Dune, the miniseries (Part I)

In my previous post, I think I made it pretty clear that the Dune movie was a flop. And I mean this in every sense of the word: commercially, critically – hell, even Lynch distanced himself from it! But that was to be expected, since Dune is just not something that translates into a movie format. There’s simply too much going on, and any fan of the series knows exactly what I’m referring to here. In terms of length, pacing, content, characters, background, detail, depth and commentary, Dune is just too dense to fold into a few hours of footage. As I also stated in my last post. Lynch attempted to address this problem in a number of ways

1.) Prologue: In the original movie, Lynch tried to cover Dune’s extensive background by having Irulan give a breakdown of how the universe works. In the Director’s Cut, he took a different route and went with a narrated preamble (using animated stills) that covered all the major events leading up to the original novel. These included the Butlerian Jihad, the founding of the Guild, the Bene Gesserits, and other secret societies, and then moved on to cover the basics about the Dune universe, such as its feudal structure, the spice, etc. Nothing wrong with either of these, except that they were both kind of awkward. They were a tad expository, and in the case of the animated opening, it went long. (Yeah, yeah, just like my reviews!)

2.) Exposition: In the opening scene, Lynch uses a reworked plotline to help the character of the Emperor set up everything that’s going to happen in the first act. In the subsequent scenes, all the other main characters do the same thing. The Baron and Piter de Vries explain their plan to attack the Atreides to his nephews, and Paul is told the reasons for their move to Arrakis by his mentors. But the problem here was, it all felt too unnatural and clunky. You really got the feeling that someone had read the book and was trying to give a synopsis to the audience, no suspension of disbelief. You can’t make a decent movie if everything feels like there’s a sense of duty behind it, then it’s just boring.

3.) Internal monologues: it goes without saying that you can’t clog up a movie with endless dialogue, especially stuff where characters are just standing around and explaining things in an unnatural way. Some degree of this is understandable, but after awhile, the audience will simply begin saying, “Nobody talks like this! Get on with it!” So Lynch tried using internal speeches, and like I said before, it was annoying as hell! Even after all the expository speeches his characters made, there was still tons of things the audience needed to be told in order to know why stuff was happening or why it was important. And, as I also said before, the movie would have worked better without it. Let the camera and the actors tell the scene, not the little voice on the track!

Okay, at this point I’m thinking anyone reading this is saying “We get it! It didn’t work, move on!” So as I’m sure I’ve said a few times already in the course of this thread, a miniseries was created in 2000 that sought to adapt Dune into a miniseries, one that wouldn’t be hampered by these difficulties. By going with a three part, six-hour format, the creators clearly felt that they would time enough to provide adequate build-up, character and plot development, and make sure that nothing big would be left out or glossed over. And, with some exceptions, they did just that! Even before I read the books, I saw the miniseries and was highly entertained, and even felt that I had been given the complete rundown of everything in the novel. Then, upon reading the novel, I decided that the miniseries was not only faithful to the original material but even improved upon it in some areas. But I’m going long here and I haven’t even got to the good stuff. Nothing worse than a long preamble, right? (Sorry Mr. Lynch, I had to!)

(Background—>)
The miniseries itself was a collaboration between several studios, which included New Amsterdam Entertainment (US), Blixa Film Produktion (Germany), Hallmark Entertainment, and the Sci Fi Channel. Much like the studios involved, the cast was also very international in scope, with actors and actresses from the US, Britain, Germany, Czech Republic, and Italy filling the top roles. These included such big names as William Hurt, Giancarlo Giannini, Ian McNeice, and P.H. Moriarty. It would take me too long to list all the movies these people have been in, but trust me, you’ve seen them! John Harrison, a veteran television writer/director with a tonne of sci-fi, fantasy and horror titles to his credit, was brought in to direct, but also had hand in writing the script. In describing the final product, he claimed that the miniseries was a “faithful interpretation”, in which changes and elements that he had introduced served to elaborate on rather than edit material from the original. Having seen the miniseries and read the novel – in both cases, more than once – I can verify this claim. While their were several differences between the miniseries and the novel, I can honestly say that they worked in its favor. But I can’t really say how without getting into specifics, as well as the differences between this adaptation and Lynch’s failed attempt. So let’s get to it!

