Sunday, April 20, 2014

What I'm watching now: Frank Herbert's Dune (2000 mini series)

Next we come to the Sci Fi channel mini series version of Frank Herbert's Dune, directed and written by John Harrison. Just like the 1984 film adaption the 2000 mini series creates strong opinions in fans of the original novel, it is both applauded with doing so much with a limited budget and derided for poor effects work and pacing.
Much like many early drafts of the 1984 version, the mini series is a massive undertaking, clocking in at almost five hours long. In many ways it follows a similar path to the movie, it focuses very heavily on Paul's journey from man to messiah, but the extra screen length of the mini series format allows the motivations of other characters to be explored more fully. (Or does it? That's an issue I will get to below...)
Being a mini series we do need to look past issues of budget just a little, in 2000 CG was still very primitive and the huge battle sequences of the Lynch film could not be reproduced in any real way. The CG that is used is fine, and for the most part somewhat less effective than the model work of the original. Same with the acting, the talent gathered for a Sci Fi channel mini series was never going to be near the cast Lynch put together his for Dune. (Srsly Dean Stockwell, Patrick Steward, Sean Young, Max Von Sydow, J├╝rgen Prochnow etc etc etc) So I want to focus primarily on where this adaptation could improve on the film; script, plotting, pacing and communicating the complex narrative of the novel. The rest, FX, Costumes, sets are really low hanging fruit. 
John Harrison's adaptation is often held up as a more faithful version of Herbert's novel by it's fans; I'm not sure that is the exact word I would use. A more comprehensive adaptation maybe, but it suffers from many issues caused by the Transliteration of the text into another medium. While the plot of the novel is there, much of the dialogue has been reworked for a contemporary audience and to remove or explain some of the novel's more obscure and complex elements. The most glaring example I can think of is the begging, like Lynch the film starts in a slightly different spot and reorders the events pre departure for Arrakis. However if you cut the 1984 film's version's much debated Guild Navagator scene, Lynch's version is closer to the novel. Paul in fact starts the mini series complaining about his duty and how he never sees his father to Jessica, a scene that feels just odd in this particular universe. Alec Newman brings a much more leading man element to Paul in his depiction, as opposed to the awakening man child as depicted by Kyle MacLachlan, and this also does not sit well with the world. These little changes are littered throughout, from Princess Irulan visiting Arakkis and meeting Paul, to the almost totally removal (again) of the Fenrings as characters.
What rings even stranger is that many of the scenes (such as the Test of the Box) are almost shot for shot remakes of Lynch's scenes from the 1984 film and almost totally drained of any gravitas by very flat direction. The battle for Arrakine is almost totally non existent, a good choice as the series budget would not have been able to create the sort of battle scenes needed, but the few scenes of the battle we do see have a muzak version of Toto's score from the 1984 film under them. I'm not sure how deliberate these echoes back to the Lynch version are, but they are everywhere and always come of not quite as good.
The length allows Harrison to do very well by two very pivotal characters who are both in many ways better than their 1984 counterparts. The primary one is the Baron Harkonnan, who is given much more room to breath and exist in this version. His scheme to use the Emperor to rid himself of the Atredis and elevate his house (via Feyd) to its former glory is better presented and explained here. He is not simply an existential evil, he is a cunning an dangerous mastermind. Although even when this is going well, the poor direction of the series drags him down, such as the moments when he breaks the forth wall at various points. (Also what the hell is up with the pronunciation of Harkonnan? Lynch had Herbert on set so we can assume he got it right. So why change it when the version that had the author as a direct consultant and all other media seems to pronounce it the other way...?)  The other is the Lady Jessica who seems to just fade into the background after going into the desert in the film version. Jessica as a character is much more felt out, more proactive and intelligent. She is given much more to do and interacts with many characters to move the story outside of Paul's rise.
Many of the minor flaws could be overlooked, but the pace of the piece is just so glacial, something that I would forgive if it was in order to present the story more completely. But the story is changed, many things are still omitted and additional scenes are added. While this is a more complete telling of the story, it still isn't quite there.