Review of Frank Herbert's Dune miniseries

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Review of Frank Herbert's Dune miniseries

Postby tanzeelat » Sun Jun 01, 2008 5:28 am

Here's a review I wrote of the DVD of Frank Herbert's Dune back in June 2001.

Frank Herbert’s Dune, adapted for the screen and directed by John Harrison
In November 2000, the Sci Fi Channel screened a mini-series adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1966 novel Dune, the second attempt to adapt this complex and popular science fiction novel for the screen. The first, of course, was David Lynch’s 1984 film Dune (which is currently available on DVD in a “special TV version”, boasting an additional 38 minutes to the theatrical release). Frank Herbert’s Dune, the mini-series, was broadcast as three episodes of ninety minutes each. At 270 minutes, that’s plenty of screen-time to present the book, and Frank Herbert’s Dune does claim to be a faithful adaptation.

But right from the opening scene, it’s clear that the director is playing fast and loose with the definition of the word “faithful”. The novel opens on the world of Caladan. The Atriedes are preparing to move, lock, stock and barrel, to Arrakis, at the behest of the Emperor. Frank Herbert’s Dune, however, begins aboard the starship taking the Atriedes to Arrakis. It’s only a change of scenery, however: all the important information is there, including the pivotal scene with the gom jabbar.

Even with 270 minutes of screen-time, certain sub-plots in the novel were unlikely to make it into the mini-series. Most such elisions are understandable. By definition, a screen adaptation has to be tighter story-wise than the original text. However, Harrison (who, incidentally, penned the script for Disney’s Dinosaur) has chosen to add sub-plots of his own. I cannot see rationale for this. An example: Princess Irulan in Herbert’s novel is only a minor character and, like Duncan Idaho, does not really begin to impact on the story until later in the original trilogy. Harrison decided to raise her profile, which meant giving her some stake in the plot. So he has made her the most politically-astute member of the Emperor’s camp. It is Irulan who realises that the mysterious Fremen leader Muad’Dib is actually Paul Atreides. It is, to some extent, Irulan who dictates the Emperor’s response to the threat on Arrakis, and the threat posed by the Harkonnens. But even here, he puts his foot wrong: in an inexplicable departure from the original novel, he has Irulan attend the Atriedes’ inaugural dinner-party on Arrakis, and even throws in a little Romeo & Juliet between Irulan and Paul Atreides.

That scene is not the only one in Frank Herbert’s Dune with echoes of Shakespeare. This is deliberate: Harrison admits that he felt the story had a Shakespearean feel and he capitalised on it—i.e., wrote additional scenes and dialogue to heighten the resemblance. Which seems to me to be cheating. Harrison himself does not have a stage background. He started out as an assistant to horror-maven George Romero, and has worked almost exclusively in that genre. But Harrison did insist on casting theatre-trained actors for Frank Herbert’s Dune, which later proved an advantage.

But for Harrison’s odd inclusions, the plot of Frank Herbert’s Dune is faithful to the original text. He writes Thufir Hawat out after the Harkonnen take-over of Arrakis (in the book, Hawat is forced to work for the Harkonnens), but includes several scenes featuring the Harkonnens that Lynch left out of his film adaptation. Most of the characters, with the exceptions of Princess Irulan and Count Hasimir Fenring (whose part is downplayed), are close to their originals.

However, for a novel such as Dune, with its rich setting and breadth of background, any adaptation is going to stand or fall on its production design. Sadly, the design of Harrison’s Frank Herbert’s Dune does not impress as much as that of David Lynch’s Dune. Harrison has chosen to go for a more science-fictional look than Lynch did. The end result reminds me more of a SF comic strip featuring a star-faring Catholic Inquisition which appeared in Marvel’s Epic magazine - Dean Motter and Ken Steacy's The Sacred and the Profane - than it does Herbert’s novel.

