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Ignoring George Lucas's prequels, it took nearly four decades for Star Wars to find its footing again. Its success is due to the amazing production team from Disney, helmed by the great J.J. Abrams. But Star Wars is vulnerable. No longer is the playing field like a narrow stretch of the desert plains of Tatooine. Studios around the world are forever on the search to find the next great sci-fi entertainment dynasty. Failures like John Carter and Jupiter Ascending were attempts at relying upon either less-than-complex storytelling or overly stimulating visuals. There is no need to look further than the greatest sci-fi novel ever made. The pattern changer for science fiction story telling was Frank Herbert’s epic Dune.
The most talked about book in science fiction history. The work voted the best science fiction novel ever by the fans of the genre. Few fields of writing had a book which has rocked the basic foundations of that field as science fiction has with Dune. At a time when the genre had lapsed into the same familiar patterns, again and again, suddenly a story of unheard of depth hit the stands, changing forever the way the field would be viewed both by insiders, and those who had never touched a science fiction novel as well. Not to mention the countless sci-fi movies influenced by Dune.
And yet, for some reason, it took 20 years for this most honored of tales to reach the large screen. In an age when producers scooped up every best-seller the second it proved itself, rushing it as fast as they could into the theaters, Dune took two decades (and over 13,000,000 sales) to finally do the same.
Bringing Dune to the Big Screen
The pitfalls of this amazing story, the troubles it had in becoming a major motion picture, and even a book in the first place, are nearly as interesting as the novel itself. Frank Herbert, ex-newspaperman, ex-Naval jungle survival trainer and ex-oyster diver, created Dune as a planet destined to become a paradise regained.
1965 gave the world Dune. The critics and fans gave Dune both of science fiction’s highest accolades, the Hugo and the Nebula (Dune is one of only four novels to have won both awards). In 1984 those fans were rewarded with Dune, the movie. What this meant for science fiction films in general is open to every sort of speculation.
As noted before, the film had been a long time in coming, but actually, not as long as it might seem. The first attempt to bring Dune to the screen was made in the late 60s. Arthur P. Jacobs (producer of the Planet of the Apes films) bought the rights to make Dune into a film. Herbert had high hopes for what Jacobs was proposing to do with the film, but unfortunately, the producer suffered a fatal heart attack which stopped all activity on the film's production before it could even begin.
After that, it took another seven years before the rights to make the epic story were picked up by another company. This time, radical filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (backed by Michael Seydoux) acquired the option on the book, preparing to make it his breakthrough film (until this time, Jodorowsky had been known only for every avant-garde, but not very commercial pictures—most notably the bizarre religious western, El Topo).
Jodorowsky assembled a fine technical staff, including artists Chris Foss, Jean "Moebius" Giraud, H.R. Giger (designer of all the outworldly effects, including the creature, in Alien), and even Salvador Dali. The team began working in earnest at once, producing an amazing array of breathtaking designs and concepts for the film-to-be. Sadly, though, due to both quarrels between Jodorowsky and Dali, and an ever inflating budget which scared Seydoux into withdrawing financial support (Jodorowsky spent $2 million just on pre-production), Jodorowsky's Dune project slowed and finally died, unable to support itself.
Three years later, Dino DeLaurentiis was able to secure the rights, and work began again. In 1979, DeLaurentiis hired Ridley Scott to put the latest Dune attempt together. Again work began on the seemingly jinxed property. Scott, however, was not to succeed. Many of the themes he sought to introduce into the film not found in the book (including an incestuous relationship between the hero and his mother), did not sit well with the novel’s author; What did not sit well with the DeLaurentiis’s company, however, was Scott's projected budget of $50 million. In 1980, the budget was firmly objected to, Scott left to do Bladerunner, and Dune (and Dino) were again in need of a director, a script—everything.
David Lynch’s Dune
Director David Lynch was chosen for the project. When asked if he would like to create the first film in what Dino hoped would be an ongoing series of Dune films, Lynch readily agreed. In fact, to take the Dune assignment, one which was sure to take more time than any motion picture he had worked on previously, he even turned down the directorial chores on Star Wars Return of the Jedi in favor of a chance to create his own epic.
And thus, four years later, Lynch and DeLaurentiis succeeded where so many had failed in the past. The film, which by no means performed as well as expected and was critically panned, was still destined to create a new era in science fiction films.
For years cheap, rip-off producers have tried to cash in on the work of those trying to create good movies, flooding the market with garbage. Every time they have glutted the marketplace with trash, someone has come along to drive them back. First, Stanley Kubrick come out with 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. The next to drive back the tide was, of course, George Lucas; with Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders, and just his attitudes towards filmmaking in general, he has helped bring about a revival in quality science fiction and fantasy films almost single-handedly.
Finally, it was Dino DeLaurentiis's turn. He took an unprecedented risk in attempting to bring Dune to the screen. He gambled over $40 million in the hopes that science fiction audiences were ready for a story as sprawling, and as complex as this one. He was wrong. Perhaps it was timing. The complexity of Dune today would have green lit a trilogy.
As a book, Dune has changed the face of science fiction literature. It may well be, as it was voted by science fiction fans in 1975, the greatest novel ever written in the genre. The books in the Dune series have received praise from every direction, not just magazines like Galaxy and Analog, but such highly respected mainstream sources as the Washington Post Book World, Booklist, and The Los Angeles Times.
Dune and Modern Science Fiction
As near as anyone could tell at the time, Dune was going to be more than good; Buzz preceding the film was that it was going to be a changing point in time for science fiction films. Like 2001 and Star Wars, Dune appeared to be getting ready to set the world on its collective ear. Unfortunately, it ended up being a minor disappointment—merely another book which, when transformed to the screen somehow lost that magic which made it a bible for millions—rather than the rallying point many hoped it would be. However, there is no doubt that Dune had a major influence on the way science fiction films were made after it. It was a financial failure but it did open a new front in the making of sci-fi films with complex stories.
Today, we live in a world where Disney controls three of the most valuable franchises in the world: Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars. Why not a fourth? Dune. Where is J.J. Abrams when it comes to the sand worms, or Dune’s Muad'dib? Why has Peter Jackson, the great resuscitator of centuries-old work, not been called in to helm what would probably be the most important reboot of a franchise in film history? The blueprint for Dune has been written so many times, and the market’s appetite for such fare has grown exponentially over the last two decades. Is it fear that prevents Steven Spielberg from tackling the great desert planet of Arrakis? All of these great filmmakers have the capacity to perhaps create something new and provocative. And there is no shortage of actors for a Dune reboot.
In the 1970s, long before the internet, fans seemed single-mindedly focused on George Lucas’s epic saga. But with worldwide grosses in excess of billions of dollars, with technology allowing for exceptional feats of image wizardry, and with a fan base that numbers nearly 50 million, it boils down to simple math. The time is now for Dune, the next chapter in science fiction filmmaking history.
As no filmmaker has stepped up to recreate Dune, we must continue to take in the beauty of Arrakis through the classics. Whether you prefer the film or the book, the tale of Dune is one of the greatest ever told, and should be enjoyed by every sci-fi fan.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Frank Herbert's Dune tells the tale of Paul Atreides, who would become the mysterious man known as Muad'Dib. This legendary tale follows his mission to avenge the traitorous plot against his family, and bring mankind's dreams to fruition.
The 1984 film Dune is based on Frank Herbert's novel of the same title. Set in a distant future the year 10191, Dune looks at a time where life in the universe and space travel is dependent upon a spice Melange. This spice is found only on the desert planet Arrakis, where natives await the arrival of their Messiah.