Looking Back At FRANK HERBERT'S DUNE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Martin Rayburn trades spice for a coherent screenplay and comes-up a winner!
There's a new filmed adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune arriving in our cinemas later this year (cinemas? Remember them?), the epic science fiction tale that has been notoriously difficult to bring to the screen. Most people, from my generation at least, will remember the mid 1980s filmed version of Dune. After years of development hell, it was released in 1984 and the result was a huge box-office bomb. Directed by David Lynch, who ended up asking for his name to be removed as he was unhappy with the final cut, the film remains interesting to look at, in an odd kind of way, and in the large part well cast, but it's so highly flawed in most other aspects. Over the years this adaptation has gathered some newfound appreciation among fandom, but for my tastes it still remains cold, disjointed, incomprehensible, and too 80s for it's own good - I'm looking at you Sting!

But, this retrospective is not primarily about that adaptation of Dune, although I can not help but draw comparisons throughout, rather this piece is about 'Frank Herbert's Dune', which was produced for the Sci Fi Channel back in 2000. The three-part, four hour miniseries seems to be overlooked (or at least I rarely see anyone talking about it) which is a shame as it's actually pretty good. Adapted for the screen and directed by John Harrison, he wisely took the approach that a filmed adaptation which makes sense is far more important than looking weird and offbeat.
As opposed to the 1984 film, the story presented here is now very comprehensible. The focus is on a young man named Paul Atreides (Alec Newman), the son of Duke Leto (William Hurt) and Lady Jessica (Saskia Reeves) of House Atreides. Their rival is House Harkonnen, who are currently mining the valuable spice melange on planet Arrakis, which is also known as Dune. The Emperor (Giancarlo Giannini) has made arrangements to move the Harkonnens out and bring in the Atreides to mine the spice, but secretly has a plan to bring the Atreides down with the help of the Harkonnen.

Eventually, House Atreides is thrown into ruins and Paul and his mother are forced into a fight for survival on the desert, eventually encountering a tribe known as the Fremen, who are led by Stilgar. Slowly, Paul begins a rise in the ranks and becomes the leader of the tribe, and many believe he is the one to fulfill their prophecy. Paul grows accustomed to the tribe, falling in love with one of the native women, Chani (Barbara Kodetova), and he proceeds to foil the Harkonnen in all their spice mining, as well as take back Arrakis and re-establish House Atreides.
There are so many things Harrison does well that it's surprising he managed them with a cable TV budget of $20 million. It's visually extravagant; the special effects are infinitely superior to David Lynch's original Dune which cost twice the amount to produce. While certain scenes are obviously CGI, they aren't too distracting, even accounting for two decades of improvements in this field. The production design is even better, as the architecture and the sets are stunning, both in terms of volume, quantity, and depth. Among the film's best visuals are the giant sandworms, given a look that is ultimately both wondrous and frightening. Also to Harrison's credit is the pace of the production; it's not lightning-fast by any means (it does have a combined running time of 265 minutes after all) but it holds your interest throughout. As I said before, the story is no longer a confusing mess, but is now an absorbing epic given a great treatment, and the extended running time means the story can develop the situations, the intrigue, and the characters far better than a constrained cinematic version could.

The actors are perhaps the most inconsistent part of Frank Herbert's Dune. Playing the most important role is Alec Newman as Paul Atreides, who portrays the part quite differently than Kyle MacLachlan did. As to where MacLachlan was quite and reserved, Newman is more outspoken and active, and even sometimes quite moody. I feel it's a better performance, but not the strongest. William Hurt as Duke Leto is, as you'd expect, very good, squalling Jurgen Prochnow's portrayal from the original. Unfortunately P.H. Moriarty as Gurney Halleck lacks the nobility of Patrick Stewart, and makes you pine for his earlier portrayal. Ian McNeice is suitably shrewd, intelligent, and calculating as Baron Harkonnen, but the best performance of all goes to Saskia Reeves as the Lady Jessica, who superbly portrays a woman with immense love for her family, as well as a woman of duty. Portraying strength and warmth throughout.
Also worthy of mention is Graeme Revell's score, which differs vastly from Toto's; this one is a far more subtle approach which I find it effective and well-blended with the material. But, not every aspect of the production is perfect by any means, and you'd probably expect that from a made-for-TV adaptation like this. As good as the effects are, the desert scenes are obviously not shot in a real desert, thus it comes off looking a little cheap. A couple of other scenes feel quite rushed, particularly a Harkonnen invasion on the Atreides fortress that just seems to end as quickly as it began, and a couple of characters aren't given quite a deep enough look that, I feel, they perhaps deserved.

But overall, this often overlooked version of Dune is, in my humble opinion, the superior adaptation currently in existence. It'll be interesting to see how Denis Villeneuve tackles the science fiction epic when it finally sees the light of day. He's certainly assembled a spectacular cast, which gives me hope if nothing else. But for those today who may have attempted to watch David Lynch's asaptation and walked away feeling cold and confused, give this version a try. I think you'll find it a far more enjoyable experience.

Or better still, read Frank Herbert's original novel.

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