Revisiting the Bomb: David Lynch’s Dune at 30

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Thirteen turned out to be an unlucky number indeed for producer Dino de Laurentiis’s longsuffering adaptation of Frank Herbert’s bestselling science-fiction novel Dune. Stuck in development hell since 1971, the project finally got off the ground in time for a December release thirteen years later, with Eraserhead director David Lynch at the helm. Reaction was, to put it politely, very negative.

Despite a host of well-known supporting actors, including Max von Sydow as Liet-Kynes, Sting as Feyd-Rautha, and Jose Ferrer as the Emperor, Dune was a failure at the box-office, leaving Universal Pictures nearly $10 million in the red by the time it ended its theatrical run in early 1985. Critics largely perceived Lynch’s film as a disjointed, incoherent mess of a movie. Fans of Herbert’s novel, irritated at the liberties taken with the source material, were less than enthused.

The first of the two complaints is easily understandable. Dune is a novel famous for its political intricacies, boasting page after page of scheming and manipulation as the conflict between two noble families, the virtuous Atreides and the villainous Harkonnens, comes to a head on Arrakis, the desert planet that serves as the sole source of the galaxy’s most precious commodity. When the book was adapted as a six-hour, made-for-television miniseries in 2000, the subtleties of motivation and strategy were able to be conveyed with significant breathing room. With the time constraints of a two-hour film, however, much gets lost in translation. Themes developed across hundreds of pages and years of story in the book, such as the Emperor’s illicit collaboration with the Harkonnens in their bid to oust the Atreides from Arrakis, are condensed into a few minutes of painful infodump dialogue.

lynch1aMore than that, though, the book simplifies characters as well as plot. Duke Leto Atreides, father of our central character Paul, is sadly flattened. Herbert’s depiction of Duke Leto is complex and multifaceted, painting a portrait of a man caught between the detached reserve of nobility and an earnest love for his people, his son, and his Lady Jessica. Lynch’s Leto, by contrast, is all one and none of the other, reduced to a caricature of a dignified aristocrat.

“The whole theory of warfare is calculated risk,” Leto says in the book, “but when it comes to risking your own family, the element of calculation gets submerged in… other things.”1

Not only is Leto’s reluctance to risk his family largely left out of this adaptation, his capacity for calculation is almost completely absent as well. The duke, portrayed here by Jürgen Prochnow, relies on his lieutenants to dictate his strategy on Arrakis. The initiative in planning that Leto took upon himself in the book is delegated to the mentat Thufir Hawat, or to weapons master Duncan Idaho, in the few scenes of this nature that survived final cut.

More significantly, the scene in Herbert’s novel which most reveals Leto’s character is cut from Lynch’s film entirely. Having taken over the great hall at the capital city of Arrakeen, Leto is disturbed to learn of a custom instituted by the Harkonnens during their rule of the planet:

“Flanking the doorway in which he stood were broad laving basins of ornate yellow and green tile. Each basin had its rack of towels. It was the custom, the housekeeper had explained, for guests as they entered to dip their hands into a basin, slop several cups of water onto the floor, dry their hands on a towel and fling the towel into the growing puddle at the door. After the dinner, beggars gathered outside to get the water squeezings from the towels.”2

Appalled at this display of cruelty to the inhabitants of the water-starved planet, Leto orders this custom abolished, and instead decrees that beggars be given as much water as they can carry, fresh from the basins. Without the depth demonstrated by this act, Leto in Lynch’s film seems little more than yet another ruler as detached from the needs of the people as the Harkonnens, indifferent to their plight if not actively oppressive.3

lynch1dAnd when the Harkonnens finally execute their plot, when Leto is killed and Paul and his mother Jessica flee into the deep desert and take refuge with the native Fremen, things change again, though this time in more subtle ways. The prophecy of the Mahdi, an offworlder who would nonetheless become the savior of the Fremen, plays a far smaller role here than in the novel. The Paul who rises to become the leader of the Fremen in this book is much more political, negotiating with them and offering to lead them to overthrow their hated Harkonnen overlords. For the time being, his status as religious leader seems a mere afterthought in comparison.

Indeed, the main bargaining chip Paul uses to gain the loyalty of the Fremen is his knowledge of the weirding modules, a type of weapon stockpiled by his father in anticipation of the conspiracy that became his undoing. The weirding module fulfills a strange role indeed in Lynch’s film. Where the book focused on Paul’s Bene Gesserit and mentat training, which allowed him to instill the Fremen with mentat-level strategy and Atreides swordmaster Duncan Idaho’s fighting abilities, Lynch has again chosen to simplify things, crediting the Fremen’s combat success almost solely to the weirding modules, a piece of technology totally absent from the source material.

