Friday, October 22, 2010

The Adaptation of Dune: Scene Analysis

The Film Adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune
by David Peddicord

“I know nothing comparable to it except Lord of the Rings” -Arthur C. Clarke. Widely considered the definitive science fiction novel of the 20th century, Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) has accumulated a gargantuan following happy to sit through whatever film adaptation Hollywood might provide. Reading “The Making of Dune” by Ed Naha, however, one senses that most of the decisions made during the filming process of 1984’s Dune considered the written work as no more than a blue print. The art of the adaptation of literature to film was lost on a large studio production with bottomless pockets and endless faith in the interpretive skills of a inexperienced director who also wrote the screenplay: David Lynch. This is an adaptation that seeks self-indulgence over the debatable notion of “faithful” adaptation or pure cinematic entertainment. The end result grossly reproduces the fantastical story on page as a nightmare. The film also favors new imagery, not at all hinted in the book, over even it’s own economic restructuring to help the narrative flow on screen. For the sake of this argument we will analyze a scene in which the story’s villains, the Harkonnens, are introduced in both the book and film. However, it is in every second of the running time that the audience is subject to a delirious and abstract tour through a mind not expected to experience Dune this way.

From the architecture to the new characters, Lynch managed to skew his own visualization of Herbert’s world then exaggerate that which he felt were the most signature (or perhaps just offensive) characteristics. With that said, it would be remissive not to begin with the film’s broadening of the principal characters. In the novel this sequence’s framed characters are our chief antagonists, the Baron, his political advisor and assassin Pieter, and the Baron’s nephew Feyd. Aside from introducing these three, Herbert’s intent here was to explain their plan of attack on the Heroes, but more on that later. In this conversation we discover first that Pieter, a “effeminate” looking man addicted to a drug, enjoys mocking his monarch and abusing the power he has. Then there is the teenage Feyd, restless and insubordinate in his thoughts. Finally the Baron is an immobile glob of fat, covered in robes, and suspended in air by special devices. He is quick to disagree with Pieter and gain Feyd’s attention to how he plans to conduct war. They are simple, but interesting characters serving an age old purpose for a three act story.

Lynch felt that for a mainstream audience none of the mentioned details would be obvious and opted to color a stark picture of evil and madness. Pieter again isn’t masculine and takes some joy in kicking things up in the Baron‘s presence. And that is where clear similarities with the book end with any of the three characters. Pieter now resembles a junkie; black circles around his eyes, nonsensical rambling, and quick jerky movements. Most striking about him is how he does not resemble anyone else in the room. This brings to attention the five or so extras in the film version: several guards, a slave, a butler, and a couple of the Baron’s doctors (more on them in a moment). Pieter is wild haired, yet with a far receding hair line, and great bushy eyebrows. One cannot fault such design choices given how little physical detail Herbert provides. Yet one can fault the pervading sleaze that accompanies these touches. We see Pieter ingesting his drug, his lips stained with it, the Baron unrobed and drenched in sweat while his nephew appears to be dressed in S&M attire. In fact there is a strong homoerotic theme about the Harkonennens as the Baron addresses his nephew and they all cast lustful looks at one another. The most sensible source for this inspiration in the novel comes from dialogue from the Baron in which he addresses Feyd as “darling”. Beyond that, it seems Lynch found it too tempting to illustrate the age old image of the glutinous pig vying for subordinate satisfaction. Indeed, these are truly repulsive characters, but the script made further changes to cement them.

When adapting the book-which is some five hundred pages-to a two hour screenplay Lynch had regular contact with Herbert himself for approval. They both agreed much would have to change to convey the many personalities of Dune. Internal thought found throughout the novel became voice over and some characters would make their appearance much sooner. These two such changes are present in the Barons first scene and are necessary. The way the Baron and Pieter speak to one another is evidence enough that they have a shaky partnership and Feyd is accompanied by another nephew, Rabban who would otherwise appear later on. With approximately fifty speaking parts in the film, it is natural to pair many characters together and speak bluntly of what’s transpired. The film version of this scene succeeds in it’s purpose of explaining the villain’s plan of attack while going further to demonstrate their evilness.

This addition is conveyed through action not found in the novel and heavily banked on the aforementioned homoeroticism. As mentioned before, there are many new characters added to this scene not found in the book. Looking at the doctors and the slave in particular we notice the seedy, mean spirit of Lynch’s vision. The doctors are present to operate on the unsedated Baron’s lesions. As they work we observe in graphic detail blood and puss drained from a grizzled cheek into a transparent tank. The ill health of the Baron is meant to show how single minded he is; how utterly convicted he is to the death of his enemies. The book tells us this by weaving a story out of the bitterness between the two factions and detailing the unwieldiness of Pieter that the Baron must cope with to achieve his goal. The filmic version also has the Baron throwing a tantrum whenever Pieter oversteps. The novel instead describes them witting it out over the assassin’s usefulness and the reliability of their plans. But where the script excuses itself as necessary to the plot is where the slave is involved. Note that not a single detail in the following description is covered in the book: When the meeting is adjourned, the Baron fly’s about the room cackling like the wicked witch before pausing under a fountain of oil, then killing the slave while caressing his chest. What can be understood as partially sensible inspiration from the book in in this sequence is that the Baron is mobile through levitating “suspenders”, but beyond that one can firmly point to Lynch for all creative form put into this display. After the deed is done the Baron’s own voice over chime’s how this is just what he’ll do to his adversary while the book reveals his own pity by the chapters end. This portion of the film scene is entirely self-indulgent not unlike most of the scene on whole.

Herbert’s novel is one of fantasy, political intrigue, and adventure. How another visualizes his work is largely up to them. But David Lynch, who admits didn’t read the book until prompted to direct the film, saw the world of Dune not through the eye’s of easily awed youth, but through the eye’s of art critic given reign to reconstruct a work. No wonder is found in his characterizations or themes and the prose of the story is rewritten in a sledge hammer approach. It so vainly starts from near scratch there is scarcely a connection to be made with the book.

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