Monday, December 24, 2007

Dune: How Many Times Are We Going to Do This?

I just read online that Peter Berg, the director of The Kingdom, Very Bad Things and The Rundown, is going to make yet another version of Dune. I don't know if this is more fallout from The Lord of the Rings doing so well, and I can appreciate the ambition (although it's puzzling coming from Berg, who isn't really what I'd call an epic filmmaker), but do we need to do Dune again? Really?

Dune is a project that has driven filmmakers mad over the years. Frank Herbert's novel was published in 1965, and was first optioned for the screen by Arthur P. Jacobs in 1971. With a $15 million budget, Jacobs was planning on making Dune the follow-up to his Planet of the Apes series. Jacobs wanted the director and screenwriter behind Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, David Lean and Robert Bolt, to adapt what was really meant to be a classy, serious production. Bolt was actually replaced by Rospo Pallenberg, who later wrote Excalibur and John Boorman's attempt at The Lord of the Rings. Sadly, Jacobs died of a heart attack in 1973, and the rights were purchased by a French consortium.

Their choice to make the film was Alejandro Jodorowsky, who had made his reputation with surreal cult films like El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky's Dune is one of the legendary and lamented lost projects of science fiction. He hired the most potentially fascinating group of collaborators ever heard of: H.R. Giger (pre-Alien) and Jean "Moebius" Giraud to design the look of the film (Moebius produced over 3000 pieces of artwork, including storyboards of the entire script), and Chris Foss to design the spacecraft and vehicles. Dan O'Bannon to design the special effects. Pink Floyd to do the score. Just imagine what this might have been: either the greatest or the worst science fiction film ever made.

Jodorowsky's cast was also epic and diverse. Himself as Duke Leto, and his son Brontis as Paul Atreides. David Carradine as Liet Kynes. Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen. Gloria Swanson as the Reverend Mother. He desperately wanted Salvador Dali to play Emperor Shaddam IV; Dali agreed to do the role for $100,000 an hour, so Jodorowsky decided to use Dali sparingly and use some kind of puppet for long shots.

Jodorowsky's script would have turned Dune into a 14-hour movie which, let's face it, might have been turgid, but might have been sublime. Or it might never have been finished. After spending $2 million and worried about the amount of money they were already in for, the French consortium sold the rights to producer Dino DeLaurentiis in 1976. Many were crushed; Dan O'Bannon apparently needed psychological counseling. Frank Herbert adapted his own screenplay, this time with a three-hour running time, but it was rejected.

By 1979, after the success of Alien, DeLaurentiis hired Ridley Scott to direct Dune. (Funnily enough, Alien was written by Dan O'Bannon.) Scott and screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer got the script down to something workable, but Herbert was unhappy with it, and work continued. H.R. Giger was hired to design and storyboard the film. The production had been budgeted at $50 million, and with the script problems proving too much, Ridley Scott left the film to work on Blade Runner. There's an interview with Harlan Ellison around this time in which Ellison says that Ridley Scott wanted to be "the John Ford of science fiction," and planned on directing Blade Runner, then Dune, and then Ellison's own script of Asimov's I, Robot (and then, apparently, Tristan and Isolde and Legend). Imagine what that could have been... to be spared Black Rain and White Squall and a number of other crappy movies. We really, really need a John Ford in science fiction.

DeLaurentiis decided to hire David Lynch based on The Elephant Man. And after several drafts of the screenplay, a rather lackluster and decidedly non-epic movie was released in 1984. Lynch turned down Return of the Jedi in order to make Dune. Lynch's rough cut is between four and five hours long; I own a bootleg copy, and it's somehow worse than the rapid Cliff's Notes version that was released. Too much time is taken up with setting the backstory with drawings and narration; somehow, there's more backstory and infodump than in Herbert's actual novel! The long version, appropriately enough, is credited to Alan Smithee.

I think the real interest of the producers is evident in the way they sold the film. Remember this?
Yeah, you do.

I mean, there were action figures and toys based on this movie!
Yes, finally you can commit rough sexual assault on your sister's Ken dolls with your own Baron Harkonnen figure!

In 2000, the SCIFI Channel aired a miniseries directed by John Harrison that I thought was fairly good, if a little derivative. And now, we're going to do it again? With the director of The Rundown? Hey, more power to the filmmakers if they can actually pull out a great version of Dune. But the evidence of decades says it's likely to go in another direction. Why make Dune if you're not going to be able to make it the powerful epic it deserves to be?

Well, no matter how many film versions there are, the original novel still survives. It's powerful and engrossing, and it deserves to be read.

If you're really interested in the Jodorowsky vision--which itself is much more fascinating than either of the films that were made--there's a wealth of information, including concept art--as well as several drafts of the later screenplays--at this great site: Dune: Behind the Scenes.


Swinebread said...

Yes, finally you can commit rough sexual assault on your sister's Ken dolls with your own Baron Harkonnen figure!

Ha ha!

We do not need another Dune...

but we sure need another War of the Worlds don't we!

SamuraiFrog said...

Heh, not if it's anything like the last one!