For Dune, Is the 9th Time the Charm?

For 50 years some of the world’s most prestigious filmmakers have been trying to make an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Through 8 different approaches, those attempts have mostly failed. This is the story of the long, winding road to Denis Villeneuve’s attempt, which will be the 9th…

Way back before every major Hollywood movie was an adaptation of something else, studios would write original movies. Even then, one could not ignore the appeal of a film adaptation, especially if the source material was insanely popular. Such was the case for Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune, which attracted attention from filmmakers not long after its 1965 first release. Such was the appeal of Dune that even in an era when science fiction was uncool, Hollywood wanted to make a movie of it. 

But we all know expectations and reality are two different things. Despite all the potential inherent in Dune, it would face almost as much of an uphill battle to make it to theaters as Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Even when a big budget feature film version finally crossed the threshold in 1984, it was more a result of studio desperation than actual artistic commitment. For decades various filmmakers have tried, and ultimately failed to do it any justice.

This is the story of that struggle, and how the success of the newest adaptation won’t only be defined by box office proceeds and critical accolades, but by finally vanquishing one of the most seductive demons in all of film. Feature film adaptations of Dune have long attracted some of the biggest names both inside and outside the film industry, and all of them have failed. From struggles to adapt the dense book to a feature film format, to creative differences, and even unexpected deaths – Dune has had a long and winding road from page to screen. 

The word “unfilmable” had long been attached to Dune, and it is not surprising why. The novel has an epic scale not unlike Lord of the Rings, which was also an extremely popular set of books that had also been labeled the “u” word. But the scale of the story is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the challenges of being adapted into a feature film. 

To start with, the story takes place in the very distant future, and yet is full of elements of old-fashioned lifestyles, feudalistic social structures, and a commitment to religion. These seemingly juxtaposed story elements immediately cause confusion to the uninitiated. Until Planet of the Apes, studio audiences always associated science fiction, and future societies with spiffy cutting edge technology and an advancement of humanity. 

The other issue was the shear complexity and originality of the story. In addition to having to explain many of the more supernatural aspects of the story which audiences would be unfamiliar with, the novel is full of subplots, schemes, and philosophical musings. At the premier of the 1984 feature film version, the studio famously handed out pamphlets to the audience explaining some of the nouns, titles, and ideas the film would utilize. On top of that, you have the problem of many of the character’s actions in the books being explained through internal monologues. 

For all these reasons, script writers really struggled to get a handle on the essence of Dune. Pairing down the story wouldn’t work because some of the more complex ideas were required to move the plot forward. And keeping in many of the book’s more esoteric details would mean making a film that would not be accessible to part of a mainstream audience. More importantly, the massive scope of the novel demanded a huge budget in order to do it any justice. Filmmakers were enticed by Dune because of the potential for creativity, but too often they would come to realize they bit off more than they could chew. 

The First Attempt

The saga of adapting Dune to the big screen started in 1971, when producer Arthur P. Jacobs purchased the film rights. Jacobs had been producer of Planet of the Apes, which proved to be a big hit, and changed the trajectory of science fiction forever. During the pre-production of that film, it was decided to make the ape society primitive in order to save costs. The original idea had been to make the ape society advanced, as what was typically depicted of future societies in science fiction. But the change to a more primitive society would introduce the idea that science fiction could bring in ideas from the past. 

The success of Planet of the Apes, and the audience’s acceptance of a primitive ape civilization existing in the future gave Jacobs the confidence that a film adaptation of Dune could be possible. But the success of Planet of the Apes was also to the detriment of an early film version of Dune. Busy working on the sequels, work on Jacob’s Dune adaptation was delayed a very crucial year. Director David Lean was hired to direct in 1972 or 1973, and Robert Bolt was brought on to write the script. 

Having David Lean and Robert Bolt involved was a very big deal. Lean is of course the Oscar-winning director of Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge of the River Kwai, and both of those films were huge influences on Frank Herbert. Robert Bolt was the Oscar-winning writer of Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. I can think of no team of filmmakers at the time who would have been more capable of bringing Dune to life. Just as impressive was the fact that Jacobs had convinced Lean to come out of semi-retirement to direct the film. The harsh critical reviews of Lean’s 1970 film Ryan’s Daughters utterly crushed him, and made him want to stop making films altogether. 

A budget of $15 million was provided for the first adaptation of Dune, and location scouting had begun. The film was set to start filming in 1974, but Arthur Jacobs suddenly died in 1973. Without Jacobs, the film didn’t have its funding, so the project fell apart. 

