'Dune': The many failed attempts to adapt Frank Herbert's 'unfilmable' sci-fi classic

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The title treatment for Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune. (Warner Bros.)
The title treatment for Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune. (Warner Bros.)

You’ll find some people who think the 1984 David Lynch adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi book Dune is the best film ever made. 

It’s certainly one of the nuttiest – as huge swathes of exposition are deliberately left out rendering the movie difficult to understand, while Sting’s nappy action isn’t his finest hour. It’s no wonder the pop star doesn’t like to talk about it.

If you don’t like Lynch’s version, then it’s hard not to wonder what all the other potential attempts at the iconic novel would have looked like. 

Ever since the book was released in 1965, producers have wanted to adapt it for the screen and aside from Lynch and now Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 take (in UK IMAX and cinemas from 22 October), many other directors have tried.

Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune

Most famously — there’s even a critically-acclaimed documentary charting his journey — the Chilean helmer was desperate to realise the book on a cinema screen. According to lore, he was the second director considered for the project after David Lean was briefly involved at the start of the 1970s. 

Read more: Jodorowsky calls new Dune trailer 'predictable'

Unfortunately, Jodorowsky’s experience became a bit of a nightmare. His vision was certainly bold – he hired a pre-Alien HR Giger as designer, legendary comic book artist Moebius to do storyboards, got Pink Floyd to do the soundtrack and convinced Orson Welles, Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger to act in it. He cast his 12-year-old son as the lead and got him doing martial arts training for literally years in preparation.

Released in 2013, this documentary gave a tantalising glimpse at what Jodorowsky's Dune could have been (Sony Pictures Classics)
Released in 2013, this documentary gave a tantalising glimpse at what Jodorowsky's Dune could have been (Sony Pictures Classics)

But a $20m budget and the director’s suggestion that the film might be anything from 12 to 20 hours long proved too rich for Hollywood execs and he was never able to get it off the ground. Though he was chuffed when Lynch’s movie turned out to be a bomb.

Ridley Scott's Dune

Director Ridley Scott on the set of the movie 'Alien', 1979. (Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)
Director Ridley Scott on the set of the movie 'Alien', 1979. (Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)

As the British director was finishing up work on Alien in the late Seventies, the producers of Blade Runner were trying to convince him to join their project which was in development.

Ridley Scott turned them down because he had already been asked by producer Dino De Laurentiis to direct Dune, which the helmer saw as a chance to step onto a bigger canvas and away from the claustrophobic horror of his sophomore effort.

Read more: Directors who regretted their own movies

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) was in the mix to shoot it and would finally get his Dune fix years later when he was director of photography on the Sci-Fi TV miniseries version.

Sadly, Scott’s older brother died and to take his mind off it, the director was desperate to get on set and throw himself into work. Because Dune was taking a long time to put together, he dropped out and stepped into the closer-to-production Blade Runner.

Peter Berg/Pierre Morel's Dune

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 10:  Director Peter Berg attends the Los Angeles premiere of
Director Peter Berg attending the Los Angeles premiere of "Battleship", 2012 (Kevork Djansezian/WireImage)

At the beginning of the Noughties, Herbert’s saga was given the multi-hour treatment as a television miniseries, which many people still contend is the definitive version.

Then in 2007, talk of a movie version was resurrected and director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) was brought on board. Not one for languid sci-fi imagery, he saw his film as more of an action epic. “[The book] was much more muscular and adventurous, more violent and possibly even a bit more fun,” he told SciFi Wire in 2009. “There’s a more dynamic film to be made.”

He talked to Robert Pattinson about starring and worked on a script with Josh Zetumer (Patriots Day), but ultimately left the project to make Battleship.

384795 08: ***FRANCE AND GERMANY OUT*** Actors Alec Newman, playing the character of Paul Atreides, and Julie Cox, playing Princess Irulan, shoot a scene on the set of Dune March 29, 2000 at Letov studios in Prague, Czech Republic. John Harrison directs the 6-hour miniseries version of the classic Frank Herbert sci-fi epic that also stars William Hurt and Saskia Reeves. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Newsmakers)
Julie Cox (Princess Irulan) and Alec Newman (Paul Atreides) shoot a scene on the set of Dune, 2000 at Letov studios in Prague, Czech Republic. (Sean Gallup/Newsmakers)

As time began to run out on the rights, Paramount Pictures kept trying to make it happen, hiring Taken director Pierre Morel, who had been a fan of the novel since his teens.

“[My movie] is all about the first book,” he told MTV in 2010. “I’m trying to be very respectful to the original novel…there’s a lot of expectation, all the readers will be waiting for me with their shotguns. 

"All the non-readers will also be waiting for us because it’s such a rich, complex novel and you have to make it accessible to those who have not read the book. So it’s a tough challenge, but I’m very excited about that.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 28:  Pierre Morel arrives to the Los Angeles premiere of STX Entertainment's
Filmmaker Pierre Morel was linked with his own adaptation of Dune. (Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

Despite a new script by Chase Palmer, Morel evidently lost some of that enthusiasm because a a year or so later, he quit as well. Both Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones) and Neill Blomkamp (District 9) were both touted as possible replacements, but never officially signed on, leaving the film in limbo.

That was all the way back in 2011 and it has taken another decade for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune to hit the big screen.

Fans of the book, as well as those who love Lynch’s version, were obsessed with what Jodorowsky’s film would have looked like, or even audiences who think a Twilight-era Robert Pattinson would have made a great Paul Atreides, will be waiting…

Dune arrives in UK IMAX and cinemas on 22 October. Watch a trailer below.

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