Off the Beaten Path | Frank Herbert’s Dune

All right folks, it’s time for a fresh Off the Beaten Path review. This time, I’m dipping my toes back into the well of literary miniseries adaptations with Frank Herbert’s Dune, one of the more famous examples from the 21st century.

I’m going to be honest, I’ve been in a bit of a Dune mood these last few weeks. As I bet I’ve mentioned in a previous article or two, I decided that my New Years resolution for 2021 would be to get back into reading both comics and prose. While the resolution hasn’t failed by any stretch, up through April all of my prose reading had been limited to short story collections; stuff like Robert Howard’s original Conan the Barbarian stories, short story collections by Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, and locally sourced literary magazines. At some point, I decided to read some actual novels. So, inspired by Last Podcast Network Deep Dives: Dune, I decided not only to revisit Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi series for the first time in 6ish years but read it to completion for the first time – I had only ever read up through God Emperor of Dune. Also, before watching this miniseries I had never watched any of the screen adaptations of Dune; I plan on checking out David Lynch’s version at some point before I watch and cover Denis Villeneuve’s version in October.

So with all that said, it should come as no surprise why I chose Frank Herbert’s Dune as my next Off the Beaten Path offering; it’s a solid way to talk about Dune without annoying my friends and family about my constantly wanting to talk about the sci-fi epic as I shotgun tome after tome (by the time this publishes, I’ll be about halfway through Heretics of Dune).

But none of that addresses my opinions of Frank Herbert’s Dune. In essence, I think the miniseries is a faithful, yet rather flawed adaptation of the sci-fi masterpiece.

Did Frank Herbert’s Dune bring the story to screen effectively?

I bet a number of you are wondering how well Frank Herbert’s Dune brought Herbert’s vision to life on the small screen. It’s not without warrant, since one of the enduring criticisms I’ve heard about Lynch’s version is that it doesn’t adapt the story material from the book all that closely. Well if you’re worried about Frank Herbert’s Dune following the same path, don’t be. John Harrison, the screenwriter and director for the miniseries, does a surprisingly good job of staying accurate to the novel. Like, it hews much closer to the original novel than Stephen King’s The Stand (1994) did, and that one was adapted by King himself.

The main Imperial cast: (clockwise from top left) Paul Atreides, Duke Leto Atreides, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, and Lady Jessica

For those who haven’t read the novel or watched any of the on-screen adaptations, here’s the gist of the story. It’s ~19,000 years in the future, and mankind has long settled into an Imperial society reminiscent of the Byzantine Empire that spreads across the known Universe, filled with feuding royal houses and numerous organizations like the Spacing Guild and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood. Due to a religious jihad known as the Butlerian Jihad that occurred 10,000 years before the novel, all computers and artificial intelligence are outlawed by religious fiat. Within the empire, the most important planet is the desert planet Arrakis, the only known source of Spice, the most important substance known to man. Why is it so important you may ask? Beyond being a drug that can triple the human lifespan and catalyze the evolution of human consciousness to unheard-of heights, it makes machine-free faster-than-light navigation and travel possible because ingesting large quantities of Spice allows the user to see into the future. As for the actual story, it follows Paul Atreides, the 15-year-old son of Duke Leto Atreides and heir apparent of House Atreides. At the order of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV, the Atreides reluctantly assume fiefdom of Arrakis over their generational rivals House Harkonnen. The Atreides rule is interrupted when the forces of House Harkonnen, led by the duplicitous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and bolstered in secret by the military forces of the Emperor, lead an overwhelming assault against House Atreides. Out of the Atreides family, Paul and his mother, the royal concubine and Bene Gesserit initiate Lady Jessica, survive by fleeing into the desert but are presumed dead at large. Paul and Jessica then manage to join a tribe of the secretive and underestimated Arrakeen natives known as the Fremen. Once he’s accepted as a Fremen and takes the name Muad’dib, Paul lays the groundwork for his vengeance against the forces that nearly wiped his family out. One last key detail is that Paul is no ordinary child. Paul is the result of a breeding program carried out in secret by the Bene Gesserit for millennia. The Bene Gesserit’s goal is to create a superhuman dubbed the Kwisatz Haderach, the male equivalent of a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother and a being capable of total access to Other Memory (the ability to recall and interact with the memories and consciousnesses of his ancestors back to the dawn of human awareness) along with unparalleled future sight. Only, he is born a generation too early because Jessica was in love with her Duke and bore him a son instead of the daughter she was ordered to. By the confluence of fate, Paul will use the religious foundations secretly laid generations ago by the Sisterhood along with his Bene Gesserit training to unite the tribes of Fremen as the Mahdi, their prophesied Messiah, in order to get his vengeance and possibly the imperial throne, rewriting the course of human history for better or for worse.

