Adapting the Un-Adaptable

The History of Dune’s Cinematic Adaptations


Kaleb Oakley, Staff Writer - Editor

Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century and one of the greatest works of science fiction; few would contest that. Yet film adaptations of the novel have been rare. Some of the greatest directors have tried to make Dune, yet only two film adaptations have seen theaters. How has such a famous and influential novel been so difficult to adapt?

In 1971, American film producer Arthur P. Jacobs secured the rights to Herbert’s novel. He offered the directing job to British film legend David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on The River Kwai), but Lean refused. The film went through several directors but never left the early stages of production. Early attempts to adapt Dune died with Arthur P. Jacobs in 1973.

In 1974, a group of French producers purchased the rights to Dune. They gave the film’s creation to cult cinema legend Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain). Jodorowsky is one of cinema’s most bizarre filmmakers, and his adaptation would likely have been exceedingly strange and challenging to comprehend. That said, Jodorowsky’s Dune is possibly the most influential film that never began shooting.

The planned cast included Salvador Dalí (Emperor Shaddam IV), Orson Welles (Baron Harkonnen), David Carradine (Duke Leto Atreides), Alain Delon (Duncan Idaho), Mick Jagger (Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen), and Jodorowsky’s 13-year-old son (Paul Atreides). The original music was to be recorded by the legendary rock group Pink Floyd. The film’s art department included artist H. R. Giger and special effects was to be led by Dan O’Bannon; they would later use resources made for Dune to make Alien.

Dalí demanded 100,000 dollars an hour; Jodorowsky then planned to film Dalí’s part in one hour and use a mannequin as a substitute elsewhere. In 1976, 2 million of the 9.5 million dollar budget were gone. Jodorowsky’s script would have made a 14-hour movie. Ultimately, financial backing dried up, and Jodorowsky abandoned the project.

If one wants to hear the complete story of Jodorowsky’s attempt, a fantastic documentary called Jodorowsky’s Dune came out in 2013.

In 1976, Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis acquired the rights to Dune and, in 1978, commissioned Frank Herbert to write a screenplay for his novel. Herbert’s script would clock in at around 3 hours. Laurentiis hired Ridley Scott to direct the project after the success of Alien and brought H. R. Giger back to the project.

Scott wished to split the book into two films, an idea we would see again later, and began redrafting the script with writer Rudy Wurlitzer. After seven months of production, Scott backed out; his brother had died during the project, and Scott didn’t have the heart to put in the expected 2.5 years needed to finish the film. He instead made Blade Runner.

Dune’s rights were to expire in 1981; Laurentiis then negotiated an extension to the rights and the rights to Dune’s sequel novels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune and any Dune novels written after the deal.

Laurentiis’ daughter Raffaella decided, after seeing The Elephant Man, David Lynch should direct Dune. Lynch, like Jodorowsky, Belongs to the surrealist school of filmmaking, though, at the time Dune was made, his best work was still ahead of him. Lynch would ultimately be one of the most accomplished filmmakers of all time. Lynch had several other direction offers, including Return of the Jedi, but turned them down in favor of Dune.

Lynch would then draft several scripts, ultimately settling on a script clocking in at around 3 hours. Then, finally, a Dune movie began principal photography in Mexico. Lynch and his crew experienced copious technical issues. After Lynch finished his nearly 3-hour-long film, the studio demanded 2 hours. Lynch obliged.

Released in 1984, 19 years after the novel’s publication, Lynch’s Dune hit theaters. Lynch’s Dune was a catastrophic financial flop and almost universally panned by critics. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote, “Several of the characters in Dune are psychic, which puts them in the unique position of being able to understand what goes on in the movie.” Lynch has said he will not make a director’s cut and has disowned the film.

Dune is undoubtedly a David Lynch movie, and many of his most potent attributes as a director are present in the film. Lynch is a master of creating dread through a surreal atmosphere and excellent sound design, and Dune presents these attributes in a noticeable, albeit hampered, way. In the years since its release, Lynch’s Dune has developed a massive cult following.

Lynch was to direct adaptations of Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, but Lynch’s desire to keep working on Dune disappeared with the funding.

The idea of adapting Dune seemed impossible after the 1984 failure though a TV series by John Harrison aired in 2001 to mixed reviews.

Legendary Entertainment acquired the rights to the novel in 2016. Right off the heels of his 2016 science fiction film Arrival, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve agreed to direct the project. Villeneuve, a lifelong fan of Herbert’s writing, is arguably the best big-budget science fiction director in the world. Villeneuve decided to take his time on the project, even making Blade Runner: 2049 during preproduction for Dune.

Villeneuve brought screenwriters Eric Roth (Forest Gump) and Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) to assist in writing Dune’s screenplay, and much of Villeneuve’s crew for Blade Runner: 2049 returned for Dune. Legendary cinematographer Sir Roger Deakins was the original director of photography, but Deakins left in 2018; Greig Fraser replaced him. Hans Zimmer provided a score.

Principal photography began on March 18th, 2019. Shot on location in the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Norway, with most interior scenes shot in Budapest, Villeneuve ended his shoot on July 26th, 2019.

Villeneuve’s crew took about two years to complete the Oscar-winning editing and VFX design. Dune hit theaters on October 22, 2021, and received positive reviews. The film has been one of the few films since the pandemic to succeed in getting large audiences into theaters.

Dune received 10 Oscar nominations, winning 6, and is considered one of the best films of 2021.

Anyone who has read Dune can understand how adapting such writing has proven a challenge; Herbert’s novel is as much about complex politics and philosophy as it is about the protagonist, Paul Atreides. No series of unsuccessful attempts have led to as many great movies as Dune. The fact that an acclaimed Dune movie exists is astounding. The fact that so many great films exist in some part due to Dune is incredible.