(Content—>)
The miniseries opens with a rather brief prologue by Princess Irulan, explaining the significance of Arrakis (Dune) and the spice. We then cut to a quick montage of images that represent a nightmare being experienced by Paul, where we see Arrakis, the carnage that is to come, Chani, and of course, Paul’s father dying. Upon waking, Paul realizes he’s left one of Doctor Yueh’s recordings on, a recording which explains the importance of their move and recaps the balance of power their society rests on. This intro, unlike Lynch’s, provides a brief yet informative snapshot of the Dune universe and what is to come. And unlike the novel or the original movie, the opening scenes are not taking place on Caladan, but on the Guild space liner that will be taking them to Arrakis. I’m not sure why Harrison went with this, but I can say it doesn’t mess up the scenes at all. The setting works, and more importantly, the actors and dialogue are spot on. Paul, and everyone around him, understand that this move is a big deal, that is there is a great deal of danger involved, and that in spite of the fact that it is almost surely a trap, that they have no real choice.

What follows is an altered, but faithful reenactment of the Mother Superior scene. Having come aboard their ship to see Paul, they discuss the subject of his dreams, giving the audience a crucial hint as to how Paul is special (i.e. he’s potentially prescient) as well as some hints of how the story will unfold. From his brief, broken glimpses, Paul can tell that Arrakis holds many things for him. He tells her that he sees desert people chanting his name, terrible wars, and his father dying. The Mother Superior is intrigued, and of course, she conducts the pain box test. Naturally, Paul passes, but storms out in anger, leaving the Mother Superior and Lady Jessica to discuss her defiance to the order. As anyone who’s read the novel knows, Bene Gesserit sisters are under strict orders to produce daughters only, as part of their breeding program, until the eugenics program is complete and one will bear a son. This son, if all goes as planned, will be the Kwisatz Haderach*, their superman who has perfect memory and perfect prescience. So by giving her Duke a son, Jessica has disobeyed the sisterhood, and potentially doomed herself and her son in the process. The Mother Superior says they will suffer for this, not at their hands, but in general. She also says that they will do what they can for the boy, but “for the father, nothing…”, thus letting us know that something’s in the works, that the Bene Gesserit know about it, but appear helpless to stop it. Another thing they do right here, even though its breaking with the novel, is that at no point are the words Kwisatz Haderach mentioned! That’s something Harrison chose to reveal slowly, and in increments instead of giving it away early on.

All of this is starkly different from the original movie and even the novel. It is expository without being preachy or dutiful. If anything, its cool and intriguing, relying on well-honed dialogue that lets us know what’s coming without giving it away. Another change I should mention is Paul’s character. Whereas in the novel and original movie he’s a cheery and positive boy; here, he’s angry, impatient, and resentful, which is what any teenager would be in his situation. In fact, his angst and defiance run through all of Act I, and this is one change I highly approved of, as its far more realistic. Whereas Paul was always portrayed in the novel as the kind of child who never had playmates or a normal childhood but was still well-rounded and upbeat, here we see the realistic outcome of that. He misses his father and Duncan, the closest person he has to a friend, and chooses to take that out on his mother, the Mother Superior, and Gurney when they’re training. It just works!