The sets and set-dressing are impressive—the interior of the palace at Arrakeen, for instance, is particularly good—but the costumes are boring. With some exceptions: in one scene, Princess Irulan wears a dress on which are pinned a flock of butterflies. It is quite awful. The Fremen sietchs are more Petropolis than the rough rock-walled caverns described in the novel, but the hardware looks good. Harrison throws in more guns and firearms than the book describes, which detracts somewhat from the original’s flavour.

According to the DVD’s production notes, Frank Herbert’s Dune was originally to be filmed in the Tunisian desert, but, for budgetary reasons, it was decided to film it entirely on a sound-stage. In Prague. Landscapes were mimicked using trans-lights—huge wraparound backdrops. In some parts of the mini-series, this is sadly obvious, and the result looks cheap.

The spaceships, building-exteriors and sandworms were all done with CGI, and are much better in places than those in Lynch’s film. The sandworms are especially good. Lynch’s stop-motion special effects match Harrison’s CGI in some parts, but CGI gives an advantage when framing shots and Harrison makes full use of this in many scenes.

The casting of Frank Herbert’s Dune is very much hit and miss. The novel wears its Arab-influences quite plainly, and so it is always disappointing to see this aspect downplayed when realising the Fremen in a screen adaptation. None of the actors playing Fremen parts look remotely Arabic, and the Fremen names and terms have been butchered in pronunciation so they no longer sound Arabic. Alec Newman, a young Scottish stage-actor, makes a good Paul Atreides, and successfully handles a part that has him on-screen for the bulk of the mini-series’ 270 minutes. His US accent also had me fooled. William Hurt sleepwalks through his part as Duke Leto (despite implying in a featurette on the DVD that he has been a fan of the book since its publication). Anyway, Jurgen Prochnow always struck me as closer to the book’s character than Hurt. Saskia Reeves makes an impressive Lady Jessica, and acts the part far better than Francesca Annis did in Lynch’s film. German Uwe Osterknecht is a good actor, but just doesn’t look Arabic enough to play Fremen leader Stilgar. Neither does Czech actress Barbora Kodetova look particularly Fremen and, although she does well with Chani’s part, her heavy East European accent is a little disconcerting. Giancarlo Giannini makes a better Emperor Shaddam than José Ferrar did in Lynch’s film. PH Moriarty, the Scotsman who plays Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart in Lynch’s film), is appalling. As are many of the actors in minor parts. Brit Ian McNiece is good as Baron Harkonnen, although he plays it a little too much like Shakespearean villain. Feyd-Rautha is played by US actor Matt Keeslar, and he is very good, as good as Saskia Reeves. There is no comparison with Sting in Lynch’s film.

Overall, Frank Herbert’s Dune probably scores over Lynch’s Dune in terms of story. It is more faithful and more coherent. But the original novel is slow, and so too is the mini-series. Very little seems to happen in the first two 90-minute episodes, and Harrison has misplayed the drama of those events which do speed up the pace. On reflection, I’ve yet to be convinced that 150 minutes is not sufficient time to make a good screen adaptation of the novel. Sometimes remaining faithful to the original text is not a good thing.

Frank Herbert’s Dune was always going to appeal to fans of the book more than those who have never read the novel. And Harrison does trade unfairly on this in places, bringing in characters without fully introducing them because fans already know who they are. As a fan of the book, the mini-series works reasonably well, given what I feel are occasional unnecessary departures from the text in story and production design. As a science fiction television series in its own right, it wears its book origins a little too heavily to stand alone, but its look and feel does make it superior to much television science fiction. But then, that’s hardly unexpected for a mini-series, which has a larger budget, and can boast a coherent story, without the need for self-contained weekly episodes.

The DVD is a good presentation of the mini-series. It has two discs, one containing episodes one and two, and the second with episode three and various special features. These latter include a 25-minute featurette, containing interviews with the cast and crew, and some behind-the-scenes footage. There is a gallery of production designs, cast and crew bios, and production notes. There are also several pages of incomprehensible New Age psycho-babble from cinematographer Vittorio Storaro on his interpretation of realising Frank Herbert’s novel on the small-screen. Not only is this presented in a way that makes reading it difficult, but the content is unreadable itself and best avoided.
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