Believe it or not, that is a pretty barebones summary of what goes on in Dune. Maybe a simpler way of thinking about the story is to imagine Lawrence of Arabia mixed with the story of the Prophet Mohammed set in the far future fueled by some of the trippiest drug trips in fiction.

Now about how accurate the miniseries is to the book. Well, I had an inkling the miniseries would be fairly accurate just looking at the episode titles. In the book, the story is divided into three parts – DuneMuad’dib, and The Prophet – and the miniseries does this as well. As such, while not a fully beat-to-beat translation, all the major storylines and the general pacing are present from beginning to end. And for someone who is oftentimes a bit of a stickler for accuracy despite knowing full well the need for pragmatic changes due to the differences in medium, I was rather impressed. Plus, Dune is famous for being a highly difficult book to adapt, so extra points there.

On a similar note, if I have any major complaints about the script, it’s due to changes to the novel.

Paul “Muad’dib” and Chani

Don’t get me wrong, some changes I’m fine with from a narrative standpoint. There are two narrative changes I agree with. The first is the prominence given to the Baron’s unfavorite nephew Glossu-Rabban aka “Beast Rabban”, who rules Arrakis with an iron fist while maintaining a pogrom against the Fremen, in favor of his brother and Harkonnen heir-apparent Feyd-Rautha. This is because in the book we don’t see much of Rabban’s rule, and here we do, which helps establish visually the terrible oppression of the Arrakeen population. The second are the inclusions of key scenes that Herbert didn’t bother to write out and instead left as off-hand mentions told after the fact (it’s honestly an odd quirk of his that consistently pops up in the book series). The best example of this is the raid of the Emperor’s forces on a Fremen sietch near the end of the story that led to the capture of Paul’s toddler yet pre-born sister Alia and the death of his newborn son Leto II.

For a major change that I’m not as crazy about, it’s the prominence given to Princess Irulan Corrino, the eldest daughter of the Emperor. In the novel she has a very minor role; Paul marries her once he usurps the Imperial throne from her father in order to shore up his new political power. The thing is, besides the epigraphs attributed to her at the beginning of almost every single chapter, she only shows up in person in the last two or so chapters. In the miniseries, her role is greatly expanded. While I’m not averse to her presence, which provides a good look into the inner workings of the Emperor’s court and household, her ultimate purpose is to create a love triangle between her, Paul, his Fremen love Chani, and Feyd-Rautha. The problem is that this love triangle is doomed from the start, especially once we’re properly introduced to Chani. I mean, Chani is literally the girl of Paul’s dreams; she’s the subject of his nascent prescient dreams before arriving on Arrakis. Plus, not only does Paul vow never to touch Irulan once they’re married let alone let Irulan sire any of Paul’s heirs, but he promises Chani that she will be his wife in all but name just like Jessica was to Leto. Maybe it’s just me, but that whole plotline felt unnecessary. There were other changes to the script that had me scratching my head – the removal of characters like Duncan Idaho and Thufir Hawat along with changes to the appearance of crucial world-building concepts and terminology are some examples – but it’s the Irulan changes that stood out the most.

On the whole though, I thought the script, though exposition-heavy at times in order to compensate for a lack of crucial inner dialogue, was the best part of the miniseries.

