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When David Lynch Took on the Impossible Task of ‘Dune’

Thirty-seven years before Denis Villeneuve tackled Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, another distinguished director produced his own fascinatingly unique adaptation

Universal Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

David Lynch doesn’t talk about Dune much anymore, but the 1984 film once threatened to define him. When you make a $40 million adaptation of a landmark science fiction novel whose theatrical release is preceded by considerable hype, action figures, coloring books, and bedsheets, people tend to take notice. When that movie confounds critics and flops at the box office, people tend not to forget too soon. But sometimes they do forget eventually. Dune has become a virtual footnote in Lynch’s career. Or, maybe more accurately, a foothill overshadowed by the revered work Lynch created before and after he explored the far-future world of Frank Herbert’s book.

What posterity will make of Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious new take on Dune remains to be seen. Most likely, as with all adaptations of beloved novels, it will prove divisive. But almost unavoidably, it will have a better reception and a less tattered legacy, than Lynch’s Dune. Lynch’s film has its defenders but, on a fundamental level, it’s tough to defend too vigorously. As a narrative, it’s a disaster, inviting confusion within its first moments and growing muddier as it rushes to an almost perversely anticlimactic finale. The film’s actors struggle to define their characters between delivering exposition and sharing space with an expansive cast. Some special effects look remarkable. Others like last-moment rush jobs. In short, it’s a mess. But it’s also a film that draws on what Lynch had done before and informs what he’ll do in the future. Without Dune, the David Lynch filmography as we know it would not exist, even if that filmography now finds little room for Dune.

Lynch didn’t take the assignment on a whim. By the early ’80s, he’d earned underground acclaim for his short films and midnight movie classic Eraserhead, and even wider recognition for his 1980 film The Elephant Man, based on a pair of books about the life of Joseph Merrick. This opened up opportunities for even higher-profile projects, like Return of the Jedi, which Lynch turned down because he feared he couldn’t put his own stamp on it, telling the Associated Press in 1984 that “[George Lucas] had already designed three quarters of it” by the time he was approached. Yet while he wasn’t much of a science fiction fan, he saw possibilities when he was offered a shot at Dune.

Planet of the Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Ridley Scott had all previously put considerable effort into adapting Dune only for the projects not to work out. But if Lynch knew that the source material had already proved daunting to others he chose to ignore it. Lynch became involved in 1981 after the father-daughter producing team of Dino De Laurentiis and Raffaella De Laurentiis reached out. “When I finished the novel,” Lynch told Cinefex in an article published in the magazine’s April 1985 edition,I was just knocked out. I’d seen Star Wars, of course; but to be honest, I wasn’t all that crazy about it. For me, there was just too much on the surface in that film, and nothing else. Dune was different; it had believable characterizations and depth. In many ways, Herbert had created an internal adventure, one with a lot of emotional and physical textures. And I love textures.”

Dune represented a chance to explore the textures of not one world but several. Film historian Paul Sammon, author of Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, at the time was working a job for Universal Studios that frequently took him to the set of Dune and put him in contact with Lynch. On the commentary track of Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray edition of the film, he recalls Lynch was “intrigued by … the opportunity to explore and virtually create, do world-building.” Interviewed via Zoom, Sammon expanded on the thought, saying, “I think David was primarily attracted to the fact that he was able to create four separate worlds with Dune … and was able to sort of tell himself that he was satisfying the next career step up, while at the same time retaining enough artistic control where he would be able to impose his own viewpoint.”

That proved to be true, at least initially. Lynch spent a week at Herbert’s home before producing seven drafts of the screenplay. “The script just before the shooting script was quite good,” Sammon recalls.David is a good writer. You know, he doesn’t get enough props for that.” While writing, Lynch also worked with collaborators like Anthony Masters, a production designer whose credits include 2001: A Space Odyssey; creature designer Carlo Rambaldi, best known for his work on E.T.; and John Dykstra, a special effects veteran who worked on Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But some collaborations went more smoothly than others, particularly when the rigors of the ambitious shoot and the realities of budgetary restrictions started to slow production, leading to Dykstra’s departure and other issues. The film, released in December 1984 to little enthusiasm, ended up pleasing virtually no one. The opening line of Janet Maslin’s New York Times review sums up the feelings of many critics: “Several of the characters in Dune are psychic, which puts them in the unique position of being able to understand what goes on in the movie.”

