Book vs. Movie: Dune
By Kim Hollis
March 22, 2006

He will kill you.

If movies like Freddy vs. Jason, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Alien vs. Predator, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Kramer vs. Kramer, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ecks vs. Sever, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and King Kong vs. Godzilla have taught us nothing else, it's that everything is somehow better in battle format. We here at BOP recognize this fact, but at the same time realize that our breed of super-smart readers sometimes yearns for a touch of the intellectual at the same time. And since Hollywood has a certain obsession with turning literature of all types into big screen features, we're afforded the perfect opportunity to set up grudge matches galore.

And so, whenever the Tinsel Town hotshots decide that it's a great idea to turn the little-known Herman Melville classic Redburn into a theatrical event film, we'll be there. Whether the results are triumphant (see: The Lord of the Rings trilogy) or tragic (i.e. The Scarlett Letter), we'll take it upon ourselves to give you the verdict and spark the discussion.


Hailed as one of the great novels of the science fiction genre, Dune is notable for both its complex mythology and an eye toward conservationism in a time when it wasn't yet super fashionable to think about the future of our planet and the effects our actions can have. Written by Frank Herbert and published in 1965, the book has legions of fans and has spawned a set of sequels by Herbert himself before his son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson took up the torch. After becoming one of the best-selling science fiction novels of all time, the story was finally adapted for the big screen by David Lynch in 1984 and more recently, an excellent mini-series for the Sci Fi Channel. For purposes of this analysis, though, we'll stick with the Lynch film, as it was recently released in an expanded special edition that includes a more complete cut of the film along with a variety of terrific special features.

The Book

Dune begins as Duke Leto Atreides is preparing to migrate his family from to the planet Arrakis, which is a location of great importance due to the fact that it is the home of the spice, mélange. This spice is vital in interplanetary trade and the source of political competition and strategy. The Padishah Emperor controls the various houses/fiefdoms, and there is also a mysterious entity known as the Spacing Guild that has a vested interest in controlling the spice. Also mixing in with their attempts to exert political control are the secretive Order of the Bene Gesserit, comprised wholly of females who train their entire lives to complete the duties assigned to them.

As Duke Leto and his family – Lady Jessica, his concubine, and their son Paul – quickly learn upon arriving at Arrakis, there are many different machinations at work. The former "ruler" of Arrakis, Baron Harkonnen and his family, have hatched a plot that will bring about the downfall of House Atreides. Such a plot requires that a traitor be in the midst of Leto and his consorts, and the plot unfolds such that Leto is in fact captured and ultimately killed. Somehow, though, Lady Jessica and teenage son Paul manage to escape. They sneak off into the hills and sand of Arrakis, where they must be careful to avoid the giant, terrifying "worms" that guard the spice as well as contend with some locals known as Fremen. These Fremen are men of the desert, with long-standing traditions and beliefs that come into play when they determine that Paul might just be the Kwisatz Haderach who has been prophesied as their savior. Integrating into the Fremen tribe, Paul takes the name Muad'Dib, and events take place over a period of several years that will eventually allow the young hero to take a stand for his own House and his new people.

That is only a very rough sketch of the storyline of Dune, but to reveal much more takes us much too far into the realm of spoilers. Herbert's book is extremely detailed and time consuming, but the reading of it is rewarding. The author creates a singular world much like that of Tolkien's Middle Earth, but shrouds it in mysticism and politics that still feel relevant even 40 years after publication.

The Movie

Just as is the case in most of his films, director David Lynch's Dune is...odd. It's not that the story itself isn't unusual or out there, it's just that Lynch takes every possible strange aspect available to him and runs with it as far as he can. As an example, the Spacing Guild I mentioned in the book synopsis is given a far more significant role in the movie, to the point that the story opens with these creatures. They're strange looking and freaky, and frankly a little bit gross. But the Spacing Guild isn't the ickiest thing in the movie. No, that honor belongs to the Baron Harkonnen himself, a large, disgusting creature who is as the book describes him with a few exceptions – the movie Baron has pustules all over his face that he has requested from a futuristic plastic surgeon. Additionally, the Baron seems to have vampiric tendencies that were never hinted at in the book (though Herbert does imply that he is a pedophile).

Lynch regular Kyle MacLachlan is the movie's centerpiece, as he plays Paul/Muad'Dib. He's perhaps a bit old for the role, but that's easily overlooked for the most part. The real problem comes in the stilted dialogue, which makes Dune difficult to watch most of the time. Additionally, I find it hard to believe that anyone who has not read the book would have an easy time following the movie version. If you're already privy to the ideas and plotline, it's interesting to watch Lynch's ideas unfold, but otherwise, I have to think that his imagining of the story is baffling. And seeing how the film is remembered as one of the biggest box office flops in history as well as an outrage to fans of Herbert's work, I think popular opinion should bear me out here.

The Verdict

Clearly, I recommend reading the book over watching the David Lynch film. On the other hand, if you're not a big reader, the Sci Fi Channel miniseries is exceptional and does a fine job of packing in a lot of story in a few hours. The performances are superlative as well. Still, it's always rather fascinating to view Lynch's work, and if you have a familiarity with the plot either from reading the book or watching the miniseries, I would suggest that the 1984 film is worth a watch. There are some interesting performances from such luminaries as Sting, Patrick Stewart (who looks the same today as he did then) and Dean Stockwell. Lynch is an auteur to be sure, and was able to resurface from the disastrous Dune by moving on the classic (and underrated) Blue Velvet. Since that time, he's primarily stuck to smaller, low-budget fare, which is probably where his quirky talent is best suited. His work is certainly an acquired taste.