DUNE: Remaking the Classic Novel (Mania.com)

By:Steve Fritz
Date: Monday, December 04, 2000

When it comes to reinterpreting sci-fi novels from print to screen, it would be hard to find a project more difficult to do than Frank Herbert's Dune. And when producer Dino De Laurentiis released his theatrical film version of the sci-fi classic 15 years ago, it largely met with shock and disgust, failing to satisfy the book's large fan following. Then again, if ever there was a film that was snakebit, it was De Laurentiis ' Dune.

So, when Richard Rubinstein, executive producer of the Sci-Fi Channel's new Dune mini-series and himself a long-time Dune fan, took on the project, he wasn't interested in reinterpreting it, per se. He was more interested in repackaging it in a format that faithfully accommodated its sweeping, epic story.

'First of all, I love great stories and characters who are larger than life,' says Rubinstein, who's probably best known as director George Romero's former partner. 'So I always was a big fan of Herbert's Dune. In fact, I have a signed first edition of the hardback in my personal collection that I got back in 1964. Well, three-and-a half years ago, I was looking over my library and my eyes rested on the spine of that book. As I did that, I couldn't help but think, 'Y'know, that would make a great mini-series.'

'Now I had some experience in the 1990s making mini-series. I worked on The Stand and The Langoliers. So, to me, when it comes to interpreting large, complicated works, there's no better format than the mini-series. I also felt that, even with commercials, it would be possible to do the three major chapters of Dune and keep them within format. In fact, if we did it over three nights, we would play right into the strengths of the book. If was very symbiotic.'

Following his library epiphany, Rubinstein learned that De Laurentiis only owned the theatrical film rights to Dune. 'So I went ahead and bought the television rights,' says Rubinstein. The rights coup didn't necessarily mean things were going to be easy, though. It took Rubinstein three years to line up financing.

'There were people who felt that because of the movie, doing a Dune mini-series would be a marketing negative,' admits Rubinstein. 'I felt exactly the opposite. I felt that the people were so vocal about the movie, that they were passionate. By going back to the original book and starting from scratch, this adaptation would recreate the feeling that I call the soul of the book. After seeing it, you would walk out of there feeling the same way the book made you.'

It was during final negotiations with the Sci-Fi Channel that Rubinstein made what would be his most critical hire, that of scriptwriter and director John Harrison. You can talk cast and production notes to the Nth degree, but as Rubinstein hopes the movie proves, without a strong director helming the entire project, another disaster would have been hard to avoid.

'John and I have had a long relationship,' recalls Rubinstein. 'I've known him for 20 years, going back to the days when he was working for George Romero when George was my partner. It started with him as an actor in Dawn of the Living Dead and Nightriders. From there I watched him grow to the First A.D. on Creepshow and then go on to directing episodes of the Tales From the Dark Side television show. Then he directed the Tales From the Dark Side feature we made.

'There are a lot of longstanding relationships in the making of Dune that go as far back, but with John it all came down to a conversation I had with the people at the Sci-Fi Channel. When we were concluding the deal, they asked me what kind of director would I be looking for. We decided this would be a good chance for someone with a lot of experience to really show off their stuff. We then felt that John had sufficient experience and he was the one who had a lot more to show.'

Probably just as important was the fact that Harrison shared Rubinstein's vision on what Dune should be about and how it should be made. 'I had read the book when I was in college and had loved it,' says Harrison. 'As far as I'm concerned, Dune and [Isaac] Asimov's Foundation Trilogy are the two seminal works of 20th Century science fiction. So I had always loved the work from the beginning. Like many others, when I saw the movie, I was disappointed. I didn't think it was a very good translation of the book. Now I happen to be a big fan of [Dune movie director] David Lynch, but I'm not a big fan of that movie. He's a brilliant director, but I think this was a tremendous misfire and I can't blame him for not wanting to talk about it.

'Having seen the theatrical movie,' continues Harrison, 'I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever have a shot at doing my own version of it. How it happened was Richard called me and told me the television rights were still available. It seems De Laurentiis never thought the TV rights would add up to anything. So Richard had got them and asked what I thought about doing not a remake, because we never thought of calling this a remake, but my own version of Dune. Well, of course, I jumped at the chance. I felt that with a six-hour mini-series, I have the time to delve into the issues, themes and politics of the book that you couldn't do in a two-and-a-half-hour movie. I had the opportunity to do a much more faithful interpretation.'

Note that Harrison calls it a faithful interpretation, not a word-for-word, literal adaptation. The screenwriter-director made some changes he felt would accurately convey the spirit of the story in spots where the details were lacking or implied, the most prominent of them being fleshing out the Space Guild and the Princess Irulan character.

'The Space Guild's primarily referred to,' says Harrison. 'This is all part of the process of translation. A novel allows the imagination to roam freely, to fill in gaps that the author only suggests. But a movie has to be a little bit more linear, a little bit more explained. Another important decision I made early on was to not use Herbert's internal monologues. If you recall, in the book there's a constant internal banter between the characters as to what other people are thinking or feeling. This is not a great device in cinema. I felt it would be better to externalize those thoughts and feelings in scenes where the action told you [the same thing or said it] through dialogue. This was all part of the inevitable condensations one has to make when turning an incredibly rich novel into a movie.

