Thursday, October 07, 2010

Why Dune Can't Be Turned Into A Movie

I don't even remember how I got on a Dune kick right now. There are so many awesome lines, visuals and concepts in that movie. And yes I am talking about the movie you book snobs. What I do remember since it only happened 20 minutes ago is how I realized that Dune can never ever be turned into a movie.

I was reading about the making of the film and how David Lynch disowned the extended and narrated version of the film, the one that tried to fix the 'minor problem' of his original version being completely incomprehensible. That was when I realized of course it's incomprehensible, there's so many important new concepts in the movie!

Fluffier Than Helium

I will illustrate by comparing Dune to Star Wars. Star Wars has no background because it was never adapted from a book. This is what Star Wars boils down to:

  • a hick Farmboy
  • finds out he has Generic Psionics
  • so a Complete Stranger decides to mentor Farmboy
  • into an order of Psionic Paladins
  • meanwhile, some Captured Princess sends a message
  • to Mentor who takes his toys (robots and sword) and Protégé
  • and they escape some Mooks to go to Princess' Prison
  • where Mentor attacks Evil Paladin
  • and while Mentor disappears
  • Farmboy manages to free Princess
  • Princess has blueprints of a Superweapon
  • they attack Superweapon with air fighters launched from an ocean navy carrier
  • Farmboy uses Psionics to destroy it

That's it. That's the entire movie right there, including all characters and all plot elements. Oh I've forgotten something? Some cherished little crap detail? That's because it's irrelevant. Once you comprehend those 13 points of the movie, none of which are remotely original, you've understood the entire movie.

And don't give me any crap about how Evil Paladin was Farmboy's father or how Generic Psionics is really psi+magic (ooh, magic lightning!) because that was all retconned. Even worse with Farmboy & Princess supposedly being siblings. It didn't stop Farmboy from putting the moves on Princess by the end of the movie, did it?

Denser Than Uranium

Dune is ... different. Here are the points you need to understand before you watch the movie:

  • there's an ancient feudal space empire ruled by the Emperor
  • House Atreides, House Harkonnen are major power brokers and enemies
  • AI are forbidden as a matter of law and religious fiat
  • humans have acquired super-human mental powers through drugs and training
  • the Bene Gesserit have been running a multi-millenia breeding program to create a Physical God
  • the Bene Gesserits have (known) powers of hypnotic voice, transmutation, and genetic memory
  • Lord Atreides has a Bene Gesserit wife who is a central part of the breeding program
  • Lord Atreides has a son with his wife
  • the Spacing Guild controls all space travel
  • they require Spice to fold space to achieve instantaneous travel
  • the Spice extends Life, the Spice expands Awareness of both present and future
  • a briefcase full of Spice is worth the price of a planet
  • it can only be mined on a single planet in the Known Universe
  • the planet Dune makes Hell look safe and comfortable
  • the Emperor has decided to knock Atreides and Harkonen down a few pegs by setting them against each other

Not only are there more characters and plot elements before you can even watch Dune than there are throughout the entire Star Wars movie, but the least original of them is more original than the most original Star Wars element. Not like you need much originality to beat 'anonymous farmboy' or 'anonymous cheddar monk' or 'anonymous princess'. Hell, two of the "characters" are subservient robots. Tools!

But let's be fair, the least original elements of Dune I've listed are 'ancient feudal space empire' and 'the Emperor sets up two Houses against each other'. On the other side, the only original element of Star Wars is 'Princess has blueprints of Superweapon'. And that's only original for its time because nowadays there's nothing novel about Action Girls. In contrast, Machiavellian Emperors are a really old idea that's become novel again because few people are familiar with how monarchs reigned.

STILL Not Fully Comprehensible

The very first scene is Princess Irulan narrating. Why her? Why does she get screen time? It's because she's single, of marriagable age, and Paul Atreides marries her to legitimize his hold on power. Oh yeah, that didn't quite make it into the movie, did it? Yet you can't fully understand the first scene of the movie without knowing something they couldn't fit into the movie at all.

Why does Doctor Yueh betray Lord Atreides? Why is he even in a position to betray Lord Atreides? He's just a fucking doctor for fuck's sake! Oh it's because he's been conditioned as part of the Emperor's elite corps of incorruptibles. But it turns out he has been corrupted by the Baron Harkonnen who is holding Yueh's wife hostage. In fact, he's the first case of an incorruptible having been corrupted. None of that made it into the movie either.

