Spice World: The Many Versions of Frank Herbert’s Dune

Audio Renaissance presents Frank Herbert's DuneI’ve been a little Dune-crazy over the past couple of weeks. It all started when I stumbled across the Audio Renaissance production of Dune on CD at the local library. Several weeks of 15-minute (and occasionally longer) chunks of audio later I finished the 18-CD production. I followed that with the 1984 film version directed by David Lynch and starring Kyle MacLa…McLach…Maclach…Jürgen Prochnow. Two hours and seventeen minutes later, ((This is the theatrical running time of Lynch’s version. An “extended version” edited for television adds another 30 minutes, but I decided to stick with the original this time.)) I started watching the miniseries produced by the SciFi Channel in 2000.

That’s a lot of sand.

In fact, it’s just under twenty-nine hours of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the weirding way, the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, CHOAM, Fremen, carryalls, Shai-Hulud, Paul Muad’Dib and above all, the spice melange. If you add the time I spent poring through the Dune Wiki, I’m sure my total time invested in matters relating to the desert planet Arrakis is well over thirty hours.

Oops, almost forgot: I installed Emperor: Battle for Dune on my PC, too. Might as well tack on another two or three hours of playtime (so far) to that total.

So, how do the various iterations of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction masterpiece measure up against one another?

Frank Herbert's DuneLet’s start with the book: I’ve never finished it. Like Stephen King’s The Stand, the first volume of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and The Bible, ((NIV Study Version)) Dune is a book that I’ve started multiple times but have never managed to finish. In fact, I’ve got all six of Herbert’s original Dune novels in paperback but I’ve only ever read the first half of the first volume. I consider this an abyssmal failure on my part and it almost certainly reveals a fatal character flaw.

Fortunately, I’m of the opinion that listening to the unabridged audio version of a novel counts as reading it ((That assertion is certainly up for debate, but I already know which way I’ll cast my vote should the issue ever appear on the ballot, and there’s little anyone can say to sway me.)) and, as far as I can tell, the Audio Renaissance production is unabridged. Double-fortunately, Audio Renaissance has completed audio versions of at least three of Herbert’s original Dune novels and I’m told by very reliable sources ((The Internet.)) that the ultimate goal is to produce the entire series in audio format.

The Audio Renaissance production is twenty-two hours long, narrated by Scott Brick and features voice actors in many of the major roles. Unfortunately, the narrative switches back and forth at seemingly random intervals between the full cast and a solo performance by Brick. This was very distracting at first, but I was eventually able to ignore the transitions.

Dune (1984)My first exposure to Dune was David Lynch’s 1984 film, though I can’t remember exactly when I first saw it. Lynch, true to form, brings his twisted vision to the story of the desert planet, especially when it comes to the treacherous House Harkonnen. The bloated Baron Vladimir Harkonnen’s crippling disease takes on new dimensions under Lynch’s eye, as do his depraved appetites. Unfortunately, Lynch takes the wind out of Harkonnen’s nephew, Feyd-Rautha (memorably portrayed by a very buff Sting), omitting the na-Baron’s schemes to kill his uncle and seize control of the Great House.

Lynch also introduces “weirding modules”, new technology being used by House Atreides to create a secret army. This threat to the Emperor leads to another variation in Lynch’s story: a conspiracy between the Spacing Guild (who control all interplanetary commerce and travel) and the Emperor himself in which the Guild orders the Emperor to have Paul Atreides killed.

Despite the fact that Lynch’s Dune makes significant changes to Herbert’s original story, is chock full of clumsy exposition (mostly in the form of multiple voiceovers) and was a critical and commercial failure, the movie is really quite enjoyable, and its distinct visual style is so closely associated with the Dune universe that it was adopted by both Cryo Interactive and Westwood Studios for most of the Dune video games they produced. ((Cryo Interactive released the RTS Dune in 1992. Westwood Studios released a series of real-time simulation games: Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty—also known as Dune II: Battle for Arrakis—in 1992, Dune 2000 in 1998 and Emperor: Battle for Dune in 2001. Only Cryo Interactive’s 2001 3D action game, Frank Herbert’s Dune borrowed the visual style from another source: The SciFi Channel’s miniseries.))

Dune (2000)The SciFi Channel miniseries was written and directed by John Harrison and featured a largely unknown cast, with the primary exception being William Hurt as Duke Leto Atreides; Hurt was a big enough star that he got his name before the title: William Hurt in Frank Herbert’s Dune. I thought Hurt came across a little flat in his portrayal of the Duke, but I was pleased with most of the other performances, if not always with how the characters were written. Paul Atreides, for example comes across as a whiny, spoiled rich kid—with a haircut bad enough to rival Luke Skywalker’s disastrous coiff in the first Star Wars film—at the outset of the series, which (with the possible exception of the haircut) is not at all true to the novel.

From the design of the stillsuits and other costumes to the color of the spice itself, ((The Dune Wiki describes the spice melange as a “reddish-brown powder”, though I’m not sure whether that description originates in the novels or in Lynch’s film. The SciFi Channel miniseries depicts the spice as a green powder.)) the SciFi miniseries clearly wanted no visual resemblance to the 1984 movie. Usually, this worked very well, but some of the costumes (in particular the odd dorsal decoration on Feyd-Rautha’s jacket) verged on outlandish. I had a hard time taking the Sardaukar—the Emperor’s elite soldiers—seriously when they were all wearing large, floppy tam o’shanters; they looked like a squadron of goth Darby O’Gills wielding miniguns.

Storywise, I felt that the miniseries stayed fairly true to source material; certainly more so than did Lynch’s version. There were a number of unfortunate omissions, including the Atreides Mentat Thufir Hawat’s fate following the Harkonnen invasion of Arrakis, and the role of the Harkonnen’s twisted Mentat, Piter de Vries, was made all but insignificant, ((Brad Dourif was both creepy and funny as Piter in Lynch’s version, but he consistently mispronounced “landsraad”. On the other hand, he did recite the Mentat’s mantra, “It is by will alone I put my mind in motion…” which was excluded from the SciFi version, so I forgive him.)) but certainly the expanded format allowed for more of the original story to be preserved, especially in the Director’s Cut.

The Lynch version, on the other hand, is more fun to watch. It may not be the best choice to introduce the unitiatiated to Frank Herbert’s universe (Duniverse?), but the sheer, overblown, cheesy spectacle of the thing is enjoyable in and of itself.

Soon, there will be yet another version to add to the already expansive list. Peter Berg, director of The Rundown and the Will Smith reluctant-superhero movie, Hancock, is helming yet another film adaptation of Herbert’s novel. As of this writing, the details about this new version are scarce: only that Berg is directing and the film will likely be released sometime in 2010.

With just about any other novel I would probably say one adaptation is enough, but Dune is a special beast and I’m looking forward to yet another take on the universe. I’m interested to see what the stillsuits and the spice harvesters and the Guild heighliners will look like and whether they’ll finally cast someone who at least looks the right age (fifteen, at the start of the novel, eighteen or nineteen at the end) as Paul Atreides. And then there’s the matter of Chani, the Fremen woman who becomes Paul’s concubine. In 1984, she was played by Sean Young; in 2000 she was played by Czech actress Barbora Kodetová who is at the very least eleven times hotter than Sean Young (no slouch herself in the hotness department). I am interested to see if this elevation of relative hotness can continue. Very interested, indeed.

Bring it, Peter Berg. Show me what you can do. The spice must flow.