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Hollywood keeps retelling ‘Dune.’ Why this latest adaptation may be the one that takes off

By Radhika Marya, CNN

Get ready for the spice to flow.

After a number of pandemic-induced delays, the latest movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic novel “Dune” is landing in theaters and on HBO Max this weekend. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, with its stars including Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya and Oscar Isaac, the film is among this year’s most highly anticipated releases. (“Dune” studio Warner Bros., HBO Max and CNN are all part of WarnerMedia.)

But the movie is not the first onscreen adaptation of the novel — a much-maligned film came out in 1984, while a TV miniseries followed nearly two decades later. Even so, the source material has long been considered nearly impossible to adapt.

Set on Arrakis, an inhospitable desert planet valued for its hallucinogenic “spice,” the novel follows the journey of young Paul Atreides (Chalamet) whose family has been tasked with overseeing the planet — taking the place of their rivals, the Harkonnens. The story features everything from spaceships and extraterrestrial life forms called sandworms to themes revolving around betrayal, politics and religion.

The world established in “Dune” and its sequels is full of layers, many of which have been difficult to translate to the big screen. Here’s a look back at previous adaptations and why audiences today may be likely to appreciate Villeneuve’s adaptation.

The first adaptation of ‘Dune’ didn’t do so well

It took more than a decade for the first movie adaptation of “Dune” to get made after rights to the film changed hands multiple times during the 1970s. Director Alejandro Jodorowsky (“El Topo”) — subject of the documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune” — was at the helm at one point, with grandiose casting plans that included Orson Welles and Salvador Dali. But the project ultimately collapsed thanks in part to a mounting budget and an unwieldy runtime.

A “Dune” film became reality when director David Lynch — coming off the success of “The Elephant Man” — took on the project. Released in 1984, Lynch’s “Dune” was a commercial and critical disaster, making just $30.9 million at the domestic box office on a budget of $40 million.

“This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time,” Roger Ebert wrote in his one-star review of the Lynch adaptation, calling it a “project that was seriously out of control from the start.”

“Producers crossed their fingers and hoped that everybody who has read the books will want to see the movie,” his review concluded. “Not if the word gets out, they won’t.”

Though 1984’s “Dune” has gained something of a cult following over the years, Lynch himself doesn’t speak highly of the film, calling it a “huge, gigantic sadness in my life” during a virtual Q&A in 2020.

Sci-fi and film aficionados have a few theories about why these early attempts to tell the “Dune” story onscreen didn’t click.

Both Jodorowsky and Lynch “were trying too hard to be eccentric in their own way — to balance their own style and the [source material’s] complex features — and as a result their efforts came across as somewhat contrived and perhaps overdone,” said Marina Hassapopoulou, a professor of Cinema Studies at New York University, in an email to CNN.

Lynch’s version, in particular, tried to do too much in a limited window of time, YouTube video essayist Patrick Willems told CNN, noting that the “movie is what people who don’t like science fiction think all science fiction is, which is basically just cold and dense and emotionless and basically nothing but information and lore.”

Unlike “Star Wars,” which used its opening crawl to catch the audience up on the story and provided reasons to be invested in the characters’ journeys, Lynch’s adaptation of “Dune” immediately “dumps all of these terms and names and information on you,” Willems said.

“It is just about two hours long and they tried to fit so much into it that it really feels like a CliffsNotes version of a textbook,” he said. “You can see the elements of a compelling story — it’s just that it’s so condensed, and it feels much more like an information dump than an actual emotional story about characters.”

A 2000 miniseries fared better

The failures of Lynch’s adaptation did not stop another “Dune” from being made. In 2000, the Sci Fi Channel (now stylized as SyFy) released “Frank Herbert’s Dune,” a three-part TV miniseries written and directed by John Harrison that adhered more closely to the source material. The miniseries was a triumph compared to Lynch’s big screen adaptation, bringing Sci Fi its highest ratings at the time. More than 3 million people watched the first part, according to the New York Times.

Though the miniseries had its detractors, it won two Emmy awards for cinematography and special visual effects. This led the channel to release a sequel miniseries, “Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune,” starring a then relatively unknown James McAvoy, which combined events from the author’s follow-up books “Dune Messiah” and “Children of Dune.”

Of course, while these takes on the “Dune” story found their audience, they did not have the same wide reach a big-budget theatrical release typically has.

“It was the pre-‘Battlestar Galactica’ era of the Sci Fi Channel — nothing they were doing was really connecting with wider mainstream audiences,” Willems said.

Despite the complex source material, directors remain drawn to ‘Dune’

“Dune” has often been considered “unfilmable.” As Hassapopoulou puts it, “the source material is too sublime to be adapted (and limited to) an audiovisual medium like cinema, and that makes it challenging to adapt from book to film.”

As this year’s Villeneuve release indicates, filmmakers remain drawn to the source material — partially because of the complexities and challenges involved. Villeneuve told the Los Angeles Times “it took a long time to find the right equilibrium” between maintaining the main storyline and capturing some of the text’s complexities, while also keeping some sense of “mystery.”

“It was very important for me that we not explain everything,” he told the Times.

Despite some of its denser themes, the “Dune” story has many universally recognizable elements. The feud between House Atreides and House Harkonnen is a trope readers of classic literature — such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Wuthering Heights” — are already familiar with.

“It’s the kind of thing people have been making movies about since the dawn of cinema,” Willems said. “Aspects of the story are really universal, but then you’ve got sandworms, you’ve got spaceships — you’ve got all these fun, strange sci-fi things to play around with.”

Are audiences ready for 2021’s ‘Dune’?

At the time of writing, Villeneuve’s “Dune” has taken in well over $100 million at the international box office. The film received an 8-minute standing ovation at its world premiere during the Venice International Film Festival and reviews are mostly positive as it opens in US theaters.

While the film’s ultimate performance at the box office is not yet known, Hassapopoulou believes “Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ will be the most commercially successful out of all adaptations so far,” pointing to the director’s previous works as reasons why his vision will succeed.

“As he has done with the Blade Runner legacy via ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017), Villeneuve is capable of bringing in new fans and sparking renewed interest in the source materials,” she said. “His film ‘Arrival’ demonstrates that he is capable of handling complex storytelling in a way that still makes it accessible to mainstream audiences.”

Plus, mainstream audiences today may simply be more ready than ever for a “Dune” adaptation than they were before. Hassapopoulou said Hollywood’s output since the 1990s has been “increasingly demanding more intellectually active and critically engaged viewers,” which means the new “Dune” may appeal to newer generations who “are not put off by aesthetic experimentation and convoluted narratives.”

Willems feels similarly, pointing to how “nerd media” has become more mainstream in the past 15 years. The average person today can name a number of previously obscure Marvel characters, while series like “Game of Thrones” — “​​this really dense fantasy thing with dragons and ice zombies” — became so popular, it was something even his own parents cared about, he noted.

But even with various factors aligning in the new movie’s favor, there are still some risks involved. For one thing, Villeneuve’s “Dune” doesn’t cover the whole novel — and it’s not yet confirmed that a second movie will definitely be made. “Will enough people go see it to ensure that Warner Bros. can justify making… part two?” Willems asked, while observing that splitting the most recent film adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” into two parts “worked” for the studio, which ultimately committed to completing the story in a second movie.

While “Dune” is something people have heard of, it isn’t necessarily a “familiar proven franchise” either, he said. But that hasn’t stopped his own excitement to see the film.

“I’m really curious how the general public will react and respond to it,” he said. “We don’t get an awful lot of movies like ‘Dune,’ so personally I hope that people show up for it.”

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