Following the announcement this week that Denis Villeneuve will direct a new big screen version of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel, what better time to look back at the small screen miniseries from 2001.
Herbert’s best-selling epic, first published in 1965, is a sprawling, intoxicating journey through political machination and mysticism in the year 10,191. In a nutshell, two great houses – the Atreides and Harkonnen – struggle for control of the desert planet Arrakis (aka Dune), the source of a mind-expanding spice that has become the most coveted substance in the universe.
Almost 20 years after the less than favourable reaction that greeted David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation, Dune returned as an ambitious and lavish three-part miniseries. Unlike the movie it was very faithful to Herbert’s novel, with the author’s name added to the title in a bid to legitimise the adaptation in much the same way Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sought to convince us they were the definitive screen treatments. And for the most part, this is justified.
Writer-director John Harrison has reimagined Dune as a colourful pageant (as opposed to the funereal air that permeated Lynch’s vision) captured by the omniscient lens of Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now). Remarkably true to the source novel – no small feat given the complexity of a self-contained universe that rivals Tolkien’s Middle-earth – and adhering to Herbert’s three-act structure, Harrison’s version is a more linear and coherent adaptation than the film’s oblique narrative.
In a novel largely reliant on inner monologues, one of the many criticisms levelled at the movie was that characters spent far too much time talking to themselves. The miniseries dispenses with this device in favour of dialogue, providing a more insightful commentary on the feudal intricacies and messianic prophecies of Herbert’s universe. Moreover, Frank Herbert’s Dune restores the all-important ties that bind future Messiah Paul Atreides (Alec Newman) to his Harkonnen nemesis, beefs up the part of Princess Irulian, and expands the role of the Fremen from mere supporting players to their pivotal role in Muad’dib’s apotheosis.
Fans of the film are unlikely to be thrilled by the new look Guild Navigators and less grotesque floating Baron (Ian McNeice), not to mention the unavoidable compromises dictated by the limitations of television at the time – a lot of the visual effects veer between Babylon 5 and first-generation video games in terms of quality.
Although a more satisfying adaptation narratively (and sometimes visually), Frank Herbert’s Dune shouldn’t be considered a replacement for Lynch’s flawed but fascinating cult movie. Approach it as a more faithful and less perplexing small screen alternative.
Now let’s wait and see what Denis Villenueve can do…