And I haven't even mentioned the Sandworms. Or the Great Convention against atomics in the Landsraad. Or shields. Or lasguns' notoriously bad interaction with shields. Or Alia. Or Other Memories. Or Mentats. Or stillsuits. These are not irrelevant details. An irrelevant detail is how Lord Atreides' wife was the illegitimate daughter of Baron Harkonnen (showing the power of the Bene Gesserit to arrange this), or how the House Corrino heir was another Bene Gesserit candidate for Physical God. Those are irrelevant.

Science Fiction vs Fantasy

Dune has lots of deeply relevant intricacies because like any great science-fiction it aspires to a modicum of self-consistency and a lot of creativity. The SF stories that adapt best to movies are short stories like Total Recall and Minority Report. I'm not even counting anything remotely like Star Wars because those aren't science-fiction, they're space fantasies.

When you adapt SF novels, there's always too much material so you end up having to sacrifice something. Blade Runner sacrificed all the action - it's unrecognizable from the book, and the author considered the movie to complement the book. And Solaris sacrificed the themes - Stanislaw Lem was pretty disappointed that all his themes of Incomprehensibly Alien Aliens were pushed aside. I can't even imagine how Gateway or Foundation would have to be cut to be put in movie form.

Some people like to point out that fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have been made into movies. Isn't Dune better? Doesn't it deserve to be made a movie at least as much as that fantasy dreck? No, no it does not. Dune isn't better, it's monumentally better. Fantasy is inherently recycling of themes, characters and plot elements everyone is already familiar with. Do you think Tolkien invented elves, dwarves, dragons and evil gods? Like fuck he did. He just described landscapes and obsessed with naming everything. A name isn't an idea!

In great science-fiction there is nothing recycled. The novel Dune now more than 40 years after its first publication is still entirely original. You can't do such a novel justice with a couple of movies or even a mini-series. Even if you stuck to just the first book like the twits who made Dune (2000) failed to do, it just isn't long enough.

How To Do Dune Justice

To do Dune justice you'd need a full 13-episode series around just the first book. The battle when the Harkonnen and Sardaukar re-invade Dune, killing all the Atreides, leaving Paul and Jessica to flee into the desert? That would be 2 episodes right there, minimum.

The Atreides setting up on Dune, introducing the basic ecology & economy and Paul getting odd messages from the locals, that's at least one episode. The Emperor deciding to set up Houses Atreides and Harkonnen? That's an episode.

There would need to be one episode dedicated solely to the vital importance of the spice - maybe some smuggler tries to get off-planet with a briefcase full of the stuff. In the last scene of that episode, you'd probably see the smuggler executed and his stash confiscated only to follow it as it's re-sold through official channels until it ends up in a Space Guild Navigator's tank.

There would have to be an episode set before the movie to explain Jessica's background and to explain the Bene Gesserits. You'd need to come up with a storyline, probably involving some minor political intrigue at the Emperor's court. The episode wouldn't be about the Bene Gesserit, it would just involve them somehow, maybe only as secondary characters.

That's the thing, not only would most of the scenes in Dune end up being episodes of the series, but most of the episodes would be about things that aren't in the book, their central characters not even in the book. The book would just be the over-arching plotline of the series. So the 3 hour long movie would be stretched to 13 hours. And I repeat, minimum.

Babylon 5 achieved more starting with much sparser and poorer source material.


??? said...

I found you in a search for Dabrowski and Jung, and read your post about psychologists -Bravo! There are a lot of FUHB's "practicing" Crap.
Then I found the Dune post and thought, this guy's got my number. One of my readings, 20-something years ago, I started to see the connection to Jewish Mysticism, Googling it just now, I see that the Kaballah as well as references to other very old mystic traditions run throughout the book.

Richard Kulisz said...

Wait, so that's where the 'female half' and 'male half' and cellular memories and Voice and prana bindu come from? Or are you talking about something else? I don't think the worms violating thermodynamics actually comes from anywhere. Or at least they did until the ridiculous invention of sand plankton.

Robin Maas said...

How about a hbo series?

Richard Kulisz said...

Just remember, I made the suggestion first. Before Game of Thrones ever aired.

Anonymous said...

hey fanboy, scifi=fantasy