The Second Attempt

In late 1974, a group of French producers purchased the rights to Dune from Jacob’s production company. Surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was brought on to direct, and he had sole wild ideas (as famously examined in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune). To start with, he envisioned a 10-hour feature film, but as production began it would grow to 14 hours. He wanted to bring in Pink Floyd and Magma to make the film’s soundtrack, and agreed to hire Salvador Dali to portray the Emperor at a rate of $100,000 per hour because Dali ,”wanted to be the highest paid actor in Hollywood”. 

For the role of the main character Paul Atredis, Jodorowsky would cast his own son. Other major roles would be portrayed by David Carrodine, Gloria Swanson, Udo Kier, Orson Welles, Geraldine Chaplin, and Mick Jagger. Interestingly, at one point in time he had considered casting Charlotte Rampling in the role of Lady Jessica, but Rampling declined. She portrays Reverend Mother Helen Mohiam in the 2020 film. Jodorowsky hired Gary Kurtz and Dan O’Bannon as producers. 

Pre-production began in 1975. Jodorowsky set up a studio in Paris, and brought in artist Chris Foss to work on ship designs. Foss was known for his paintings that were often used for covers of science fiction books. He hired Jean Giraud (Mobius), an illustrator, who would design the characters and costumes. Jodorowsky himself began creating storyboards of the entire film, which would be bound together into something the size of a phonebook. Last, but not least, H.R. Geiger was brought in to provide designs based on Jodorowsky’s sketches. 

The film secured $9.5 million for pre-production, but progress was very slow. Frank Herbert famously visited Jodorowsky’s studio in 1976 to figure out what was going on. By that time, the team had already spent $2 million of the budget. Herbert found only sketches upon his arrival, and learned that the screenplay had changed significantly. Jodorowsky would later admit that he wanted to recreate the novel, not just adapt it as a feature film. Understandably, funding fell through after these revelations, and production shut down. 

The Third Attempt

Film rights for Dune were then sold to producer Dino De Laurentis in 1978. Hoping to avoid the fiasco of Jodorowsky’s excesses, Laurentis hired none other than Frank Herbert himself to write the script. Herbert’s attempt resulted in a 175 page script, which was about 74 pages too long for a feature film. If the man who wrote the original book could not condense it sufficiently to fit within an acceptable runtime, it seemed no one could. 

Another screenwriter was hired (Rudy Wurlitzer) to help trim Herbert’s script. De Laurentis then hired Ridley Scott as director in 1979, after his success with Alien. There is actually a lot of interesting connections between Alien and Dune. After the stress of Jodorowsky’s failure, producer Dan O’Bannon was admitted to a mental hospital. In his time there he read scripts, and came across the script for Alien. He would go on to produce that film, and in the process brought H.R. Geiger to work on the film’s production design. Scott would bring Giger to work on his attempt at adapting Dune, making him the first person to work on two separate adaptation attempts. 

However, in 1980, Ridley’s older brother Frank unexpectedly passed away. By that time Scott had determined the only way to make a Dune adaptation would be to split it into two films. To do this would mean a very significant commitment of at least two and a half years, which Scott wasn’t really prepared to do anyway. With the passing of his brother, he was concerned that he was wasting his time, and his career which had just begun. As a result, Scott dropped out in 1980 to join the production of a film that was further along, Blade Runner

The Fourth Attempt

With the film rights set to expire in 1981, De Laurentis renegotiated with Frank Herbert, and picked up the rights to the sequels as well. De Laurentis’ daughter, Raffaella was put in charge of production, and she wanted to hire David Lynch because of his success with The Elephant Man. Lynch was fresh off the success of The Elephant Man, and had received several high-profile offers including the opportunity to direct the third Star Wars film which would become Return of the Jedi. Lynch ultimately decided on Dune because he thought that George Lucas would not allow him the creative freedom he sought. 

However, Lynch chose to work on Dune despite never having read the book or having any interest in science fiction. He was attracted to the opportunity to write the script and have total creative freedom. For both Lynch and De Laurentis, they were envisioning their own version of Star Wars. Initial contracts with actors had them agreeing to work on three films. Lynch brought in other writers to help with the script, but they could not agree on the direction. Ultimately, Lynch wrote 7 iterations of the script, and the final version would have required a 3-hour runtime. 

The film was given a relatively large budget at the time, and production design was ramped up to try and adequately capture the large scope of the book. More than 80 sets were built, and the crew numbered as large as 1700 people. Thrust into such a large and unwieldy production, Lynch and De Laurentis were not prepared. As problems began such as food poisoning and makeup issues, production started to run behind schedule. As the film ran behind schedule, it began to go over budget.

Worse still were the expectations coming from the film’s financial backers. The final version of the film was 4 hours long, and the studio expected something that was 2 hours. Lynch and the producers would quickly try to edit the film down, making scenes shorter and adding in voiceover narration. By that time, the film was running up against its intended release date, and post production had not been completed. Special effects were rushed in order to get the film to theaters in time. 

