Sunday, May 18, 2014

Book Learnin' #1: Frank Herbert's Dune Vs. David Lynch's Dune

Whenever I review a movie based on a popular novel, more often than not you'll find a caveat where I note that I have not read the book, and am therefore ignorant of the ways in which the film adaptation differs from its source material. If only to prove once and for all that I can actually read, and to take advantage of a recent phase of literary nostalgia I've been experiencing lately, I thought I'd start a new segment on the blog where I take a look back at some of my favorite books, specifically those that have been made into movies, and compare the two with the benefit of both hindsight and a consecutive viewing of both versions. First up, the book and film that inspired this series: Frank Herbert's epic ecological sci-fi masterpiece Dune, and the trippy Star Wars-esque acid trip of the same name by David Lynch.

One of the biggest criticisms of the film version of Dune is that the director's zeal to put his own bizarre surrealist stamp on the production led to many unnecessary additions, most notably a glimpse of the mutated Guild Navigator showed in later books, and the replacement of the Weirding Way, a form of precognitive martial arts, with Weirding Modules that use sound as a weapon. The latter seems particularly arbitrary and arguably replaces a much better science fiction concept with an inferior one, while the former is somewhat more forgivable considering the relative lack of otherworldly creatures in the Dune universe, and the need to compete with the likes of Star Trek and Star Wars. More to the point, I can't bring myself to fault the film for this special effects indulgence, because it was the sight of that freaky looking creature coming out of the mist that made me love this movie as a kid, and had I not been so enthused, I never would have went on to read the book.

Given the ferocity of criticism from fans of the original, I expected to come back to David Lynch's Dune to find it utterly incomprehensible and alien compared to the book, and I was surprised to see just how much they were able to leave in. Most of the supposed changes are actually more like simplifications that are at least somewhat understandable under the circumstances, like reducing the teachings of the Bene Gesserit to telepathy or making the spice fold space rather than facilitate precognitive plotting for faster than light travel. The book has more room to explore these concepts than the movie, which to its credit feels like an earnest attempt to capture as much of the book as possible in one film in an age when even after Star Wars, the notion of automatic sequels and massive franchise planning was not the norm. If Lynch's Dune commits any great sin against its source material, it is an unavoidable sin of omission, as it couldn't possibly contain the level of intricate world building present in the 500+ pages of the novel.

To my mind, looking at what was left out of the movie from the book, there are two major aspects of the original story that I miss. The first is the great degree of background surrounding the culture of the Fremen, a group of desert dwelling humans depicted in the movie as little more than a faceless army. There is so much more to these blue eyed warriors, so much that they should by all rights possess the same sort of pop culture cache as the Klingons or the Jedi. They write freaking poems to their blades, and can't cry over their dead because it would represent too massive a loss of the precious recycled water that sustains them. Also, they ride giant sandworms bigger than sperm whales and throughout the course of the first few novels engage in a jihad across the universe. They're badass is the point, like Michael Valentine Smith from Stranger In A Strange Land mixed with Rambo, but so much of what they are isn't even touched upon, which given the time spent on explaining the need to milk a poison's antidote out of the nipples of a cat, is somewhat of a missed opportunity on Lynch's part.

The other crucial omission is arguably the main theme of the entire Dune series, cut from the film perhaps for time, but more likely to help the story fit into a more mainstream context, which considering the director is somewhat bizarre. In the film, the hero Paul Atredies is basically Luke Skywalker, the innocent unassuming chosen one who grows into his predestined role as the Kwisatz Haderach. In the original work however, destiny isn't so simple. In the book, there is a matriarchal cult of social engineers, the aforementioned Bene Gesserit, who have a protocol for primitive worlds called the Missionaria Protectiva where false prophets are sent out to instill false prophecy that lines up with their long term plans to create a messiah through generations of selective breeding. They do this so that if they should ever wind up on these worlds hundreds or thousands of years later, they will know just what to say and do to ingratiate themselves as seers and religious leaders, so that one day their fabricated messiah will be automatically accepted across the universe. In the book, Paul Atredis knows all this and exploits it to his benefit.