However, the fatal flaw in Lynch’s Dune comes not in the addition of the weirding modules, nor in the simplifying of the political dynamics surrounding the plot against the Atreides. Where the film most betrays an inattention to its source material is at the very end, when Paul Atreides, known as Muad’Dib and Mahdi to the Fremen who now follow him, Kwisatz Haderach to the Bene Gesserit, causes rain to fall on Arrakis for the first time in centuries. In the driest desert in the universe, the god-man Muad’Dib brings water into existence, foreshadowing (we can imagine) the transformation of the planet explored by Herbert in subsequent volumes.

The problem is, not only didn’t Paul do this in Herbert’s Dune, this wasn’t even something he could have done in Herbert’s Dune. Herbert’s Muad’Dib was anything but a god-man. The world of the Dune Chronicles is very much a rational one; nature itself predominates and limits the characters at every moment. From the simple problem of evaporation (stillsuits) to the intricacies of quantum mechanics (the Uncertainty Principle and Paul’s future-blindness in the second book), the laws of physics are as much an obstacle to the characters as the warring families are to each other.

It’s easy to mistake Dune as a book about the supernatural. For some it may take two or three readings to get at what Herbert’s real intention was in his depiction of spirituality. The issue of manipulation and power vis a vis religion permeates every page of the Chronicles, but if you go looking for truly supernatural occurrences, mystical events more at home in a fantasy novel than a sci-fi epic, you will soon find yourself disappointed. In a sense, Dune is the story of mysticism in a world without real mysticism, where the so-called gods are as subject to the whims of time and fate as anyone else. It is a world like our own, where religion has been wielded time and again as a tool of political power, and the real truth remains as inaccessible for the deified Muad’Dib as it does for us.

The question of the Bene Gesserit possessing true extrasensory perception comes up again and again, especially in the first book, and every time the notion is discounted. The Bene Gesserit are not mind-readers; their powers are wholly empirical, their natural power of observation developed to a degree unheard of among those they might term “animals.” The same is true, in a broader sense, of the mentats. And the Spacing Guild navigators, who seem to violate Special Relativity with their folding of space-time, are nothing more than hyperconscious beings, moved to an awareness of the universe itself by their exposure to the spice.

Even Paul’s prescient visions of the future, which prove to be, along with the protection of his mother, one of his driving motivations in the first book, are nothing more than an extension of what Herbert sees as an innate and natural human awareness. Like that of the navigators, Paul’s consciousness has become non-localized. Where the navigators see across vast tracts of space, Paul looks across time, viewing an area of possible–and, indeed, inevitable–quantum worldlines.

lynch1eBut when he observes the future, as Paul learns too late, he sets it in stone. The rise of the Fedaykin and their bloody galactic jihad is nothing more than a manifestation of Many Worlds Theory, a well-established model of quantum physics that by the 1960s had gained widespread acceptance in the scientific community. Like Schrodinger’s cat, the question of the jihad was in a state of existential uncertainty until Paul “opened the box,” peering through time in his contact with the Water of Life. When Paul saw the jihad in his visions, he saw a dead cat, and in scientific terminology, the waveform collapsed. The issue was settled.

In Children of Dune, Leto Atreides II makes an oblique reference to this fact when he discusses “their father’s mistake.” When he and his sister Ghanima refuse to consent to a mélange overdose, it is not for fear of becoming like their father in the sense of being hailed as god-tyrants. Rather, they seek to avoid prescience itself. Through the combined knowledge of their ancestors, to which they have unfettered access, they see the wisdom in letting the future alone, in avoiding that which became Muad’Dib’s downfall. They fear, perhaps, that they may see something even worse than their father’s jihad, and that issue too will be settled.

At every point, the world of Dune is caught up in real-world problems of physics. No matter how fantastical the stage on which they play out, and no matter how unexplained the mysterious qualities of mélange, it is clear that the spice does nothing more than put its user deeper into touch with the fabric of reality. Apart from the observer effect, referenced by Leto II himself when he cites the name of Heisenberg, the characters do not act upon reality in any mysterious way. Like the Bene Gesserit, like the mentats, and like the navigators, Paul is aware of the universe in a totally unique way, but he cannot change the laws of that universe. Paul could not bring water into existence on Arrakis any more than another mere mortal could summon blood from a stone here on Old Earth.

By taking the man Muad’Dib and making him into the god Muad’Dib, the climactic scene of David Lynch’s adaptation represents a total departure from Herbert’s conception of Paul’s abilities. Where the novel reads like a historical account of the beginnings of Muad’Dib’s religion, the film could as easily be a kind of futuristic gospel, the mundane aspects of its hero’s life subsumed beneath a mythologized veneer. Here Paul is portrayed not as what he was, but as what the Fremen thought him to be. In Herbert’s own words, “Paul was a man playing god, not a god who could make it rain.”4

lynch1cAnd Alia’s declaration that this feat proves his status as the Kwisatz Haderach again betrays the screenplay’s ignorance of the subtleties of Herbert’s novel. The Bene Gesserit did not look forward to the Kwisatz Haderach as some future messianic holy man or miracle worker. The Kwisatz Haderach was the foreseen end result of their breeding program, a male capable of catalyzing the Bene Gesserit’s sensory abilities in a powerful way, allowing him to attain a total awareness and control of time itself. There was no “prophecy” to be fulfilled as such, any more than Franklin Roosevelt “prophesied” the end of the Great Depression by instituting the New Deal. It was an end goal to be reached, not a vague future promise to be hoped for.