The final version was not the smash hit the studio thought it would be. Any hope of additional sequels was extinguished by lackluster box office performance. Against a high budget of $42 million, the film grossed a mere $27 million in theaters. Lynch has famously disowned the film, attributing the differences of the final studio-mandated product compared with his original intention. Negative critical reviews significantly hurt the film’s chances. Some of this has later been blamed on the studio itself because the re-edits forced preview screenings to be cancelled, which created a negative atmosphere before the movie even premiered. 

The Fifth Attempt

More than a decade passed before another filmmaker picked up the rights to Dune. In 1996, Richard P. Rubinstein. Rubinstein had been a frequent collaborator with George A. Romero, and later went on to produce several Stephen King movie adaptations. So, he had some experience of adapting print to film. More importantly, he had found success by adapting novels into mini series. His adaptations of Stephen King’s The Stand and The Langoliers into television mini series had proven successful. 

In 1999 the Sci-Fi Channel was looking to produce its own mini series, and Rubinstein offered the idea of a Dune mini series. Frank Herbert’s Dune went into production shortly after, and resulted in a 3-part mini series that debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel in December 2000. The show proved to be very popular, becoming one of the most popular mini series broadcast on cable television at that time. Critics were also mostly positive with their reviews. The success of the mini series allowed the development of a sequel, Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, which debuted in 2003. 

The Sixth Attempt

Starting after the release of the mini series, a group of students in Spain began creating their own amateur feature film based on Dune. They envisioned an 8-hour long film that would incorporate the first three Dune novels. The film did not receive funding from any major film studios, and was never meant to release commercially. It was purely for fans, by fans, and was self-funded. The amateur filmmakers formed their own production company called Mediteatro Producciones Audiovisuales, and in 2007 released a trailer on YouTube when the film was nearing completion. 

Unfortunately, the Herbert Estate took exception to the Dune Fan Film being made without having the rights to do so. The film was intended to be distributed online, but without the support of the Herbert Estate, and fear of lawsuits if they continued, the group of filmmakers stopped production of their film. To this day it remains unseen and it is believed to be unfinished. 

The Seventh Attempt

After the success of the mini-series, Richard Rubinstein decided that the source material deserved to be a feature film. In 2007 he began putting together plans to make a new feature film. He partnered with Paramount Studios and hired Peter Berg to be director. Berg was the most vocal force trying to get a Dune film made, and reportedly was a huge fan of the book. The production even hired a set of producers. The only issue holding it up was the same issue that had befuddled many of the previous attempts; the script. 

In November 2007, the Writers Guild of America went on strike. There was a sudden vacuum of writing talent in Hollywood, and so a script for a new Dune film could not be written. This put a huge delay on the project. After the strike ended in 2008, the studio had negotiations with several writers, and eventually came to terms with Josh Zetumer. Zetumer wrote a 175 page script in 2009, and the film was given a $175 million budget. There were even rumors that Robert Pattinson would direct. However, just as things were about to move forward Peter Berg left the project to work on Battleship

The Eighth Attempt

The studio made a few attempts to hire another director (Neill Blompkam, Neil Marshall), but they didn’t have much faith in either director being able to handle such an expensive film. In 2010, Paramount hired director Pierre Morel instead. Pierre brought some new ideas to the project and initially the production was trying to modify the existing script to incorporate those ideas. However, Morel eventually decided to start over. Writer Chase Palmer was brought in and together with Morel they created a new script that was said to be more faithful to the original source material compared to the Zetumer script. 

Preproduction began, and some initial artist sketches were commissioned for the studio. The producers were pleased with the script, and began searching for funding. Unfortunately, Paramount’s ran into a contract issue. Production would have had to begun by mid-2011 or else their rights to make the film would have expired. Paramount made a push to find enough interest in the film so that it could be budgeted, but that never happened. Morel left the project once it became apparent that it would not likely move forward. 

The Ninth Attempt

In 2016, Legendary Entertainment secured the rights to Dune from Rubenstein. Director Denis Villeneuve expressed interest in directing, but he knew the trouble previous productions had faced and believed he was not experienced enough at the time to handle the challenge. He would go on to make the first science fiction films of his career, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 in 2017 as an effort to expand his talents. Soon after, he came back to Dune and committed to making an adaptation if he would be allowed to split it up into two films. 

The studio agreed with his approach, but only agreed to Villeneuve’s contribution for the first film. They would have to negotiate the second film later on. Writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts were hired to write the script. Casting was completed in 2018 along with the scripts, and production began in early 2019 and wrapped up in the summer. The film was originally scheduled to release in November 2020, but was delayed a month and then finally pushed back until October 2021 due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

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