Sunday, March 23, 2014

A potted history of Dune

Much of what we today see as Genre fiction matured in the 1960s, the genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy and the Spy thriller were transmuting via singular creations into the genres we know, read and watch today. (Horror had done half of it's metamorphosis in the 20's with Lovecraft, much of the modern genre is based on those who drew from him in the 1970s; King, Campbell etc)  Speculative fiction was a divided genre before the 60s, between Hard Science fiction and the pulpier realms of Space Opera (a descriptor for "bad" sci fi up until the 70s), the schlock of the "Creature feature" and Planetary Romance (Edgar Rice Burroughs is the most classic example of this). What we think of as fantasy fiction was not a genre in an of itself, Sword and Sorcery was just a sub genre of Speculative fiction and a lot of Planetary Romance and Space operas contained extensive elements we today would call "Fantasy". "The Lord of the Rings" started to gain a lot of popularity in the 1960s and helped the Fantasy genre crystallize more as it's own entity with this popularity, and while Hard SF quite happily moved along at it's own pace the rest of the Speculative fiction genre would be transformed in the same was as Sword and Sorcery would be. In 1963 Frank Herbert would start serializing Dune in Analogue magazine as "Dune World" and "Prophet of Dune". Herbert's work was a distillation of the Planetary Romance genre tinged with the growing literary sophistication that Genre fiction was gaining. Herbert very distinctively puts the Science of Science fiction in the back seat to sophisticated societies and characters much in the way Heinlein had in "Stranger in a Strange land" and "Glory Road". Indeed instead of a technological advance, Dune focused on the development of the human body and mind as its Sci Fi anchor. This aspect, along with its mix of eastern mythology and mysticism almost guaranteed it success in the late 1960s.
The version of the book cover above is the one I came to know as "Dune" as a child and eventually reading as a Teenager. It is one of the most uniquely written novels, in both its style and prose, in the canon of science fiction. Even Herbert's later Dune novels do not manage to capture the feel of the original novel whose concepts and sophisticated narrative structure caused many to deem it unfilmable. Like "The Lord of the Rings", "Dune" was a great holy grail of film making, many would try and many more would fail utterly to adapt it. While Tolkien's work would eventually see a successful adaptation in the digital age, Dune is still without what could be called a "successful" adaptation to another medium.
In many ways Dune was an even more difficult task than "Lord of the Rings". While LotR's scale and length posed a difficulty that was eventually overcome, Dune was not just a matter of special effects or story length. The structure of the novel itself; the number of characters, plots and ideas make it an incredible task to adapt to film or other visual medium. (The book has a Glossary for example, as many concepts are not explained as part of narrative. An impossibility especially as film making has become less articulate not more over the decades)
Attempts to make a filmic version of Dune started in 1971 before passing into the hands Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky's failed attempt is as legendary for its ambition as it was for its outlandish cost and cast. Three years in pre production and the project fell apart, the rights being picked up by Dino De Laurentiis. De Laurentiis made several attempts to get the project off the ground, penciling in Ridley Scott to direct at one point. Finally the De Laurentiis adaptation saw screen in David Lynch's hands, and was a critical and commercial failure. Herbert wrote sequels up until Chapterhouse Dune in 1985. 2000 saw a new adaptation by the Sci Fi network, this time a television mini series. The First two sequel novels were adapted by Sci Fi in 2003 as Children of Dune.
Frank Herbert's son Brian has penned a number of sequels and prequels based on his father's notes since 1999, to considerable commercial and mixed critical success. Paramount attempted to get another film adaptation off the ground in 2008, but after being stuck in development hell for three years the project was dropped in 2011.

So next time we will be looking at the first adaptation to make it to screen, 1983's epic flop by David Lynch/Alan Smithie. How bad was it? Why did it go wrong? Are the alternate cuts any better? Stay tuned to this filmbook next week and see....