Frank Herbert's Dune: It can be filmed!
A review of the Sci-Fi Channel Miniseries
Reviewed by Fred Bush
22 January 2001
How do you film one of the best SF books ever written?
Dune is a novel that every science fiction fan has heard of, and most have read, not only for its ideas but also for its memorable prose. It features byzantine political maneuverings and a multi-planet cast. What's more, it's already been filmed, by David Lynch in 1984, and that movie has a devoted cult following.
John Harrison's three-part miniseries for the Sci Fi Channel, Frank Herbert's Dune, succeeds despite these difficulties. It's entertaining as a drama, and unquestionably it's Dune. The central story of Paul Atreides' transcendent quest for self-knowledge, his family's battles with House Harkonnen, and his abiding love for the Fremen girl, Chani, carries the miniseries, despite some flaws. While Harrison, who also adapted the book, is reasonably faithful to Frank Herbert's text, he's not particularly faithful to Herbert's characters, which will dismay purists. Still, he tells the story well.
A quick plot summary: Duke Leto Atreides (William Hurt), his concubine Jessica (Saskia Reeves), and their son Paul (Alec Newman) are sent to take control of the desert planet Dune (its real name is Arrakis) by the Emperor Shaddam IV (Giancarlo Giannini). Dune is the sole source of spice, a foodstuff that lengthens life, produces visions and, most importantly, allows space travel. In order for civilization to survive, the spice must flow. Meanwhile, House Harkonnen, led by the corpulent Baron Vladimir (Ian McNeice), schemes to bring about the downfall of House Atreides. After some reverses, Paul, trained in the ways of Bene Gesserit witchcraft by his mother, discovers mystical powers in himself. He joins the Fremen, a nomadic people living in the far deserts, falls in love with Chani (Barbora Kodetova), a Fremen woman, and eventually leads the Fremen to battle the Harkonnen and their allies in a guerrilla war in order to realize the dream of a green, lush Arrakis.
There's a lot happening in the story, but Harrison keeps us grounded in the central characters: the Atreides family, the Harkonnens, and Chani. They are convincing and moving. We recognize the strength of the Atreides' love for one another; we see the chemistry between Paul and Chani; we get our face rubbed in the evil of the Harkonnens. The power of their human bonds carries us through the larger plot. Hurt is a low-key but dignified Leto; Reeves, a strong-minded, beautiful, and devoted Jessica. The character of Paul is particularly strong: Newman makes us believe in his growth as a character from boy to leader of millions.
Harrison has humanized this story, grounding it in recognizable features of our present world while downplaying the novel's complicated future history. The Fremen villages look as if they've been transplanted directly from North Africa. The various nobles and the Emperor recall medieval pageantry, pomp, and splendor with their feasting and dancing. Dune's deserts look just like those on Earth. There are enough startling developments to allow you to retain your sense of wonder, but the strangeness itself is not overwhelming or intrusive. Some might consider this a flaw, since to achieve this, Harrison sheds some details: the Butlerian Jihad, the Orange Catholic Bible, the family atomics, drum sand, the superhuman powers of the mentat, the effects of Suk conditioning. However, it allows the characters to interact in a more natural setting, and lets us focus our attention on their relationships and their actions rather than on the background, which is, after all, the background.
The biggest departure from the novel is in the juicy role created for the Princess Irulan (Julie Cox). A nonentity in the novel, here she rises parallel to Paul, as she develops from her youth and naivete to become an active participant in schemes and plots. She flits about on the outskirts of various negotiations and skulduggery, dances in outrageous costumes, seduces, schemes, and suggests. Her active presence throughout the miniseries is, I think, another step in making the series understandable and less complex; Irulan plays a large role in the denouement of the story, and her increased presence throughout makes the end result more intelligible. I think this change is actually for the better. This major structural change obscures Harrison's respect for the words of the book: in general, he keeps the dialogue very close to Herbert's words. To give Irulan a greater role, Harrison lifts lines from other characters and gives them to her.
Harrison does not ignore the planet Dune or its denizens. The intricate ecosystem tying together the spice and the mighty sandworms is one of Herbert's most famous creations, and Harrison does a good job of letting the characters discover the truth about the planet.
