The Mythology and Missteps of Dune

April 06th, 2013 | Category: Essays

Dune“A beginning is a very delicate time,” opens the narrative of David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). Herbert says of the novel’s beginnings, “It began with a concept: to do a long novel about the messianic convulsions which periodically inflict themselves on human societies. I had this idea that superheros [sic] were disastrous for humans” (quoted in O’Reilly, 1981). The concept and its subsequent story, which took Herbert eight years to execute, won the Hugo Award, the first Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the hearts and minds of millions. Chronicler of cinematic science fiction follies David Hughes (2001) writes, “While literary fads have come and gone, Herbert’s legacy endures, placing him as the Tolkien of his genre and architect of the greatest science fiction saga ever written” (p. 77). Kyle MacLachlan, who played Paul Atreides, adds, “This kind of story will survive forever” (quoted in McKernan, 1984, p. 96).

Writers of all kinds are motivated by the search and pursuit of story. A newspaper reporter from the mid-to-late-1950s until 1969, Herbert employed his newspaper research methods to the anti-superhero idea. He gathered notes on scenes and characters and spent years researching the origins of religions and mythologies (O’Reilly, 1981). Joseph Campbell, the mythologist with his finger closest to the pulse of the Universe, wrote, “The life of mythology derives from the vitality of its symbols as metaphors delivering, not simply the idea, but a sense of actual participation in such a realization of transcendence, infinity, and abundance… Indeed, the first and most essential service of a mythology is this one, of opening the mind and heart to the utter wonder of all being” (p.18). Dune is undeniably infused with the underlying assumptions of a powerful mythology.

The sleeper must awaken.

A lot of people have tried to film Dune. They all failed.
— Frank Herbert

After labored but failed attempts by both Alejandro Jodorowsky, Haskell Wexler, and Ridley Scott (the latter of whom offered the writing job to Harlan Ellison; see Ellison, 1989, p. 203) to adapt Dune to film (Hughes, 2001; Tuchman, 1984), David Lynch signed on to do it in 1981 (Naha, 1984). With The Elephant Man (1980) co-writers Eric Bergren and Christopher De Vore, Lynch started over from page one, ditching previous scripts by Jodorowsky, Rudolph Wurlitzer, and Frank Herbert himself, as well as conceptual art by H.R. Giger (who had designed the many elements of planet Giedi Prime, home of House Harkonnen), Jean Giraud, Dan O’Bannon, and Chris Foss. Originally 200 pages long, Lynch’s script went through five revisions before it was given the green light, which took another full year of rewriting (Hughes, 2001). “There’s a lot of the book that’s isn’t in the film,” Lynch said at the time. “When people read the book, they remember certain things, and those things are definitely in the film. It’s tight, but it’s there” (quoted in Tuchman, 1984, p.99).

DuneLynch’s Dune is of the brand of science fiction during which one has to suspend not only disbelief in the conceits of the story but also disbelief that you’re still watching the movie. I’m thinking here of enjoyable but cheesy movies like Logan’s Run (1976), Tron (1984), The Last Starfighter (1984), and many moments of the original Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983). I finally got to see it on the big screen last week at Logan Theater in Chicago, and as many times as I’ve watched it (it has been regular bedtime viewing for me for years), it was still a treat to see it at the scale Lynch originally intended.

Dune is not necessarily a blight on Lynch’s otherwise stellar body of work, but many, including Lynch, think that it is. When describing the experience, he uses sentences like, “I got into a bad thing there,” “I really went pretty insane on that picture,” “Dune took me off at the knees. Maybe a little higher,” and, “It was a sad place to be” (quoted in Rodley, passim). Lynch’s experience with Dune stands with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as chaotic case studies in the pitfalls of novel-adapting and movie-making gone wrong.

Beginnings are indeed delicate times, and Frank Herbert knew not what he had started. “I didn’t set out to write a classic or a bestseller,” he said. “In fact, once it was published, I wasn’t really aware of what was going on with the book, to be quite candid. I have this newspaperman’s attitude about yesterday’s news, you know? ‘I’ve done that one, now let me do something else.'” (Naha, 1984). He went on to write five sequels, and his son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson have written other novels set in the Dune universe. Even for its author, the mythology of Dune has proven too attractive to escape.


Campbell, Joseph. (1986). The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. New York: Harper & Row.

Ellison, Harlan. (1989). Harlan Ellison’s Watching. San Francisco, CA: Underwood-Miller.

Herbert, Frank. (1965). Dune. New York: Chilton books.

Hughes, David. (2001). The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. London: Titan Books.

McKernan, Brian. (1984, November). Dune: A Sneak Preview. Omni Magazine, (7)2, 94-97.

Naha, Ed. (1984). The Making of Dune. New York: Berkeley Trade.

O’Reilly, Timothy. (1981). Frank Herbert. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing.

Rodley, Chris (ed.) (1997). Lynch on Lynch. London: Faber and Faber.

Tuchman, Mitch. (1984, November). The Arts: Film. Omni Magazine(7)2, 40, 98-99.

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