that the screenplay for the latest attempt to bring his father’s 1965 blockbuster novel to the big screen is complete, and—no. I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I cannot pretend to care about this Dune adaptation, or, frankly, about Dune.
Look, in my mind, Dune is basically cursed as a literary thing that just really doesn’t translate onto the screen. By all accounts, as a family-focused interplanetary space opera with lots of psychics and sex and battles and giant fearsome worms to ride, it should do just fine; it should play out like Star Wars with, somehow, even more pathos.
Yet the history of Dune in movie form seems damned: David Lynch was so unhappy with the final version of the 1984 film that he wrote and directed that he distanced himself from the project thereafter; the last time I saw his Dune aired, the movie was credited to director “Alan Smithee,” a pseudonym directors use when they don’t want to be associated with the finished work.
Roger Ebert called Lynch’s Dune the worst film of the year, writing, “This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.” And Lynch’s Dune emerged after many, many other previous attempts at productions had guttered and gone out.
Since Lynch’s now-fabled Dune disaster, the book has remained a property that people are convinced still needs to be filmed. Directors Peter Berg and Pierre Morel were both attached to more recent Dune movie projects that collapsed. The Syfy channel had more success with their miniseries adaptations Frank Herbert’s Dune and Children of Dune, which won high ratings but did not gain the series any particular foothold among people who were not already dedicated science fiction fans. Tor.com called the miniseries “The Most Okay Adaptation of the Book to Date,” which feels like damning with faint praise, or, at least, not the highest of bars to clear.
So fans of Dune (and there are a lot of fans of Dune) were rightfully thrilled when director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) signed on to the most recent incarnation of a Dune movie. Villeneuve clearly knows how to tell a science fiction story, or at least make them look good. The screenplay for his Dune appears to be some kind of collaboration, according to Syfy, between screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson (who have cowritten prequels to Frank Herbert’s original Dune books). These are some writers who know Dune well and can likely deliver a faithful adaptation! Yet the fact remains that Dune‘s decades-long resistance to cinematic translation might just mean it’s not fated to play out well onscreen. And that should be okay.
I know that this is going to be an incredibly unpopular opinion, but I don’t love Dune. The pacing of the first novel is wildly varying, and a lot of the big themes that make it an Important Work—grappling with clashing cultures, environmentalism, imperialism, messianic prophecies, gender politics and more—don’t necessarily lend themselves to easily scripted scenes, nor easily readable ones.
And while several friends that I adore are going to now unfriend me, when I finally read Dune I found it boring and dense, lacking any kind of empathy or warmth or reason to care about it at all. I thought the writing ungraceful, the characters unsympathetic, and the plot painfully foreshadowed and predictable. This take on “why Frank Herbert’s Dune sucks” made me feel like I was at least not alone in the universe, because my own distaste for Dune seems so wildly contrasted with the adoration and affection many people whose taste I otherwise trust seem to have.
I don’t know; maybe I came to Dune too late and would have merrily joined the bandwagon when I was 12. I’m ready for you to tell me all the reasons why I am wrong in the comments; disliking Dune unmoors me as a science fiction fan. I am grateful for its influence in cementing science fiction as a genre with a broad readership, and for helping to inspire many later books and movies that I love. But appreciating Dune‘s cultural impact does not mean that I can regard it as a masterpiece of fiction.
Some of you are thinking: hey, Kaila, lay off, people can like different things, why do you have to care about this movie at all? And you are right, of course. But it feels wasteful to me that so much time and energy and money and resources will go into yet another attempt at telling this tale that has already had so many chances. Meanwhile, there is a galaxy of bold new books featuring every kind of diversity and messages we need to hear in our more modern world that will go unadapted.
Even if I was the Dune fangirl that I wish I could be, I think I would maintain a considerable amount of trepidation about these plans for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. The history of on-screen Dunes relates that this is a story that struggles to be told, and may not need to be told at all. I wish they had let sleeping sandworms lie.
(via Syfy, image: Universal Pictures)
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