When budget limitations strike

Now that I’ve gone over what I like about Frank Herbert’s Dune, now is time to talk about what brought this miniseries multiple levels of pegs in my estimation. Now, not everything can be boiled down to one singular cause, but one reason encapsulates a lot of my issues; the budget.

At one end of the scale is the effect on, well, the scale of the piece. As I’ve already mentioned, Dune is an epic. While the majority of the action happens on the desert planet Arrakis, it has massive consequences on the Imperium and the known universe at large. Moreover, there are awesome set pieces that happen in the Imperial city of Arrakeen, the isolated sietches like Tabr, and out in the vast swaths of erg desert that dominate the planet. It’s no surprise Dune is uttered in the same breath as Lord of the Rings

The test of the Gom Jabbar

This makes it all the more disappointing that the miniseries does its damndest, unintentionally or intentionally I don’t know though with lighting choices I suspect the latter, to make everything look like it was shot on a soundstage, and that includes everything set outside. Locations and settings from the novel are rewritten and repurposed so that they can take place in closed sets. A great example of this is Paul’s test by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, which in the book takes place on the planet Caladan but here takes place aboard a Guild starship (aka they likely polished off an old Star Trek: Enterprise set and repurposed it). Scenes and setpieces set outside clearly aren’t and it’s not masked well. Here, the best examples are whenever anyone in Sietch Tabr is out in the dune desert, where you can see them wandering through piles of sand in the foreground but the background is clearly a matte painting like out of the “Dawn of Evolution” segment in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even pick-up and vista shots aren’t shot outside; instead, these shots are fully CGI (which I’ll get to shortly). 

Now, many of these complaints are due to limited budget constraints, which is inevitable for a miniseries that came out in 2000 and aired on Syfy. That said, earlier miniseries that I’ve covered like V: The Original Miniseries and The Stand (1994) were able to at least get some shots that were outside and on location. Granted, Frank Herbert’s Dune is set on a distant desert planet ~19,000 years in the future as opposed to the good ol’ USA, but if this was shot in California, then the only active erg dune desert, the Gran Desierto de Altar of the Sonoran Desert, isn’t that far away. Even just a couple of pickup shots would have done wonders by reducing the closed-in stagey feel of what should be a grand epic.

Speaking of CGI, it was hard to overlook the CGI. In a nutshell, it looked incredibly dated, like something out of a PS2 rendered cutscene. On a grander scale, this also fucked up the sense of scale, since epic shots involving the sandworms and the battles in Arrakeen that bookend the story are all compromised by the effects. In turn, it made it much more clear when any actors present that these were not things the actors interacted with while reinforcing the feeling everything was shot on small to medium-sized soundstages. Granted, this again is a budgetary limitation, but when watched from 21 years in the future they stand out like a sore thumb.

Stilgar, chief of the Fremen tribe that adopts Paul and Jessica, with the blue-within-blue eyes of Spice addicts

On a minor scale, the production crew used CG in odd ways when practical effects would have been better suited. For this, the biggest offender was the way the “blue-within-blue” eyes of Spice addicts and Arrakis natives were done. If I had to guess, the eye effect was done in a similar way to how Tron added in all the digital color effects – by going in and painting the eyes frame by frame. Nominally this wouldn’t be much of an issue, but the effect was rather inconsistent. It was a rather common thing to see a character with the blue-within-blue eyes tilt away from the camera and the visual would be gone, sometimes with only one eye. It was consistent enough that I bet some enterprising fans out there could make a drinking game out of it and get sloshed incredibly fast. Maybe colored contacts were too expensive or impractical at the time, but man they would have looked better or at least more consistent.

One last budget limitation I want to briefly mention is the costuming. While not outright terrible – there were some rather interesting costumes used – there were many that left me scratching my head due to how cheap and/or outlandish they looked. For example, though this may be biased, I don’t think Reverend Mothers wore giant headdresses like they did here. But that’s not entirely a budgetary thing. What was likely a budget limitation though was that there were no makeup effects or prosthetics used to delineate characters and alignments which they could have done. Instead, everything rested on the costuming, which again left me scratching my head at times.

