Before we get into the myth of the six-hour version, I think we need to address the adaptation of the film. For years, the film was derided as “unfaithful.” When SyFy made its miniseries version, they touted it as being more “faithful” to the book. It’s a claim the producers of various remakes liked to issue during pre-release hype. Interestingly, each of these introduce more scenes and ideas NOT in the source than the very first film version they tend to talk shit about.
In the case of Dune, almost every scene is from the book. Sure, there are alterations, the subtraction of a couple of characters all together and the notion of heart plugs, but the majority of the film can be found in the pages of the novel. David Lynch was very careful in his writing. He consulted with Frank Herbert and after seven drafts had a script that featured one wholly new scene, a element to make the film more action-y, and lacked one character.
But let’s get to the part that everyone grumbles about: the Weirding Module.
In the book, the Weirding Way is a fighting discipline adapted by the Fremen from the knowledge of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood; a close quarters technique that makes the practitioner appear to move at impossible speed. In the universe of Dune, everyone is expected to be a master at both a mental and physical discipline. What makes Paul an exceptional individual is his capacity to learn multiple disciplines and bridge the way. The Weirding Way becomes the official technique of the Fremen and allows them to overcome the battle-hardened tactics of the Emperor’s army. One of the points of the book is that a harsh environment breeds harsh fighters. The Weirding Way becomes successful because it is introduced to the native population of Arrakis; a group used to the harsh conditions of a desert planet.
It’s a great concept, but not the most visually dynamic for a director uninterested in martial arts to realize. Lynch reportedly did not want to film “Kung-Fu on sand dunes.” I’d also hazard Universal was interested in making a movie with laser beams. “Star Wars” had laser beams and it was boffo box office. Lynch split the difference by adapting the Weirding Way into a still esoteric concept involving sound. As Paul puts it in the film, “Some thoughts have a certain sound, that being equivalent to a form. Through sound and motion, you will be able to paralyze nerves, shatter bones, set fires, suffocate an enemy or burst his organs.” The Weirding Module appears as a slightly more standard sci fi film concept, even if its function is still obscure.
Many hate this simplification, but the thing that has to be remembered is this: movie studios expect Dune to be an action flick. “Star Wars” changed the perception of science fiction films. In the years previous to its release, movies like “The Andromeda Strain,” and “Silent Running” typified the genre. They were slower moving think pieces that, while visual dynamic, contained much more contained sequences of action. At the time Dune was made, action meant lasers. Now that Hollywood is acclimated to Hong Kong style fight scenes, I imagine Paramount will be more interested in the Weirding Way as stunts rather than lasers should their intended remake ever get going.
The film also deletes Count Fenring and his wife, a Bene Gesserit who leaves a note for Lady Jessica in the palace on Arrakis. Fenring is himself a failed attempt at what Paul ultimately becomes. Because he recognizes this, Fenring refuses the Emperor’s order to kill Paul. These characters deepen the thread of the Kwisatz Haederach. Fenring is at once a great fighter and politician, but described as ugly and a lacky. He lacks Paul’s resolve and, ultimately, the ability to bridge the way. Fenring’s wife, Margot, retrieves the genetic material from House Harkonnen for the Bene Gesserit breeding program. This is key because Paul is, technically, a mistake. He was intended to be a girl who would then be married to a Harkonnen, bringing the bloodlines together and producing the Kwistatz Haderach the Sisterhood intended.
Interestingly enough, Jessica, Paul’s mother, is the daughter of the Baron Harkonnen, making him Paul grandmother. The Sisterhood’s scheme involved complicated — and hidden — instances of inbreeding.
I think it’s easy to see why these characters do not appear in the film. They are, to a certain extent, redundancies in a film already bursting at the seems with characters and concepts. There is a nod to the Sisterhood’s breeding program as Jessica is told early in the film why her first child was meant to be a daughter. Lynch even includes a visual clue: Jessica and her second child, Alia, have red hair indicating the Harkonnen lineage. While in the novel, Paul and Alia learn about their ancestry, the film never allows the characters that knowledge.
The film ends with a scene that is not in the novel and, in fact, contradicts the concept. Paul makes it rain on Arrakis. Water is deadly to the worms of Arrakis and the worms are the key to creation of the Spice. Although, during the Spice Agony sequence, Paul exclaims he has the power to destroy the spice. Also, we have this excerpt from the seventh draft of the film:
PAUL The Fremen have the word of Muad'Dib. They will have their Holy War to cleanse the Universe... they will have Arrakis... Dune... their planet. There will be flowing water here open to the sky and rich green oases. For the spice there will always be some desert. There will be fierce winds and trials to toughen men.
Rain was part of his design, but it is clear he intended it to be more contained than the final film would suggest. On the Special Edition Dune DVD, producer Rafella De Laurentiis mentions several scenes were rewritten and shot after the initial assembly was viewed by the production team and the studio. Concepts were condensed during this phase and moments like the fight with Jarmus and Thufir Hawatt’s death ended up deleted from the theatrical cut. It is clear to see how this detail would be lost to save time.
Dune’s problem is not adaptation. It is a surprisingly faithful film considering both the studio climate and the stunning thematic density of the material. We’re also talking about a very visual director working with ideas and themes that are intensely literary.
Next time, I’ll cut into Dune and discuss some of the ways the movie is flawed. Yes, I’m still capable of seeing errors within it.