Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Point of the Movie 'Dune' (1984)

A few weeks back for the first time in ages I watched the movie 'Dune' (1984) and as is my habit on this blog it triggered off memories of an irritation associated with the movie that I felt a desire to air.  That irritation came not from the movie itself, but from the critiques of it.  I remember a friend of mine back in the late 1980s and early 1990s who could not hear reference to the movie without complaining that it was 'a torso', too heavily edited to allow it to be rational.  I have read and heard similar criticisms that it diverges away from the novel.  That latter comment seems to be levelled at any television or movie telling of a well-known book whether it be the Sharpe or Hornblower series on television or the Harry Potter movies.  Whilst modern technology allows the creation of very elaborate settings, what can be conjured up in words on a page will always exceed even what can be produced using the latest CGI technology, though the gap is far narrower than it was even a decade ago let alone back in the 1980s. 

People mistakenly think that movies are vast and can encompass a novel.  This is generally not the case.  You can make a movie of a short story or a slim novel.  A classic Agatha Christie novel of 60-70,000 words provides more than enough for a full-length movie, of 90 minutes to 2 hours' duration.  The first novel in the 'Dune' series, i.e. 'Dune' (1965) written by Frank Herbert (1920-86) is 412 pages long, at my estimate probably 100,000 words, which could easily supply a 3 hour long movie even if the content was not as complex as it is in 'Dune'.  A detective story such as Christie's often use stereotypes and tropes, and in the movies even casting particular actors in certain roles, in order to speed up the audience's engagement with what we are being introduced to.  Look at 'The Lord of the Rings' cycle.  The books are not as long as the Dune books and certainly not the Harry Potter books (usually 700-800 pages long) but because of the setting and parallel stories this provided enough material for 9 hours' worth of movie (2001-3).  Making the eight Harry Potter movies (2001-12) based on seven such lengthy novels has needed the suppression of sub-plots and removal of certain characters and even then you are left with lengthy movies.  Since the mid-1960s the length of novels has grown and now whereas 200 pages would be the norm now 400-800 pages is typical; naturally this will impinge on any visual media production based on them.

The average novel these days needs a mini-series to give it a worthwhile airing and this is ultimately what has happened to 'Dune' with 'Frank Herbert's Dune' in 2000 running at 4-5 hours in total depending on the version you watch.  The second and third novels in the series ('Dune Messiah' (1969) and 'Children of Dune' (1976)) formed the basis of a 2003 mini-series 'Frank Herbert's Children of Dune' which was another 4 hours in duration.  So, you might say, 'alright contemporary novels are too large to make the basis of a movie so David Lynch should not have bothered with his 1984 effort'.  This is where today's posting comes in.  My view and I certainly am not alone in this, is that the 1984 movie was worthwhile simply because it was tight.

The key problem with the Dune series is that certain elements are greater than the sum of its parts.  Herbert is best as an author in his short work not in the bloated novels that came from the success of the first Dune book.  After 'Children of Dune' there was 'God Emperor of Dune' (1981), 'Heretics of Dune' (1984) and 'Chapterhouse: Dune' (1985).  I read all these books in a single year in the 1990s and soon lost the will to continue; I only completed them because I had bought them and in the hope that they would recapture the original excitement, the failed to do so.  They are overloaded with stodgy text and the ideas run out.  By the end even though people say the final book is a 'cliffhanger' you basically do not care what happens next, all the life has been sucked out of the concepts.  Of course, financially it was in Herbert's interests to keep writing because these books were bestsellers, but I believe that they would be more appreciated if there had only ever been the first book.  There are some sparky passages but everything quickly becomes laboured which is not surprising when you have covered thousands of pages even if they straddle centuries.  Thus, a movie of just over 2 hours to almost 3 hours, depending on which cut you watch, keeps the flabbiness down and concentrates on the elements which drew readers to Herbert's work in the first place.  Interestingly Herbert seems to have known this himself.  Wikipedia gives an interesting quote from Herbert when interviewed by Kevin J. Anderson, saying 'They've got it. It begins as Dune does. And I hear my dialogue all the way through. There are some interpretations and liberties, but you're gonna come out knowing you've seen Dune.'  Herbert was more supportive of the movie than many of his fans.

The trouble is that the Dune series like The Lord of the Rings and to a lesser extent, the Harry Potter stories, has almost become the property of the fanatical fans who love nothing than to pore over the minutiae so as to eke out the buzz they first got from engaging with the stories.   It is unsurprising that there was 'The Dune Encyclopedia' (1984) which was like an encyclopedia of a real universe and in some ways with its short (and not so short entries) is more readable than the novels.  In addition, Herbert's son, Brian and Kevin J. Anderson have produced prequels 'Dune: House Atreides' (1999), 'Dune: House Harkonnen' (2000) and 'Dune: House Corrino' (2001) set a short time before 'Dune'; 'Dune: The Butlerian Jihad' (2002), 'Dune: The Machine Crusade' (2003), and 'Dune: The Battle of Corrin' (2004) set 10,000 years before 'Dune' and then two books which drawing on Frank Herbert's notes apparently complete the first cycle: 'Hunters of Dune' (2006) and 'Sandworms of Dune' (2007).  Then there are the so-called 'interquels', books set between events shown in the original five books: 'Paul of Dune' (2008), 'The Winds of Dune' (2009) with two others promised.  The pair have also written four short stories set in the Dune universe.  A phrase involving a dead horse and flogging comes to mind.  However, it is clear that there is such a loyal fanbase that these things can continue to be produced.  Saying that I cannot comment on the quality not having read any of the Herbert & Anderson books and I accept they may be good in their own right.  However, this focus on all the tiny details and exploring these as far as is humanly possible is why the 1984 movie is then seen as being dismembered or not being sufficiently authentic.

In this context I want to stick up for the movie.  I think Lynch with his eye for the visually striking was ideal as director for this movie.  He kept it pacy and though it is rather front loaded in terms of setting the context of the struggles between House Harkonnen (backed by the galactic emperor) and House Atreides which has spawned a messiah, this pays off and to have adhered to the book too closely would have meant rather repetitive battle scenes at the end.  Herbert conjures up a wealth of characters with a range of motivations.  While some of them are typical they do catch our attention and Lynch communicates this with who he selects to play them and thus I believe derives the true essence of 'Dune' rather than the blow-by-blow reproduction that many fans seemed to expect but would have been tedious.

Herbert engaged readers by conjuring up a universe which differed from what they expected from a science fiction story and remember he did this in 1965 before the appearance of the more experimental science fiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s in my mind focused in particular on Michael Moorcock.  Herbert was an antidote to the hard science Asimovian science fiction.  He showed a universe with many parallels to our own.  The houses remind us of Renaissance Italy city-states with a different family ruling a planet, though with a Russian-Polish-German styling (well captured by Lynch) even their council is called the Landsraad (very similar to the German Landsrat). 

The bulk of Herbert's influences, however, come from the Middle East.  Remember this was a time in which the word 'jihad' was unknown to most of Europe and the USA and no-one had heard of units like Fedaykin (from Feda'yin) certainly far fewer among the US population than post-colonial Britain which had until recently ruled over Iraq, Jordan and Palestine.  Arrakis is a desert planet and the obsession over the narcotic melange, 'spice', can easily be seen as an analogy to oil in the Middle East; the spice even helps space travel in the way oil processed allowed road, rail, sea and air travel on Earth in the post-war period.  The emperor of the galaxy is the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV.  Padishah is the Farsi (i.e. Iranian) word for 'great king' ; it was also applied to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  Now Saddam Hussein is well-remembered we can see a name not too far from his in this emperor of Herbert's books.  Iran was the focus of tensions between the Russians and the British and then in the Cold War between the Soviets and the Americans; control of oil was the issue.  It is easy for an American author writing at the height of the Cold War to have the Harkonnens as some stand-ins for the USSR and the Atreides as more Anglo-American in approach. 

Of course, being a decent author, Herbert does not make a simple analogy and everyone can see other parallels from the region, notably between the rise of Paul Atreides to be leader of the Fremen people of Arakkis and the career of the British officer T.E. Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia') who led the Arabs in the overthrow of their Ottoman rulers during the First World War.  David Lean's movie 'Lawrence of Arabia' was released in 1962, just three years before 'Dune' was published.  Yet again, though, Herbert mixes in other elements and though the Fremen might be considered to be parallel to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) formed in 1964; one can also see parallels to the Jewish terrorist groups trying to expel the British from Palestine in order to establish the state of Israel in 1948; especially in terms of the female fighters, notably Chani (it is an Jewish contraction of the name Channah [who in the Old Testament is the mother of Samuel and wife of Elkanahr] which was a traditional one among Jewish women; the women called Chani these days, especially in the USA seem predominantly to have been named that due to the Dune series) who ultimately becomes Paul Atreides's wife.  There is a feminist critique of the Dune series in that the women appear mainly as 'witches' shown predominantly as members of the Bene Gesserit clairvoyant order and other female roles such as the emperor's daughter and other noblewomen are characteristic of medieval/early modern roles, e.g. either as abbesses or as consorts to produce heirs.  Even Chani ends up in such a role though she is an active freedom fighter too.  Saying that Herbert was writing in the mid-1960s before the feminist movement had taken off and his women are certainly a step on from the more brainless beauties of some of the science fiction around at the time.

