On Adaptations

By Anne Perry

Posted on June 28, 2013 in Books, Film with tags Adaptations, Book review, Dune, Film Review, Science Fiction

Our Book and Film Club will meet today to discuss Dune, both Frank Herbert’s 1965 masterpiece and David Lynch’s 1984… attempt. In preparation for it I watched Dune, for the third time ever, over the weekend.

I first saw Dune when it was released into cinemas, in 1984. I was four, and recall three things from the film (beyond that it was scary): sandworms (very scary), thumpers (like the rabbit!) and the cat thing. I watched it again when I was about sixteen, and recall three things from that viewing, as well: sandworms (awesome), the cat thing (inexplicable) and how little sense it all made. I hadn’t read the book but, fortunately, my mother had. She shed some light on the proceedings, but honestly, not enough.

Between then and last night, when I watched Dune for the third time, I read and fell in love with the book. I also had learned, in the intervening years, what an all-out disaster Dune (the film) was. I heard the stories about its massive budget, its unconscionable (for 1984) run-time; how David Lynch passed on directing Return of the Jedi to make Dune, and how he won’t speak of the film in interviews; how disastrously the critics received the film. And so on and so forth.

So I went into my third viewing of Dune with a great deal of curiosity.

I walked away with some thoughts.

An adaptation is, simply put, a retelling. It does what all retellings do: it interprets. It embellishes. It highlights. It omits. How well it does these things, while still telling a cinematic story that people will enjoy getting drawn into, is essentially the measure of a successful adaptation.

And after having now seen Dune again, I find myself arguing that it isn’t successful, either as an adaptation of a book or as a film in its own right.

One of the issues with Dune is that it tries to collapse a massive story into a reasonable run-time. This is an issue all adaptations of novels face; novels simply have more room for scope, character and detail. So many adaptations, in an effort to stay true to the source material (especially when that source material is a beloved book) wind up following the source material too slavishly, moving from plot-point to plot-point with no artistry. There’s no sense of direction, no interpretation, no voice. The audience winds up questioning why the studio bothered to retell the story at all, beyond the obvious bid to cash in on a fad.

Good adaptations have a reason for being adapted to the screen. They bring a point of view to the material, an interpretation of it, which informs how the story is retold. In the best of circumstances, this interpretation marries the strength of cinematic storytelling with the strengths of literary storytelling; a good example might be Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Rings, which matches various heroic journeys with a sense of scale only truly the province of the big screen.

Controversial adaptations come down to arguments about those interpretations, those retellings. Perhaps one of the most famously controversial adaptations in cinema history is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, based on Stephen King’s novel. It’s a dark, cold, meticulously crafted horror movie, and King hates it. He’s not alone; lots of people find it a dismal adaptation while admitting that the filmic craftsmanship is superb.

What a film like The Shining has that Dune doesn’t, however, is that, at the end of the day, The Shining is still a very good film. It works in its medium, and it is internally consistent: it tells its story in a way that does justice to the plot, the characters and the setting. Dune – at least, the version that made it to the cinemas in 1984, and even the few longer cuts that have been edited together in the years since – does not. It moves from plot-point to plot-point with little more than a post-production voice-over to marry otherwise unrelated scenes.

Dune does try; Kyle McLaughlin’s Paul is honestly pretty good, and the villains chew enough scenery to make me fear for the health of the sets. And, the very most basic elements of the plot kind of make sense: there’s this natural resource, and everyone wants it, and there’s a coup over who controls it, and then Agent Cooper and Captain Picard lead a bunch of dudes in funny-looking onesies to victory while riding a giant Graboid, and then it rains. But the stuff that makes Dune Dune – Muad’Dib, fear is the mind-killer; Paul’s relationship with Jessica, with Chani, with Hallek – they don’t mean anything in the film.

In the Game of Thrones age, it seems likely that someone will give Dune another shot; a television program might give the material the room to breathe that it requires, while also bringing the filmic perspective that does it justice. More so than the 2000 series, anyway.

We can certainly hope.

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