Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, and Ridley Scott have all tried (and failed) to adapt Frank Herbert’s masterpiece for the silver screen
It’s the book that launched a thousand failed film attempts, but the enduring brilliance of Frank Herbert’s Dune remains a tempting source among filmmakers. The 1965 space epic, about the messianic journey of a young nobleman forced to move to the inhospitable planet Arrakis to extract a powerful ‘spice’, is hailed as the great cornerstone of the sci-fi genre, and the inspiration behind cinematic greats such as George Lucas’ Star Wars. But any attempts to bring it to film have ostensibly failed.
You can imagine why Hollywood felt so compelled to bring Herbert’s novel to life. The phantasmagorical plot, characterised by its warring noble houses, ruthless galactic emperors, desert nomads, and magical spices that grant superhuman abilities, is box-office gold, on paper. Still, out of all those who’ve tried, including Alejandro Jodorowsky, Ridley Scott, and David Lynch, only Lynch’s version made it onto the silver screen, and even then, it was a critical and commercial flop.
Denis Villeneuve is next to take on the mantle, with his highly-anticipated reboot set to be released later this year. Starring Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, the Arrival director’s remake promises to mirror the “level of maturity and complexity in Herbert’s writing”. Below, we’ve graded all five previous attempts to adapt Dune – on effort.
ARTHUR P. JACOBS, 1971
First up was producer Arthur P. Jacobs (the Planet of the Apes series), who optioned the rights to Dune in 1971. David Lean and Robert Bolt, who’d worked together on Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, were tipped as director and screenwriter, and the adaptation was expected to be a success.
Yet problems arose when Jacobs, who was busy working on the sequel of Planet of the Apes, put production on hold, prompting Lean to drop out. Finally, Bolt was replaced with writer Rospo Pallenberg, but production grinded to a halt in 1973 when Jacobs unexpectedly passed away at the age of 51, a year before the film was scheduled for shooting.
Verdict: The Lean-Bolt combo had the potential to be really special but the pre-production was an absolute mess. C+
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, 1975
A noble – if not, slightly deluded – try came from the controversial Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who dreamt up a 15-hour space-on-acid epic in which Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) was to play Baron Harkonnen, and Salvador Dalí the emperor, Shaddam IV – with an accompanying soundtrack by Pink Floyd.
Jodorowsky, a natural raconteur, saw no need to read Herbert’s novel before assembling his dream team in seemingly much the same way as you’d assemble a fantasy football squad. In his 2014 documentary Jodorovsky’s Dune, about the director’s failed attempt, he describes tempting screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (who would later go on to write Alien) with “special marijuana” and seducing Salvador Dalí for a reported $100,000 an hour.
Pre-production was set up in Paris, headed by prolific comic artist Moebius and H.R. Giger, AKA the Swiss painter behind Alien’s concept art. But after two and a half years in development, the project stalled for financial reasons. Jodorovsky had already spent $2 million on pre-production and the script was so long that it would amount to 14 hours (Herbert described the books of storyboards and concept art as “the size of a phonebook”). Ultimately, the film needed another $5 million to be completed.
Ironically, Jodorowsky’s Dune scored rave reviews at Cannes and remains the most successful film associated with the book to date.
Verdict: Either the greatest sci-fi film never made or the delusions of a mad man. Still, A for effort.
RIDLEY SCOTT, 1979
In 1976, Hollywood hotshot Dino De Laurentiis, who produced Fellini’s La Strada and Barbarella, acquired the rights to the film and commissioned Herbert to write the screenplay. When the script was delivered in 1978, however, De Laurentiis said it was too long (three hours), and writer Rudy Wurlitzer was asked to adapt it.
Shortly after, De Laurentiis hired a young Ridley Scott, who was fresh from the success of Alien, to direct the space epic, while H. R. Giger stayed on for artwork. The plan was to split the book into two films, but Scott dropped out seven months into pre-production, citing Wurlitzer’s departure from Herbert’s original script and his brother’s passing as reasons for his departure. He would later pursue another sci-fi film, Blade Runner.
Verdict: You can’t blame Scott for opting out the project, especially since working with De Laurentiis sounded like a bureaucratic shitstorm. He did the right thing pursuing Blade Runner. B for effort.
DAVID LYNCH, 1984
Following Scott’s departure, De Laurentiis approached director David Lynch to adapt Dune at the recommendation of his daughter, a huge fan of Lynch’s Oscar-nominated Elephant Man. Lynch accepted, turning down a concurrent offer to direct The Return of the Jedi. A then-unknown Kyle MacLachlan and Sting were cast as the protagonist Paul Atreides and the villainous Feyd Rautha, while the soundtrack was (strangely) picked up by Toto (as in, “Africa”).
Lynch finally got it into cinemas in 1984, only for Universal to release a two-hour cut he hated so much he had his name removed from the credits. The result, a disjointed yet (TBH) superbly Lynchian space opera, was a theatrical disaster, slashed by critics as the worst movie of the year. Writer Harlan Ellison later said: “It was a book that shouldn’t have been shot. It was a script that couldn’t have been written. It was a directorial job that was beyond anyone’s doing … and yet the film was made.”
In fact, Lynch was so disappointed in the film, he refuses to watch Villeneuve’s version because his was “a heartache” for him. “It was a failure and I didn’t have a final cut,” he explained. “I’ve told this story a billion times. It’s not the film I wanted to make. I like certain parts of it very much – but it was a total failure for me.”
Verdict: Lynch’s reaction is hardly surprising when you consider the awful voiceovers added to the soundtrack in post-production that seemingly try to piece together the cracks caused by the edit. We give this an A* for effort. No-one puts Lynch in a corner.
RICHARD P. RUBINSTEIN, 2000
Richard Rubinstein, the producer behind Dawn of the Dead and Pet Sematary, acquired the rights to the film in 1996. His 2000 miniseries, based on the book, received critical acclaim, winning two Emmys, inspiring a follow-up in 2003.
In 2008, Rubinstein partnered with Paramount Pictures to produce a feature-length film with Peter Berg and Pierre Morel (Taken) attached as directors, but after four years the project was abandoned. You win some you lose some.
Verdict: I mean, fair enough re. Emmys, but we’re grading film attempts here. This feels like a B+.