By weaving together unfamiliar references to the 20th century Middle East with elements from 19th century and Renaissance Europe, Herbert was able to create a real flavour for his science fiction, which is clear engaged people in the way that J.R.R. Tolkien did through using Nordic legends to create his Middle Earth.  Herbert intentionally stepped away from the 'hard' science fiction and whilst there are laser guns and spaceships there are elements that emphasise the non-technical.  Following the Butlerian Jihad ten centuries before what is shown in 'Dune' technology is held in suspicion (after a machine ordered the termination of a foetus, topic which clearly chimes with many in the USA) and so other methods are used.  Notable are the mentats, i.e. human computers whose minds are accelerated by an addictive narcotic.  Of course, before the 1940s the word 'computer' in our world did not refer to a machine but to a person who did calculations.  The Atreides develop sonic rather than laser weapons, powered by trigger words.  Herbert refers to Zen Buddhism (and even creates a philosophy Zensunni combining Zen with Sunni strain of Islam) and the shout (kihai) a person doing Karate makes when they strike can easily be seen as being a parallel of this.  In individual combat people have personal force shields that bounce off laser fire or fast moving bullets, only a slowly moving blade or boring bullet can penetrate, so allowing individual combat back into a science fiction setting (and one can see parallels in the light sabre combat of the Star Wars series).  This is a useful device because it allows old fashioned heroics back into science fiction stories.  For space travel, space is 'folded' by the mutant pilots of the Guild.  The use of wormholes and folding of space is now part of mainstream astronomical physics discussions with people such as Stephen Hawking talking about them.  Herbert as any good science fiction writer has extrapolated ideas that began coming out with Albert Einstein and interestingly developed them in a direction which science has subsequently explored.

Thus we have a rich setting that even now differs from a lot of science fiction we see.  I feel David Lynch captures that context and certainly makes it visually stunning. The scene of Shaddam IV in audience with a Guild pilot who arrives in a very steampunk holding tank surrounded by engineered attendants sums this up.  A lot of the sets have a steampunk/dieselpunk feel to them suggesting that high technology can become baroque as time passes a trend that is alive now even stronger than in the 1980s. 

The Harkonnen are shown as exploitative and evil.  They are also polluters and this puts them out of step with the Fremen and to some lesser extent the Atreides who are more in step with their environment.  The bloated, infected Baron Harkonnen whilst being in the model of bad guys of the past takes it to a new clinical level in the movie.  His subjects are fitted with plugs in their hearts which can be removed at a whim instantly killing the victim; which the baron does to one servant early on for the fun of it.  Harkonnen manipulates Dr. Wellington Yueh into betraying the Atreides by torturing his wife.  Capturing the Atreides mentat, Thufir Hawat, Harkonnen enslaves him by introducing a slow-acting poison into his body.  Lynch does wonderfully in showing us quickly the setting of these people and their behaviour.  The same applies throughout with the Atreides and the Fremen, we can quickly engage with groups rivalling for the control of resources.  This is not dismembered, this is trying to communicate something new to us efficiently.  Even those who had read the novels need to be able to engage with how the movie presents such things.

Lynch is served by some good actors, notably Freddie Jones as Hawat and Dean Stockwell as Yueh, both, along with Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides were long-term collaborators with Lynch.  Other notable players are Kenneth Macmillan as Baron Harkonnen. Sting as his nephew Feyd Rautha, Patrick Stewart as Atreides officer Gurney Halleck and not bad is Max von Sydow as environmental scientist Dr. Kynes.  Sean Young is good as Chani but gets too little screen time.  The romance between Chani and Paul is the one element people regret being edited out, but I suppose that it would have been seen to slow the action element of the movie which takes off once Paul is rescued by the Fremen.  The weakest acting comes from Jose Ferrer as the emperor, perhaps because he is underwritten and from both MacLachlan and Jürgen Prochnow as Paul's father Duke Leto Atreides.  Francesca Annis as his concubine and Paul's mother, Jessica about passes.  I think part of the problem is that the as the 'good guys' the Atreides appear weak in the shadow of the horrific Harkonnen, but that is a flaw of the original material as much as of the screenplay.

Given the technological limitations of 1984 Lynch is able to give us bloated mutants folding space and 'worms' as large as office blocks and as long as a street rising up from the sands of Arakkis.  There are hundreds of troops battling and in the climax of the movie we feel the epic conflict of the style of 'Lawrence of Arabia'.  This contrasts with the claustrophobia of the earlier phases of the movie in the corridors of various palaces and even underground among the Fremen.  In a movie the length of  'Dune'; in one hours longer no-one could encompass everything from the novel, but Lynch succeeds in both giving us the main elements of the novel and showing us a large dose of its intriguing style.  I am sure a lot of people have been encouraged to read the novel off the back of seeing the movie.  The trouble for Herbert's legacy was that he was too successful too soon.  Winning the Hugo and Nebula awards right off meant no-one was going to restrain him and we ended up with a bloated series that means the gems of ideas and portrayals of people, places and actions are lost in all the bulk.  Tighter, more edited novels would have continued the impact of the first much more effectively.  Hence I feel that Lynch's 'Dune', rather than being a dismembered 'torso' of a movie is in fact a distilled essence that brings out the talent of Herbert's imagination effectively.

1 comment:

yellowdingo said...

I know the movie and the book. I found the Book to be more of an insight into christian occupation of the holy land in the medieval period - with european ruled states partitioning its fringes.

I regard the '84 Dune to be a Scifi founded on that base but the Novel has all the politics of the real world and for me thats what will always make it different from the movie. They were both good experieces for me.