Can the actors save it?

Now what about the acting? Could that have saved the miniseries? To that, it’s at best a mixed bag.

If there are three performances to commend, I’d single out William Hurt as Duke Leto Atreides, Ian McNiece as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, and Julie Cox as Princess Irulan Corrino. With Hurt, he brings the gravitas of the Duke to the screen, largely commanding the screen whenever he is there in his admittedly limited role. Conversely, McNiece brings the hamtastic dastardliness of the sadomasochistic and ambitious Baron as he bloviates his way to temporary victory over the Atreides in his quest for greater political influence. In other words, both Hurt and McNiece brought their respective characters to life in a way I appreciated.

Princess Irulan Corrino

Now the real surprise was Cox as Irulan. As I mentioned earlier, Irulan has a very minor role in the book; while the majority of the epigraphs that begin each chapter are attributed to her, she herself doesn’t show up in person until the last two chapters once Paul usurps control from Shaddam IV and decides to marry her out of the need to shore up imperial and political power. Here though, she’s a surprisingly consistent presence, often taking the role of minor characters that were written out while also driving investigations and operations that would otherwise have been carried out by the Bene Gesserit. So while I thought the functional story changes were questionable – it’s apparent Harrison was setting up a love triangle between her, Paul, and Chani which was doomed from the start – I had no issue with Cox’s performance.

But in the end, those three roles are pretty minor compared to the likes of Alec Newman’s Paul Atreides and Saskia Reeves’ Lady Jessica, and in the end, those performances left me wanting. Basically, I never bought them as Paul and Jessica respectively. 

In the book, Paul, while a 15-year-old at the start, is trained as both a Bene Gesserit and as a Mentat (an information database with greater computational processing power than the best supercomputers), which would already put him on a higher level of cognitive ability then we can possibly achieve. Once his prescience awakens due to the levels of Spice on Arrakis, this awareness and mental powers increase a magnitude, granting him the best control of prescience any human had ever achieved which allows him to become the prophesied prophet for the Fremen. Alec Newman doesn’t sell any of that. At first, he seems like a nearly 30-year-old teenager but much more annoying and impetuous. I just don’t buy him as a nascent prophet and emperor. Plus, his physical acting often left me wondering if he had ever interacted with another person, which is not exactly what you want from an actor.

The story with Reeves is pretty similar; I just didn’t buy her as a Bene Gesserit adept turned Reverend Mother. In the novel, the Bene Gesserit are meant to be masters of communication, political discourse, and bodily awareness and manipulation. Reeves’ Jessica never gave me that impression. The closest is when she undergoes the Trial of the Spice Agony in order to become a Reverend Mother – she essentially is fed a poisonous Spice concentrate called the Water of Life, and in order to survive she has to neutralize the poison by consciously altering her body chemistry on a molecular level, all while tripping balls – but that’s more due to the visuals of the psychedelic trip she goes on.

Granted, with both Newman and Reeves maybe this selling of their roles and intelligence is due to the difficulty of translating the extensive and detailed inner monologues Herbert writes for them, but even still I’d like to see them act like they’re super intelligent in their respective ways.

In Conclusion

So those are my thoughts of Frank Herbert’s Dune. If you can get past the budget limitations and hit-or-miss cast, I think you’ll enjoy what’s presented, especially if you’ve already read the original novel. If not, you might be better off either waiting for Villeneuve’s upcoming blockbuster version of Dune or just sticking with the novels.

My Recommendation: Recommend With Caveats

My Episode Recommendations

  1. Dune – Recommend With Caveats
  2. Muad’dib – Recommend With Caveats
  3. The Prophet – Recommend

In Case You’re Interested in Watching Frank Herbert’s Dune

In case you’re interested in watching Frank Herbert’s Dune, you can watch the whole thing on Youtube.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

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