The Shai-Hulud, the great sandworm, plays an enormous part in the ecology of the planet Dune, the plot of the novel, and, I think, the success of a visual version of Dune. The sandworm is the most striking visual image in the book, and so the "money shot" for a Dune film is a sandworm erupting out of the ground, mouth agape. The miniseries pulls it off in grand style: all I could do was sit there and gape, with a goofy grin on my face, as I got my first glimpse of a worm. The shots of a tribe of Fremen on board a worm vanishing into the distance are haunting.
The Fremen are another high point for the series. We see them at play in their villages, at work, in battle, and at prayer, while Moorish, North African, and Arab music plays in the background. The principal Fremen, Chani, Stilgar (Uwe Ochesnknecht), and Liet/Kynes (Karel Dobry), are excellent -- Dobry in particular is a standout, radiating charisma and honorable dignity as the Imperial planetologist with a secret. The strange culture of the Fremen, the combination of harshness and messianic yearning which makes them the perfect soldiers, comes through very strongly. Their blue, blue eyes, caused by their proximity to the spice, are an eye catching special effect, and they flash from blue to "normal" as the light hits them, which is a nice touch.
Unfortunately, the rest of the special effects don't measure up. The problem is not so much the computer-generated special effects themselves, which are adequate: it's meshing them to the "real" parts of the filming, so that they don't seem like artificially-smooth constructs. The tech isn't the most important part of the story, so even when your disbelief stops being suspended and hits the ground with a thump, the central characters can carry the plot themselves.
The central characters shine at the expense of the many advisors who have crucial roles in Herbert's book. These include the rival Mentats Thufir Hawat (Jan Vlasak) and Piter Devries (Jan Unger), Suk Doctor Wellington Yueh (Robert Russell II), and Count Fenring (Pavel Kriz). The aides are like the parade of archbishops and earls that populate a Shakespearean history play -- they lurk in the periphery of several scenes, uttering a few lines, and then are relegated to the dustbin of history -- and they serve the same purpose: to give lip service to the original text. Perhaps Harrison felt that he needed to include them in a limited role as a tribute to the book; I think he'd have done better to eliminate some of these folks rather than keep them in their present, gutted form. Only Gurney Halleck (P.H. Moriarty) is given a lot of screen time. It's a pity -- Moriarty can't pull the role off. Halleck is a master knifeman and a master musician, and Moriarty looks over the hill, slow, fat, and fumble-fingered.
The villains receive better treatment. This is a miniseries, so the plot needs to be partially recapped at the beginning of every episode. Baron Harkonnen turns this possible negative into a positive. He is a glorious villain, delivering his lines with gleeful aplomb, ending his nasty little speeches with a rhyming couplet and self-delighted wicked tittering. Harrison has integrated the plot summary into the story itself, and it's a pleasure to watch. The scenes at the Harkonnen palace are also shot with an unsteady, teetering camera and a strange red light, which suffuses the place with a satanic charm, with the Baron as a laughing Pazuzu flitting about on his hoverchair, and Feyd-Rautha (Matt Keeslar) languidly posing and recounting his gladiatorial prowess.
The one-on-one fights are the high point of the action. They are well choreographed and gripping. They move quickly but not confusingly, and (with the exception of Gurney) all of the fighters look like they know what they're doing. The other action sequences pale in comparison, particularly the Fremen raids. The combats are muddy and unclear, a swirling chaos of bodies slowly flailing about with knives. That's probably what a real battle looks like, but it's not good drama. However, all of the individual duels and waving knives set the scene for the climactic knife fight, with the fate of the Empire on the line, which is particularly satisfying.
The Dune miniseries pulled in the Sci Fi Channel's highest-ever Nielsen ratings. That's not a fluke. It's for broad tastes. As a less-than-scrupulous adaptation, it's not for the finicky. It's also not going to convert fans of David Lynch's movie; it's an entirely different approach to the text. However, in my opinion, it's worthy of bearing the name Dune, which is about the highest praise I can give.
Frank Herbert's Dune will be released on VHS on Wednesday, January 23.
Fred Bush also writes conspiracy satire for Circling the Square.