Then… boom! Cut to Arrakis. Here, we see Duke Leto and Duncan Idaho for the first time as they are talking about the Fremen and their leader, a man named Liet. This is another thing the miniseries did so much better, the fact that they actually went into detail about him instead of glossing over his significance. We are told that he is the quasi-leader of the Fremen, and that Leto wants to find him so they can enlist the help of those Fremen who live in the deep desert. This too is something the miniseries does very well, showing how Leto is concerned with cultivating a relationship with the natives of the deep desert, as he is aware that their abilities and knowledge may be what they need to rule. Like in the novel, this was something that came up again and again, and it was hinted that the Emperor himself was worried over it. Basically, the Fremen of the deep desert are the toughest, meanest badasses in the universe. And while their technology might be limited, their skills are second to none. Therefore, whoever controls Arrakis, has access to what are potentially the best soldiers in the universe. But more on that later…

Several scenes follow, all true to the novel. Paul attends his father’s council meetings where he offers up effective suggestions of how they can run Arrakis and recruit the smugglers. Lady Jessica meets with the household staff, which includes the Shadout Mapes (the head servant) and they slowly learn that she may very well be the mother of their messiah. And of course, Jessica bans the water custom where servants scrounge and sell water and offers a free ration of it to everyone in the city, three times a day. Like everything in this miniseries, things are done slowly, the time being taken to develop things carefully and not drop too much info at once. There is no internal dialogue or characters constantly saying stuff like “oh, the legend, the legend!” when they see Paul or his mother. It is only after many scenes that the issue of Paul messiah-hood is brought up, when people in the streets start saying “Mahdi” in his direction, and Thufir is brought in to explain what the significance of this is to Paul’s father.

This is further exampled during the scenes where Dr. Kynes (who is also secretly Liet) is introduced and takes them out to observe a spice harvester at work. Again, these scene were faithful to the novel without being imitative. Whereas Herbert openly wrote what Kynes and Paul were thinking in the book, the miniseries manages to develop this without the need for internal monologues (even though that would a director’s first choice of how to convey thoughts). Instead, we see through a number of shots how Kynes and Paul they are becoming fascinated with one another. Kynes notices strange things about him, like how he knows how to wear a stillsuit** and understands Fremen ways, while Paul is picking up on the fact that Kynes is clearly a Fremen and is holding back information on Arrakis and the worms. All of this is made clear through simple direction, proper camera work, and dialogue, which makes it much more effective. Then, of course, the scene where the spice harvester is attacked! This, like most special effects in this series, was done through CGI, which was only a marginal improvement on the original.

What follows is a major scene, and one that didn’t make it into the original movie: The dinner banquet. Might not sound important, except that it’s a central part of Act I in the book and because its also the first time we see Princess Irulan in the series. Whereas in the original movie she was just voiceover and a background character, in the miniseries she played a central role and it begins here. Clearly, Harrison and his writers felt that the best way to resolve the ambiguity of her character was to write her in to several key scenes, where she is playing the role of the political pawn, but is actually executing an agenda of her own. This works, because it gives her character a sort of phantom presence, a behind-the-scenes quality that is consistent with her role in the novel. Her inclusion in this scene also works because, during the course of the banquet, she has a chance to talk to Paul. We see how they are similar, how they are both intelligent people who don’t like their worlds, and how this predicts their coming together in a political union by the end. Another thing that makes these scenes work is the skilled acting of Alec Newman (Paul) and Julie Cox (Irulan). You really get the feeling that these two will meet again, that they have a connection that supersedes their loyalty to their houses, and that they are likely to be friends and not lovers. Whereas Irulan is thin, fair and proper, Chani (whom Paul marries) is voluptuous, animated, and dark. Clear case of the platonic versus the sensual here!

While this is all taking place, we cut to the Harkonnen homeworld of Geidi Prime several times so that we can see how the Atreides’ arch-enemies are doing. Ian McNeice, who plays the role of the Baron, gives all of these scenes a dramatic flair that puts them light years ahead of what was done in the original movie. Instead of being revolting and loathsome, he’s graceful, animated, and even effeminate, not to mention entertaining! This is preferable is so many ways because ultimately that’s what makes for a good villain! He might be bad, but audiences will him all the more likeable, the guy they love to hate! There’s also a scene early in Act I where we cut to the royal palace. Here, the Emperor, played by Giancarlo Giannini, speaks about the Atreides and the plot against them, and yes, its not horribly expository either! Not once does he say that he’s sending his Sardaukar to help the Baron in the attack, nor that an attack is even taking place. Instead, he and Count Fenrig simply say that he needs to find a suitable husband for his daughter (Irulan), and that it’s “too bad that Atreides boy won’t be around”. See? Subtle!