This leads to an issue many fans cite with the film, namely the ending, which works for the movie but completely defies the book. In the film, the simplified heroic Paul, a real messiah, magically causes it to rain on Arrakis for the first time, ignoring the fact that the Fremen already had a plan to rejuvenate their ecosystem and this sudden rainfall would really fuck it up. More importantly, it cements the character as a noble and magical leader, when the whole message of the book and the series is that you should never trust the noble and magical leader, because infallibly following authority, especially based on that kind of religious fervor, is always bad. That being said, this is a theme that doesn't really work in a movie designed for mainstream audiences at least without the safety of multiple sequels to express it. The book ends with Atredis assuming control of an entire empire only to lament that fact that he can see the future and knows that his turning the Fremen into his army to avenge his father's death will eventually lead to the aforementioned jihad (which he knew beforehand, but did it anyway, because he's not a good guy). "Yay, we win, and oh by the way I'm going to be Space Hitler" isn't exactly the feel good romp most 80's era filmgoers would have expected.

I often complain about how long movies have gotten these days, with many critically acclaimed films topping out at 2 and 1/2 to 3 hours or longer, but most of the time, the issue isn't the length in general, but the redundancy and self indulgence it represents. Directors had a bit more discipline in the 70's and 80's for the most part, or at least more pressure to keep their films to what was then considered a reasonable running time. Dune is a movie that owing to what it is based on really should have been close to a three hour movie, again assuming that at the time one did not work with guaranteed sequels in mind. So many things that now come off as distracting about the movie like the voice over narration and strange pacing issues in the second and third acts would have been resolved if this story were given the proper amount of time to grow. In retrospect, Lynch's morbid aesthetic is far from a hindrance and feels more like a scapegoat for the larger issue, which is that this was a film made ahead of its time, before the new Golden Age of Television, which in a post Game Of Thrones landscape is the perfect and only medium for something this grandiose.

And speaking of Game of Thrones, I for one was gobsmacked by just how similar the world of Dune is to George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice And Fire series, to the point where I have to believe the author of the latter was heavily influenced by the earlier work. I'm not saying he stole anything, but the parallels are striking despite the radically different genres. Both focus on human drama amid high concept settings, introducing fantastical elements sparsely to enhance the personal stories of its vast cast of characters, switching from different perspectives chapter by chapter. Both involve political intrigue, war, and revenge on strange worlds, center around the fall of one great house at the hands of another duplicitous one, and have a generational scope. The Atredis and the Harkonen are The Starks and the Lanisters. The last honorable lord Leto is Ned Stark, Vladimir is Tywin Lannister, and Paul starts out as Bran, a child with visions, grows into Rob (minus the death) to avenge his father, and then goes full on Daenerys, turning a band of desert dwelling warriors into an army to reclaim the throne. Not to mention his wise and callous beyond her years sister, also named Aria. Just replace Dragons with Sandworms, both the most prominent supernatural element of the series ultimately used as a weapon of war, and the similarities are too numerous to overlook.

I thought I would end these with the question of whether or not I would still recommend either the book or the film in question, and whether fans exclusive to one or the other would benefit from reading or viewing its opposite. On this score, the book is easily a must read for anyone willing to be patient with its massive download of information. Its a long slog, but once you get past the vocabulary and initial complexity, its even harder to put down than it was to pick it up. This is a canon book when it comes to classic science fiction literature, one of those essential works that one must read before honestly calling themselves a fan. The movie is more of an acquired taste and obviously not quite as essential to its medium, but even as a curiosity I would recommend giving it a chance, as I feel its still rewarding even if it doesn't inspire you to explore this universe further. Its David Lynch making a big budget sci fi movie in the 80's; if that's all you know about it, I don't know how you could bring yourself to pass it up. And I definitely think that fans of the book who remember the movie as a betrayal should definitely give it a second look at least. There's a lot to rail against, but there's easily just as much to love about it, and like me, you may find your memory of its abuses to be somewhat exaggerated.

Well, that's it for this inaugural edition of Book Learnin', a series that likely won't be nearly as regular as some of my other ones, considering how labor intensive it is. Next time, I'll be delving into another childhood favorite all about children and nostalgia, and also killer clowns and prepubescent orgies. Fear is the mind killer, as they say. Goodnight.

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