Dune: David Lynch’s Epic Flop

Producer Dino de Laurentiis offered David Lynch the monumental task of directing Dune, the screen version of the best-selling sci-fi novel by the pop visionary Frank Herbert, after seeing and being impressed by the director’s black-and-white fact-inspired tale, “The Elephant Man” (1980), which was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture.

First published in 1965, Dune gained a cult following in the 1960s among members the counter-culture, and attracted a worldwide readership estimated at 30 million.

Dune is the sprawling saga of a young nobleman, Paul Atreides, the messiah whose coming has been foretold, who in the year 10,191 leads the Fremen in a holy war against the corrupt, decadent powers that rule the universe. The Fremen, who inhabit the desert planet Arrakis, known as “Dune,” are miners of “mlange,” a narcotic spice found only on Dune, and it is for control of the coveted consciousness-expanding, life-prolonging spice, guarded by monster worms, that the ruling families of the four advanced planets conspire against one another.

Underlying what could be described as a Byzantine intrigue are Herbert’s quasi-mystical (and mythical) ideas, which meld pop mythology, messianic religion, and a political message of ecological utopianism, Marxism, and apocalyptic notions of a purifying jihad, or holy war.

The vast scope of Herbert’s novel had intimidated earlier efforts of several directors to bring Dune to the screen. Hence, from the beginning, for Lynch and de Laurentiis, Dune was a huge enterprise, artistically, financially and logistically. Produced at a striking cost of about $45,000,000, the film had to rake in $200,000,000 at the box office just to break even.

In his effort to compress the novel into a 120-page script, Lynch had written at least seven drafts before satisfying both de Laurentiis and Frank Herbert.

Lynch had amassed a varied cast that included vet American Jose Ferrer, vet Swede Max von Sydow, Italian star Silvana Mangano (who’s De Laurentiis’ wife), Linda Hunt, and young thespians Kyle MacLachlan (who would star in his next feature, Blue Velvet) and Brad Dourif, as well as music star Sting.

When shooting finally began in Mexico, Lynch had to oversee the creation of more than seventy sets–each of Dune’s four locations has a completely different ecosystemand the invention of optical and sound effects.

Released by Universal in Christmas of 1984 with great fanfare, Dune was greeted with mixed-to-negative reviews (to use the jargon of Variety trade magazine). The public’s indifference resulted in a spectacular flop at the box office.

Some critics credited Lynch for creating a visual spectacle, even if structurally the film was messy. However, most reviewers felt that Lynch didn’t succeed in making a coherent narrative; some claimed that he had been defeated by the novel’s massive array of characters and numerous subplots. The unfamiliar terminology and new languages that Frank Herbert had used for Dune also proved to be a major obstacle.

For his part, Lynch felt that his version of Dune was hampered by brutal post-production and careless cutting in the editing room. The film’s running-time was cut substantially, though some footage was restored for the Video and DVD versions.

At Oscar time, Dune as nominated for one Oscar, Sound, by Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Kevin O’Connell, and Nelson Stoll. The winner, however, was Amadeus, Milos Forman’s musical that swept most of the Oscars in 1984.

Be Warned: There are at least three versions of Dune, which differ in running time, and on some of them the directorial credit is enlisted as Allen Smithee (a pseudonym used when the actual helmer removes his name from the picture).