Viking Night: Dune
By Bruce Hall
September 14, 2016
One of the best things about being a science fiction devotee is that the genre fan base covers a wide swath of generational real estate. I can have a discussion about the space-time continuum with wide-eyed teenagers, smug twentysomethings, or old codgers who dismissively toss their salt and pepper ponytails at anything created after 1990. The Internet notwithstanding, all flavors of Nerd manage to coexist within the same ecosystem, bound by a mutual fascination with imagination and curiosity about the unknown.
That ecosystem was a lot smaller back in 1965, when novelist Frank Herbert published the first of his seminal Dune series. Here was a sprawling, modern epic almost as fascinating and wildly ambitious as The Lord of the Rings. No, it hasn’t had the same staying power as classic Tolkien, and the bottom half of that aforementioned demographic probably has no idea who Frank Herbert even is. Just take my word for it – if you’re into science fiction, then a lot of the things you like probably owe at least a spiritual debt to the man’s work.
And there’s a surprisingly large legion of fans out there who can recite every word of it.
So, it’s a good thing the Internet wasn’t a thing in 1984. When counterculture darling David Lynch set about adapting this beloved story for film, it triggered a Nerdpocalypse of then unprecedented proportion. With no World Wide Web to ruin, the Nerd community’s rage-fit was entirely analog. This confined it to magazines, basement gaming sessions powered by warm beer and a bag of dice, and 300 baud modems connected to PCs the size of a Prius.
Every issue of Starlog that came to my mailbox was already on fire. CompuServe was catastrophically divided. And good luck keeping a game of D&D going once the subject came up. Ah…those were the days.
Hmmm. I see I’ve lost the under 40 crowd. Let me try again.
Peter Jackson and Ben Affleck know nothing of nerd rage, is what I’m saying. Dune isn’t a perfect book, but it’s one of the most absorbing and complex fictional universes ever created, and the only reason it emerged from development hell when it did is because of the original author’s enthusiastic involvement. So, you had classic source material, an established fan base, the creator was on board…it must have turned out well, right?
Not really, no.
The film version of Dune has a poor reputation, despite the author’s endorsement. It lost money on its original run, fans were baffled and critics hated it (Siskel and Ebert couldn’t stop vomiting, as I recall). My initial reaction to the film was also negative, but having re-read the book since, and just taken in the film again, I feel a lot more sympathetic. Dune is a novel that might have benefitted from being split into two films, what with the source material being roughly as dense as expired gelato. But since it wasn’t split, the finished product is kind of a confusing mess, and the visual effects are maddeningly inconsistent in quality to boot.