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Frank Herbert's Dune, written by John Harrison from the book by Frank Herbert, directed by John Harrison, 2000, 295 min.

Frank Herbert's Dune is a miniseries version of the first Dune book, divided up into 3 sections of 100 minutes each. This miniseries was shown on the Sci-Fi Channel and is now available for purchase on DVD in two versions (the more recent Director's Cut is highly recommended). John Harrison wrote the adaptation and directed the series as well, filming exclusively on soundstages in Prague. Dune needs the five-hour running time, and this particular version feels luxurious and respectful; the story has room to breathe, and the lack of pressure to tell the events in two hours really shows. Unfortunately, the 300 minutes is not as polished as fans might be hoping for (I'll discuss the reasons for this further). Yes, the story is well told, but two things in particular, the casting and design, were generally more memorable in the otherwise flawed movie version of Dune from the 1980s directed by David Lynch.

Far in the future, a desert planet known as Dune or Arrakis is the only source in the galaxy for the spice melange, a drug that provides prescience and the ability to travel through space faster than light. Dune was once controlled by House Harkonnen, but the Emperor has given Dune to House Atreides, sworn enemy of the Harkonnen. The movie begins with Duke Leto Atreides and his son Paul preparing to leave their home world of Caladan. Leto suspects that the offer is a trap but he has decided to go ahead anyway. As expected, the Harkonnen spring a trap, and almost all of the Atreides are killed, except for Paul and his mother. The two survivors flee into the desert and hook up with some of the indigenous people of Dune, fierce warriors known as the Fremen. Paul gradually becomes more knowledgeable about the ways of the Fremen. Furthermore, Paul has inherited certain genetic advances from his mother; his mother, a member of the secretive order of women known as the Bene Gesserit, is part of a centuries-long breeding plan to create the Kwisatz Haderach, a superbeing with the power, among other things, to see both the past and the future. With these advantages, and the fact that his life seems to fulfill certain Fremen prophecies, Paul becomes a great leader and leads a revolution against both the Harkonnen and the Emperor. The miniseries follows the book closely, apart from a somewhat expanded role for the Emperor's daughter, Princess Irulan, a move that worked quite well and provided an interesting note of melancholy for the ending. On the whole, I feel somewhat ambiguous about such close adherence to a densely written text like Dune. On one hand, I was thrilled to see many more of the plot threads from the book in this miniseries than in the Lynch movie version. On the other hand, Herbert's universe has many details that seem to be impossible to illustrate visually, at least without the aid of voiceover or lengthy explanation. I enjoyed this miniseries a great deal when I watched the Director's Cut DVD, but I've watched it in the past with people who were not familiar with the books, and the viewing experience was incomprehensible without further explanation. This is no fault of Harrison's, apart from the ambition on his part to make this miniseries in the first place; rather, it seems as if Herbert's writing is too complete a vision of a far future to be manageable in visual format.

Frank Herbert's Dune casts some roles perfectly. As mentioned, Princess Irulan's role is increased from the book and she is ably portrayed by Julie Cox (who also shone in the miniseries sequel, Children of Dune). The biggest improvement over Lynch's Dune is clearly the casting of the Harkonnens, the villains of the piece. Lynch made them a wacked-out bunch of deviants, distorting the story because we couldn't believe in their ability to carry out interstellar plots, and the stunt-casting of Sting as the Harkonnen heir didn't help much either. Ian McNeice plays the Baron Harkonnen here, and while he is still repulsive, he is also at least cunning and capable of scheming complex schemes. It's a change from ultra-villainy to more believable antagonists, and Harrison definitely made a wise choice. The two main Atreides characters, Paul and his father Duke Leto, are the two main areas of contention in the miniseries. Leto is played by William Hurt, and as mentioned by Harrison in the director's commentary, Hurt chooses to play Leto as a doomed man; not entirely supported by the book, but a valid artistic choice all the same. Unfortunately, this melancholy and low-key portrayal saps the beginning sections of most of its energy and conviction. Lynch used Jurgen Prochnow as Duke Leto, who was much more charismatic and authoritative, but the movie then faced the opposite problem of how such a commanding man could make the terrible mistake that ends in his death. In the miniseries, Alec Newman as Paul begins too querulently, and ends with enough madness of vision but not enough physical presence. Lynch's movie featured Kyle McLachlan, who seemed more in tune with both ends of the story, both as teenager and emperor; paradoxically, his filling out of the role seems more opaque than Alec Newman's. The Children of Dune miniseries gave Harrison a chance to fix up some mistakes; Stilgar in particular is better cast, while the aforementioned role of Princess Irulan continues strongly, and the twin children of the title are probably the best part of the project.

A note related to characterization. I watched the Director's Cut of Frank Herbert's Dune at the same time as I rewatched Starship Troopers. I was struck by how successfully this miniseries handled the idea of its main character being an antihero, and how Verhoeven's controversial movie fumbled the same idea so badly. For me, Starship Troopers had no clue how to convey this, while Frank Herbert's Dune is a tightly focused tragedy. Paul knows quite clearly the cost and consequence of war, and despite all of his advanced powers, he still gets drawn into the same line of events. I realize that this miniseries has the advantage of sequels (both in book form, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, and the miniseries that adapted both books, Children of Dune) that examine this issue, but the groundwork that's already here is still superior to the same attempts in the Verhoeven film.

While Frank Herbert's Dune seems to suffer in comparison to Lynch's Dune in terms of the visual design, I should hasten to add that the miniseries has an obvious low budget, stretched out over a long running time. There are always advantages to a low budget, such as greater freedom, which is evidenced in the careful attention to an expanded storyline. Frank Herbert's Dune is a noble effort (much in the same way as Lynch's movie), and I was quite happy to see that mistakes along the way were used to make the next effort that much better; Children of Dune is an excellent miniseries and is also highly recommended.

DVD Note: Frank Herbert's Dune was originally released in a 2-DVD set that had the miniseries as originally broadcast in North America (about 270 minutes in length). After some legal issues were resolved, the miniseries was re-released as a 3-DVD Director's Cut with an extra 30 minutes of material. This version is the better of the two, by far. Most of the extra material fleshes out crucial character moments, and the new cut also flips to the international versions of scenes that now have some nudity. Harrison and varying members of his film-making team provide a commentary track for the whole 5 hours, and I have more respect for the production now (in addition to the reflected glow of the Children of Dune experience, as mentioned). Harrison and company talk about the theatricality of the production, defend the performances by Alec Newman and William Hurt, discuss production complexities, point out most technical elements, and mention how happy they were to take advantage of the actors in the Czech Republic who were well-trained by the long-standing theatre tradition in that country. Each DVD also has about 30-45 minutes of other extras, ranging from the interesting to the esoteric. The extra features on Disc 1 and 2 have a habit of giving away later plot points, but otherwise the extra material is generally worth watching.

First posted: November 21, 2001; Last modified: March 14, 2004

Copyright © 2001-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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