Even if Paul had brought rain to Arrakis–even if he were capable of this miracle–it would be nothing more than a confusing and likely terrifying development for the Bene Gesserit. The abilities Paul the Rainmaker demonstrates are far removed from any Paul-Muad’Dib possesses in the novel, and they are certainly outside the realm of anything the Sisterhood could comprehend. They would be as befuddled as the superstitious Fremen. The Bene Gesserit sought to inculcate native populations with the prophecies of the Missionaria Protectiva, planning for the day when these myths may one day come to the aid of one of their sisters and a “human” male, but they never bought their own hype, and they never saw their invented tales as prophecies, supernatural in content or origin. The major subject of Dune is religion-as-power, not religion-as-truth.

Still, it’s important to remember that not every change Lynch made was for the worse. While the weirding modules were an unneeded and, frankly, bizarre addition to the novel’s plot, the way they are utilized in the film goes a long way toward making up for some of the filmmakers’ oversights. The issue of the jihad, a religious crusade waged throughout the universe in Paul’s name, foreseen from about the halfway point of the novel in Paul’s prescient visions, is sadly underdeveloped in this film. It is mentioned, but its significance is left hanging, and by the end it is nearly forgotten. The internal monologues that recur throughout the first half of the film taper off as the action rises, and we lose touch with Paul’s unspoken feelings on his place in the universe at a point where the book places those feelings front and center.

The weirding modules, however, turn this lack of introspection ever-so-slightly on its head. These exotic devices allow Paul’s Fedaykin shock-troops to utilize sound as a weapon against the Harkonnens and the Imperial Sardaukar, and one of the troops’ favorite vocalizations to inflict death on the enemy soon becomes Paul’s nom de guerreMuad’Dib. As the Fremen begin spreading death and destruction, quite literally in Paul’s name, we can see the wheels begin to turn in his head. Like the glimpses of the jihad in the novel, this development catalyzes Paul’s feeling of terrible purpose and terrible power, not only over the Fremen but over life and death, and the universe itself. Kyle MacLachlan plays this scene magnificently, and Lynch’s screenplay perfectly distills the mood of Herbert’s novel, if only for a moment. “My name,” MacLachlan says, “is a killing word.” This line sounds like something Herbert would have written, and he is not an easy writer to imitate.

In the thirty years since its release, Lynch’s Dune has taken a lot of flak, both from critics and from fans of the novels. Viewed as a whole, though, the film is not as bad an adaptation as some have made it out to be. Many of the special effects, already perceived as cheap and schlocky in 1984, have not aged well, and Lynch’s fundamental misunderstanding of Paul’s abilities results in a bewildering deus ex machina ending. In broad strokes, though, the important parts of Herbert’s novel are all present and accounted for, and the tone of the book comes across even at the moments of greatest deviation from the specifics of the plot.

The screenplay is almost laughably faithful to the novel’s dialogue, especially in the first half. In his sci-fi debut just three years before the launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Patrick Stewart nails the jovial-but-solemn, loyal-but-playful attitude of troubadour-warrior Gurney Halleck, and Dean Stockwell’s portrayal of the traitorous Dr. Yueh avoids the sinister one-dimensionality that other actors may have brought to the role. Even Kyle MacLachlan, a full decade older than Herbert’s fifteen-year-old ducal heir, brings the heart and soul of the character to the screen whenever the script allows it.

While it is certainly not perfect, and while the Sci-Fi Channel’s miniseries adaptation sixteen years later would do a far better job of translating Herbert’s world into visuals, David Lynch’s Dune holds its own in surprising ways. Critics and those unfamiliar with the books may come away confused, but for those who know the 1965 novel well, this is a film with as many pros as cons.

  1. Herbert, Frank. Dune. 1965. New York: Ace. p. 82
  2. Dune, p. 127
  3. Interestingly, the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries includes this scene, but with the significant alteration that the change in custom is initiated by the Lady Jessica, not Duke Leto. This change is every bit as unnecessary as the scene’s omission, but the longer format of the miniseries allows Leto’s character to be developed further, in other scenes also omitted by Lynch.
  4. Herbert, Frank. Introduction to Eye (1985).
About Evan Henry (257 Articles)
Evan Henry is a graduate student in English at the University of Virginia, where he works on the legacy of eugenics and scientific racism in American pop culture. As Head of Publishing for Black Ship Books he seeks to further social analysis of popular culture and develop new and unique voices in both creative and critical writing. His credits include Broken Frontier, the Virginia Literary Review, and numerous small publishers of fantasy and science fiction. His short story collection The Great City will be released this summer.
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