But in spite of this, it’s still very much a David Lynch film from beginning to end. After four minutes of credits and exposition—delivered directly to camera by Virginia Madsen—the film touches down on the planet of Kaitain, home to the Emperor of the Known Universe. Once there, the sound of Brian Eno’s theme music and Toto’s score largely give way to the sound of exhaust pipes and clanging industrial noise. Sound has always been as important to Lynch as image, and if you close your eyes you might mistake the soundtrack for a snippet from Eraserhead, a film heavily inspired by Lynch’s time as an art student living in the crumbling industrial hub of Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Even the royal palace is filled with low hums, distant claxons, and other ambient noise before the arrival of the Guild Navigator, a bizarre mutant who lives in a gaseous environment contained by a black obelisk and whose leather-clad companions include a spokesman who communicates in a low growl translated into distorted English by a huge microphone.

The ideas, of course, belong to Herbert. But the execution is unmistakably Lynch, a big-budget expansion of his fondness for combining unnerving soundtracks with images that blur the line between the grotesque and the beautiful. With Dune he found opportunities to explore that combination on a previously unimaginable scale, whether via bizarre creations like the Guild Navigator or the villainous, elephantine Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan), and the puckering orifices of the giant sand worms.

Dune also provided a chance to explore the disorienting, dreamlike qualities of his previous work. Eraserhead unfolds like an anxious nightmare, and dream sequences play a crucial role in The Elephant Man. Dreams and hallucinogenic reveries are central in Herbert’s novel, providing protagonist Paul Atreides (played in Lynch’s film by newcomer Kyle MacLachlan) with visions of his future. Lynch treats them as opportunities to create experimental short films, filled with abstract images of dripping water, disembodied hands, and a remarkably lifelike fetus resting in a birth canal. (“David was always very interested in that fetus,” Rambaldi’s assistant Bruno Rubeo told Cinefex.) Universal thought it might have the next Star Wars on its hands, but nothing in Lucas’s galaxy far, far away—not even Return of the Jedi’s terrifying Sarlacc—looked quite so disturbing.

Instead, they ended up with a David Lynch film, with all the weirdness that entails. Although, this Lynch film is largely undone by the need to contain that weirdness: The director remains largely faithful to the source material, but squeezing it into one feature-length film requires him to skim through much of the plot, particularly in the film’s second half. (It’s a gamble if no one shows up for the first part, but Denis Villeneuve’s decision to split his version of Dune in two might be the only way to tell this story.) The final result—cut down to just over two hours from a longer but far-from-finished rough cut—is a film that seems to have been designed to satisfy no one: moviegoers seeking popcorn escapism, fans of Herbert’s book, or admirers of Lynch’s previous work.

At the time, it must have seemed like a case of lofty ambitions getting the better of a director. In 1986, in an article headlined “Is There Life after Dune?” Lynch told Cinefantastique, “There’s something wrong with that movie. … I don’t really know what it is, and I’m not certain you could ‘fix’ it. It’s just so big, you know, and there’s so much there. A lot of it I like, but a lot of it I don’t like. It’s just got problems.” The article otherwise mostly focuses on Lynch’s latest project, the small-town noir Blue Velvet.

It’s easy to impose a simple narrative on what happened next. Chastened by his Dune experience, Lynch retreated to the sort of films (and later, TV shows) better suited to his talents. But it’s not really that simple. Dino De Laurentiis produced Blue Velvet, which also reunited Lynch with several members of the Dune cast, including MacLachlan, Dean Stockwell, and Brad Dourif. While the film’s smallness might feel like an attempt to put as much distance between Dune and whatever Lynch did next, it’s also the first original script by Lynch to tell a relatively straightforward narrative in a recognizable genre, which requires the sort of skill that writing multiple drafts of a virtually impossible-to-adapt novel sharpens. However unexpected their final destination, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive all use familiar film and TV worlds as points of departure.

Bits of Dune can be found within many of those projects, too. Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper shares little but a common actor with Dune’s Paul Atreides, but both take great stock in dreams and allow their director to use those dreams to let his imagination wander where it will, usually to delightfully dark corners. The industrial hellscape of Dune’s Giedi Prime bears a striking resemblance to the expanded netherworld of Twin Peaks: The Return, with its outsize, steam-spewing machinery. Lynch’s difficult Dune experience also seems to inform the themes of his later work. “I think Mulholland Drive is his rage statement at Hollywood,” Sammon says. “That is one of the most coruscating critiques of the corporate Hollywood world and the people in it and the costs to the human spirit that Hollywood, unfortunately, just imposes upon everyone on, within its system.” (Lynch’s final feature to date, 2006’s Inland Empire, plays like that rage reworked as a kind of ghost story.)

It’s easy, and maybe even proper, to see the 1984 version Dune as a folly or, more kindly, the best possible execution of an impossible task. But it’s wrong to diminish Dune as an afterthought. It’s an important chapter in a story that would look quite different without it, and a work of Lynchian bafflement and strange allures in its own right. One that, like a sandworm, keeps burrowing under the surface of Lynch’s career but refuses to disappear.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.