'On the other hand, it's also sometimes necessary to visualize what the author only suggests in the book,' explains Harrison. 'The Navigator is a perfect example of that. Frank Herbert never describes completely how space is folded. In fact, if you look in the book, he never describes what a 'thopter looks like. He suggests. So it was up to me and the production designers to say. I'm sure there will be some fans out there that will say the equivalent of, 'That's not their vision of it.' But I think we have stayed true to the book in so many ways that it is a faithful adaptation.'

Then there is the matter of Irulan. As portrayed by Julie Cox, she's a much more active character in the mini-series than she was in the first Dune book. 'That was deliberate for several reasons,' says Harrison. 'In Dune she's a cypher. She becomes much more significant later on, starting with Dune Messiah. On the other hand, she is a very large presence in Dune because Herbert starts each chapter with an excerpt from her diaries. She's the Chronicler, yet she's also an incredibly important person in the final resolution of Dune. The political checkmate that Paul Atreides finally puts the Emperor in can't be done without her collaboration. In cinema, it would be a very shocking and disappointing denouement to have her only appear at the end of the entire movie.

'So I enlarged her role. I did it in order to give us a vehicle into the Corrino family, which is only referred to in Herbert's book rather than actually displayed. It's all there in the book, but a lot of it is anecdotal. She provided a physical way into that family. Of course, as we go into the sequels, we'll go more into Irulan's life. I maintain that even though there's a couple of inventions in there, they all spring from Herbert's own writings. Everything comes directly from the book.'

Production of the mini-series in itself was a work of epic proportion. Like his casting of Alec Newman for the lead role of Paul Atreides, Harrison and Rubinstein hired a number of strong actors who didn't quite have the name value of many others. True, there are recognized superstars in Oscar-winner William Hurt (Duke Leto Atreides) and Giancarlo Giannini (Emperor Shaddam), but the rest of the cast are not well known on this side of the Atlantic.

To top it off, after toying around with the idea of shooting the movie, at least in part, in the deserts of Tunisia and Morocco, Rubinstein and Harrison decided to take it all in-house to the studios of Prague, in the Czech Republic.

'We basically chose Prague because it has very, very large sound stages,' says Rubinstein. 'That was important for how this film was going to look. They basically brought the desert inside the studios. We had come to the conclusion that going out to the desert and shooting there was extremely risky. We felt the weather could very well turn into a problem. So we went and created a world inside the studio through a technique [Dune cinematographer Vittorio] Storaro developed called Translight. By the time we were done, we had so many dump trucks of sand inside the studio that some of the stages nearly collapsed from the weight.'

Another interesting element of the casting of actors and crew is that they came from all over the Western world. While much of the cast hailed from the British empire, Giannini is one of Italy's most respected actors. Storaro is also one of Italy's top guns professionally. Stilgar is played by German actor Uwe Ochsenknecht. The production designer, Milien 'Kreka' Kliakovic, is Yugoslavian. Now add in a ton of Czech production crew and Harrison had, at least according to Rubinstein, his own version of the Tower of Babel.

'It was remarkable to watch them work some times,' recalls Rubinstein. 'I would watch John give an order and then watch the instructions take ten minutes to filter down to the entire crew. It was often a case of John saying something and then waiting for everyone to hear what their personal interpreter had to say.'

If you ask Harrison, this was a potential negative he turned to his advantage. 'I was determined to show the cultural life of this world that Herbert created would be very deeply textured,' explains Harrison. 'So I had no problems hiring Germans, Italians, British, Slavs and members of the Czech Republic as cast and crew. This gave me a phenomenal, deep pool of talent to draw from. As Richard said, we had this Tower of Babel going on. I think we made the production richer because of it. It also allowed me to show the various cultural lives of the various factions inside of Dune.'

That left just one tremendous hurdle for this version of Dune to overcome, and that is its legions of fans. As both men are well aware of, Herbert's son, Brian, had started a new series of Dune books with the aid of noted author Kevin J. Anderson. The first two, House Atredeis and House Harkonnen have become million-sellers in their own right. This means the series is still incredibly popular with its core following. It also means if said fans don't like the final product, the trashing the two will take will be monstrous.

'I am fully prepared that there will be many who will find something to object about,' says Harrison. 'I can't really help that. When you have a book, which to some people is a sacred text, interpretations are bound to vary. I hate to be so presumptuous, but look at the Bible. Then again, look at the X-Men movie. Anything with that large an audience is going to have a variety of interpretations to it, and responses to anybody who also tries to interpret it.

'Honestly, I had to not pay attention to any of that when making my movie. I felt I had to be true to my own interpretation of the book. I do feel that it's an honest and fair interpretation, and can defend anything I did with chapter and verse from Herbert's own writings if need be.'

Whatever the fans may end up thinking of the series, it should be noted that the Sci-Fi Channel is already very high on it. In fact, they are so high, they have already committed Rubinstein and Harrison to start work on a sequel.

'Right now we're trying to decide whether we're going to do just Dune Messiah or that and Children of Dune, which would be my preference,' says Harrison. 'Time is going to dictate all; if we're going to do a shorter or longer mini-series next time. My personal feeling is these next two books are really one piece. They basically conclude the Atreides saga, if you will. In the books after that, Herbert basically introduces a whole new story. If you do things my way, I think you wind up with a wonderful completion of the story of Paul Muad'dib and his religion. From there we can go on to Leto and the Golden Path.'