Dune movies have been historically troubled. As American audiences await what sounds like a triumphant adaptation from visionary director Denis Villeneuve, many are revisiting the strange history of various Dunes that came before.
While the reputation of the 1984 David Lynch Dune remains decidedly mixed, and the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel versions have been largely forgotten, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never-actually-filmed version of Dune is generally spoken of in reverent tones by film buffs.
In fact, the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky's Dune makes the case that in 1975, this was going to be the most excellent sci-fi film ever. But, if you dig into what Jodorowsky’s Dune was going to be like, it doesn't sound good at all.
This might be an unpopular opinion, but here’s why we’re probably better off without Jodorowsky's Dune. Mild spoilers ahead for the book version of Dune.
What is Jodorowsky's Dune?
Technically, Jodorowsky's Dune is a documentary about the failed making of a big-screen Dune adaptation in the 1970s, undertaken by director Alejandro Jodorowsky. The documentary discusses nearly everything about the production of this film project. But here’s the TLDR version of what this Dune would have entailed:
- Jodorowsky wanted Pink Floyd to do the music
- Orson Welles was going to play the Baron
- Painter Salvador Dali was offered $100,000 per hour to play Emperor Shaddam IV
- Influentially, Jodorowsky hired artists Chris Foss, Moebius, and H.R. Giger, all of whom went out to contribute to other sci-fi films. (For example, if H.R. Giger hadn’t done preproduction on this Dune, his work on Alien may have never happened)
- Most relevantly: Jodorowsky’s version would have strayed from the Frank Herbert novel. Significantly. One eyebrow-raising example: The ending of Jodorowsky’s Dune would have featured a sentient version of the planet of Arrakis
Why Jodorowsky's Dune would have been bad for sci-fi movies
The (primarily excellent) documentary makes the case that this version of Dune could have been amazing, but it was simply too ambitious and bizarre for audiences of the time.
The doc goes the extra step of implying many sci-fi movies in the late 1970s and 1980s stood on the shoulders of this failed production. While the careers and influences of Foss and Giger had an undeniable impact on sci-fi cinema, the idea that George Lucas ripped off Jodorowsky’s Dune (which is vaguely asserted) is pretty hyperbolic.
Obviously, Lucas was inspired by the book version of Dune to create Tatooine and various aspects of the Star Wars universe, but it’s a bit far-fetched to say that Lucas couldn’t have made Star Wars if he hadn’t heard about a failed version of Dune in 1974. Star Wars couldn’t have happened without Frank Herbert’s novel, but Lucas didn’t need Jodorowsky’s failed film version to make Star Wars fly.
Had Dune was made, it would have almost certainly been a disaster. Even if the film was objectively “good,” there’s no way this version of Dune would have been remotely good by the standards of mainstream sci-fi audiences.
At one point, Jodorowsky wanted a 14-hour movie. These days, that might work for a streaming TV series. But in the 1970s, the last thing science fiction needed was an unwieldy art film that reaffirmed the stigmatic view of sci-fi movies as a niche interest.
The changes to the book were too extreme
On top of presenting an inaccessible sci-fi movie, Jodorowsky’s Dune marked such a departure from the source material that it wouldn't even have made fans of the book happy. Jodorowsky’s Dune also seemed to misunderstand the journey of Paul and the point of the story in general.
Weirdly, despite being a dark and artistically strange film, it planned to end on a peculiar upbeat note, which isn’t really what Dune is about at all.
In the documentary, Jodorowsky cops to — at some point — not having finished reading the book. It’s not clear if this was true throughout the entire time he worked on the film, but it’s made clear in the documentary that he had a strange relationship to the source material. Check out this quote:
“It’s different. It was my Dune. When you make a picture, you must not respect the novel. It’s like you get married, no? You go with the wife, white, the woman is white. You take the woman, if you respect the woman, you will never have child. You need to open the costume and to… to rape the bride. And then you will have your picture. I was raping Frank Herbert, raping, like this! But with love, with love.”
Contrast this with recent comments from Denis Villeneuve:
“All the detail made by Frank Herbert is so rich and precise, the dream was the people who loved the book will feel we put a camera in their mind and brought back images that will feel like what they imagined when they read the book.”
It feels pretty clear which person you want making a Dune movie. Yes, Villeneuve has admitted elsewhere that adaptation is “transgression,” and we already know that certain things from the book — like Chani’s point of view —will be changed.
But the difference between Villeneuve’s intent and Jodorowsky’s intent is clear. Villeneuve isn’t trying to take ownership of the original art. He’s trying to sublimate it into something else. Jodorowsky’s Dune would have, as he admits, been his and perhaps his alone.
A challenging book like this can’t survive the adaptation process with too much ego attached. If the spice is to flow for everyone, it needs what the Jodorowsky version seemed to lack: Teamwork.
Jodorowsky's Dune (the documentary) is streaming for rent on Amazon Prime. Denis Villeneuve's Dune hits HBO Max and theaters in the US on October 22, 2021.