Saturday 22 June 2019

TV – Dune (2000)

Dune, by Frank Herbert, was first published as two separate serials in Analog magazine in 1965. It won the inaugural Nebula Award for best novel and shared the 1966 Hugo Award (with Zelazny's This Immortal). This immediate success was sustained, Dune remaining in print ever since, making it one of the best-selling SF novels of all time. Why has it been so successful? Partly because it has an original (if rather complex) plot; partly because it is extremely well-written by any standards, with evocative descriptive passages, excellent characterisation and perceptive dialogue; and partly because of the detailed world-building, including a quasi-religion and a detailed planetary ecology. In my judgment, this is probably the best SF novel ever written, leagues above the usual standard of the time. I reviewed it a decade ago on this blog (I advise reading that first unless you are already familiar with the story, otherwise some of what follows won't make much sense).

The success of Dune prompted Herbert to churn out several sequels: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune. I think I read most of those at the time but only kept the first, and haven't yet given that a second reading; the standard fell away sharply. In fact, nothing else Herbert wrote compared with the original Dune, so he remains one of those authors remembered for only one book; but with a book as good as this one, that is still a notable achievement.

A feature-length movie of Dune was made in 1984. In a word, it was disappointing. As I said in my blog review of the book: "…that's what you get if you try to compress a densely-plotted book, which takes me around seven hours to read, into just over two hours." Recently I became aware that a US television adaptation of the book was made in 2000, so I bought the DVDs and have now watched them. Some spoilers follow.

I was hopeful about this one as the total running time (three 1.5 hr episodes) is double that of the 1984 film, which should have allowed enough time to make a decent job of the adaptation. However, I was wincing right from the start as characters and locations were introduced in a kind of box-ticking session. It did get better (or maybe I adjusted my expectations) and the extra time was put to some good use later on.

For the most part, the TV series followed the book quite closely. Curiously, some new scenes were introduced and one character was upgraded from peripheral to central: Princess Irulan. In the book, only the occasional explanatory extracts from various of Irulan's writings appear (a very good form of infodump IMO) until right at the end of the story, when as part of a deal with the emperor she becomes the nominal wife to the hero Paul, who prefers his Fremen girlfried, Chani. In the film Irulan makes a much earlier appearance and has a number of her own scenes as she pursues Paul, among other things. The problem with this is that Irulan (Julie Cox) is not only considerably more attractive than Chani (Barbora Kodetová), she also has a strong and lively personality whereas Chani is a bit of a nonentity. Frankly, any man would pick Irulan - it's a no-brainer. In the book this problem doesn't arise because Paul had been committed to (a much more appealing) Chani for years before meeting (an ice-maiden) Irulan, but in the film he meets a captivating Irulan first. To digress for a moment, I was reminded of the film of Lord of the Rings in which Aragorn rejects the overtures from Eowyn (a strong and powerfully appealing performance from Miranda Otto) in favour of Liv Tyler's bland, colourless Arwen. Those who pick the cast and direct the films need to be careful to keep the relationships credible.

Another less dramatic difference is that the screen Paul is years older than in the book, yet has been given a somewhat less mature and controlled personality; to start with he appears to be a relatively ordinary (if well-trained), but maybe somewhat spoiled, young man; perhaps a deliberate choice to allow more of the audience to relate to him.

One aspect of the story – in both book and screen versions – which seems slightly uncomfortable today is that the nearest current equivalent to the culture of the Fremen, the idealised desert fighters, would probably be found among traditional Arab tribes. Even some of the language is the same, as Paul is worried that his leadership of the Fremen might cause them to engage in a holy war – a jihad.

All in all, the TV series is sort-of worth watching but don't expect the experience to match that of reading the book – it doesn't come close. To be fair, I suspect that Dune is a particularly difficult tale to transfer to the screen, because there is such a lot of explanation incorporated into the text which can't be conveyed just through dialogue and expressions or body language. This could only partly be alleviated by voice-overs, because some scenes contain so much about what various individuals are observing and thinking. For example, a formal dinner held in Arrakis takes about 20 pages to describe, with spoken conversation being only a part of it. This leaves the screen version part-way between the book and a comic strip (sorry, graphic novel...) in that it consists of visual images with some words for extra information, with all of the subtlety and sophistication of the writing being omitted. To be blunt, the book is for adults, the screen version for a younger audience.

The conclusion – read the book!


mudpuddle said...

we read it and liked it a lot... Mrs. M read it 3 times... didn't know there was a tv version; we'll look for it... tx...

Anthony G Williams said...

This is the Wiki entry:


Main articles: Frank Herbert's Dune and Frank Herbert's Children of Dune

Syfy (Sci-Fi Channel) premiered a three-part miniseries adaptation called Frank Herbert's Dune on December 3, 2000.[87] Its March 16, 2003 sequel, Frank Herbert's Children of Dune, combined both Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. As of 2004, both miniseries were two of the three highest-rated programs ever to be broadcast on Syfy.[15] Frank Herbert's Dune won two Primetime Emmy Awards in 2001, for Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie[88] and Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special.[89] The miniseries was also nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries,