Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | May 6, 2014

Jodorowsky’s Dune Oddly Makes Me Grateful for David Lynch’s Dune

I recently saw Jodorowsky’s Dune. In brief: around 1974, Alejandro Jodorowsky, the surrealist Chilean-French director of El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), formulated a plan to make a movie adaption of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune. The project got as far as writing a screenplay, drawing sketches for sets, spaceships and costumes, and making a detailed storyboard. Jodorowsky enlisted a number of persons to fill various roles — Salvador Dali was to play the Emperor Shaddam, Orson Welles agreed to portray the Baron Harkonnen. The project died before filming because Jodorowsky and his team could not get studio backing to the tune of the (conservative) $15 million projected budget for the film.

Having seen the documentary, I came away with two principal reactions. First, Alejandro Jodorowsky is crazy. Brilliant in a way, I’m sure, but crazy. Second, I am glad that it was David Lynch, and not Jodorowsky, who made the first film adaptation of Herbert’s novel. Lynch’s 1984 Dune is not without its flaws and weaknesses, to be sure, but I think it was a better adaptation and a better movie than Jodorowsky’s film would have been. (I should make clear that this is not the position of the people in the documentary.)

Perhaps I lack an appreciation of surrealism and Jodorowsky’s style of cinematic art.

Jodorowsky’s Dune makes clear that he would have made some substantial changes to the plot of Herbert’s Dune. (Jodorowsky says at one point that the only way to adapt a novel to film is to “rape” the novel.) Most of the people involved with the project who are interviewed in the documentary are quite explicit that they did not read the novel before beginning their work, and in any case none of Jodorowsky’s people were coming to the project as fans of the book. We’ve seen this in other film projects — J.J. Abrams, for instance, was not a notable fan of the Star Trek franchise when Paramount tapped him to direct the reboot. I’m sure there are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. But in the case of Jodorowsky’s scheme for Dune, I think that the proposed changes would have been detrimental. This isn’t always the case; sometimes films can depart from the source materials for good reasons, and even improve upon the books. Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernières, is an excellent novel with a terrible ending; the 2001 film adaptation, while flawed in various ways, improved upon the ending. Sometimes the movie can improve upon or even transcend the book; I’m thinking of The Hunt for Red October, for instance. But Jodorowsky’s changes would not have been improvements, from what I saw. (I can’t go into many details without spoilers.)

Jodorowsky may be brilliant, but I get the sense that it would be very difficult to work with him as a director, and that he could not easily be reined in when need be. This is sometimes essential when brilliant filmmakers are involved — they need other, perhaps less brilliant people around them to occasionally tell them No. I am convinced that one of the reasons the Star Wars prequel movies were so much worse than the original trilogy was that, by the time 1999 rolled around and it was time to make Episode I: The Phantom Menace, George Lucas was too much of a big shot, and there was no one in the organization who could say No to the man — the way Lawrence Kasdan and Gary Kurtz may have done when making the original movies. In 1999, there was no one who could, or would, convince Lucas that Jar Jar Binks was an abomination.

So too, I suspect, with Jodorowsky. There evidently are many people who regret that Jodorowsky did not get the chance to make the first adaptation of Dune. I am not one of them.

(For another view on Jodorowsky’s Dune, see this review in the Washington Post.)

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Responses

  1. “This is sometimes essential when brilliant filmmakers are involved — they need other, perhaps less brilliant people around them to occasionally tell them No.”

    Very true. And not just filmmakers. Novelists need editors.

  2. … And another thing. It’s not even like Dune is particularly unfilmable. (As compared to, say, To the Lighthouse.) A little faith in the audience’s ability to start in medias res & pick up the background on the way, and it could be a pretty straightforward thing, tho of course much better as a TV series than a 3-hour movie.

  3. “And not just filmmakers. Novelists need editors.”

    Agreed. My go-to example of that is the Harry Potter series, where it is reasonably clear when J.K. Rowling reached a stage where her editor(s) could no longer control her.

    Re: Dune: I rewatched Lynch’s Dune recently, and it struck me (consciously, for the first time that I am aware) as a very 80s movie, in everything from the lighting and the sets and costumes to the music. The special effects are very uneven (and at times amateurish), especially compared to what Lucas was doing at the same time.

    The SciFi channel did a miniseries version of Dune a few years back, even continuing the story to cover Children of Dune, for a total of about 8 hours. It is seriously underwhelming. The whole look of the miniseries is cheap, and the performances as a rule are wooden and lack gravitas.

    I wish that someday, someone would do a miniseries treatment of Dune with a Game of Thrones-scale budget.


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