Anyhoo, the attack takes place shortly thereafter. We see for the first time (unlike in the novel and movie where it was foretold) that Yueh is in fact the traitor. Here, and here alone, he reveals that he did it because the Baron has his wife and he must see her again, even if she’s already dead. More changes, Thufir is killed in the attack rather than taken prisoner. In the novel, he became the Baron’s new Mentat after Piter is killed by the Duke’s poison-gas tooth. By being his unwilling Mentat, Thufir was at the center of all the Baron’s machinations in the novel. But with him dead, his importance gets minimized. However, this did give the Baron and Feyd an expanded role by making them responsible for all the plotting that takes place between them, thus making them seem smarter and more villainous (more on that later). It is also here that we also see the Baron do some of the best acting in the whole series. We already get to see how his Shakespearean talents and flare steal the show, and how he ends every scene with a rhyming couplet. But here, it’s wonderfully over the top and just plain fun to hear! “I, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, am the instrument… of his families demise!” “What more proof do you need of what heaven’s intention is? Atreides dead, and Harkonnen lives!” Punctuated, of course, with tons of evil laughter. And best of all, no heart plugs and boys being molested to death! Classy!

Paul and his mother, of course, then make it to safety with the help of Duncan Idaho. And much like in the movie, it feels like he’s killed off way too fast. But at least he made it this far, whereas in the original movie he’s knocked off without ever making a difference. And in the ensuing chase, we also get to see a very important scene which was (you guessed it!) left out of the original. Dr. Kynes, who helps save them by suggesting they flee into the deep desert where the Fremen will protect them, is revealed to be Liet. Paul figures it out when they are in a seitch (a Fremen hideout) and he hears someone mention the name. He explains, intrinsic to the plot arc, that he is not the Fremen’s leader, but more of a guide, who is to stay around until “Mahdi comes”. This helps to illustrate a key element in the story: how the Fremen and the planet’s Imperial ecologists have been working together since the time of Kyne’s father. Ever since the elder Kynes was welcomed into a Fremen community, he busily taught them of how Arrakis’ ecology could be changed, how moisture dens could be created and used to fertilize plants once they had been strategically planted, thus giving rise to a lusher climate. Over time, this idea merged with the legends planted by the Bene Gesserit, of how a messiah would come and lead them to freedom. Paul, and hence the audience, is now beginning to see how these prophecies (self-fulfilling though they may be) are coming true thanks to his arrival. So you can see why this is important, right? Including it only makes sense!

Then, of course, Paul and his mother flee because the enemy is coming. They take to an ornithopter, and fly even deeper into the desert. In order to escape the pursuing Harkonnen planes, they are forced to fly into one of Arrakis’ massive storm. Now this scene I got a problem with, admittedly. “You’re not going in there are you?” “They’d be crazy to follow us!” Yeah, I know David Lynch ripped off the Star Wars franchise, but that doesn’t mean you have to! Okay, then Paul recites the litany against fear, and they go for it! And Part I ends with Irulan quoting from the book, and saying that the saga of Dune is far from over…

Thus ends Act I. And given the length of this review, I shan’t go on! Tune in again tomorrow for Act II, I promise it’ll be shorter!

Endnotes:
*This term is derived from “Kefitzat Haderech”, a Kabbalah term which means “The Way’s Jump”, apparently relating to teleportation. In this context, it means “Shortening of the Way”, referring to the bridging of past, present and future, i.e. prescience.
**A suit that allows the wearer to retain water lost through respiration and perspiration by catching it all in its skin, filtering and processing it, then depositing it in a series of bags the person can draw from.

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