All Three Cinematic Versions of Dune Compared!

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A Brief History

On November 22, 2021, we take a look at the three major motion pictures based on the 1965 Frank Herbert science fiction novel, Dune, along with the television miniseries on the same topic.

Digging Deeper

The first effort to produce a Dune themed motion picture came as early as 1973, with the Alejandro Jodorowsky proposed film prepared to feature an incredible cast of major stars and celebrities, including Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Hervé Villechaize (the actor that played “Tattoo” on the television series Fantasy Island), Gloria Swanson, Geraldine Chaplin and Mick Jagger.  Music would be supplied by luminaries such as Peter Gabriel and Pink Floyd among others.  Jodorowsky created in incredible and vast vision for a film that would feature the greatest special effects and various professionals in the industry as well as lasting a stunning 14 hour run time!  Not surprisingly, finances became the limiting factor and the ambitious plan was ultimately scrapped.  (A documentary about this effort to produce a Dune magnum opus called Jodorowsky’s Dune was released theatrically in 2014.)

In 1984, we finally got the first major film adaptation of the story, produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Universal Pictures and directed by David Lynch.  Starring a young Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides (the protagonist and hero of the story) and Kenneth McMillan as the thoroughly disgusting caricature of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (the antagonist and main villain), the film had great promise but failed to deliver on expectations.  Despite a flashy display of color and visual spectacle, the characters and acting were cartoonish, and despite the big budget (for its time) of about $42 million, the US box office gross was a disappointing failure of only $31 to $38 million.  Did we mention the film featured rock star Sting as Feyd-Rautham the creepy nephew of the Baron?  What a pair those 2 made!  Other notable cast members included Max von Sydow, Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell and Jose Ferrer among the famous names.  This version of Dune took us all the way through the story to the final triumph of Paul Atreides.  At least the movie was nice and bright and easy to see what was going on, unlike the modern technique of making everything dark, shadowy and seemingly in sepia mode.  Despite its poor box office and our criticism of the acting, the movie is actually pretty entertaining, if for nothing else than the characters of Baron Harkonnen and his creepy nephew.  Running time was a longish 137 minutes, though as an icon of science fiction we have to give it a pass on length.

Paramount Pictures teased us in 2008 with a proposed remake of the tale, but cancelled the project by 2011.

The television miniseries Frank Herbert’s Dune came next, in the year 2001 (with a Director’s Cut in 2002), a three-part production starring Alec Newman as Paul Atreides and Ian McNeice as a fat and redolent, but not as gross and creepy Baron Harkonnen.  (Perhaps you are familiar with McNeice playing the “newsreader” in HBO’s 2005 to 2007 series, Rome.)  Star power was provided by featuring William Hurt as Duke Leto, though most of the rest of the cast were actors of non-American roots and unlikely to be familiar to most American viewers.  Acting was considerably better in this version of the story.  Directed by John Harrison and produced by Hallmark Entertainment, the $20 million series was originally aired on the Sci Fi Channel (now called SyFy) of cable television.  Original running time was 265 minutes, though a Director’s Cut was later available on video that added a half hour of material.  Alas, despite superior directing and acting, the miniseries irritated us with the aforementioned trend toward making television and movie production a poorly lit, hard to make out fuzzy detail affair.  A story that cries out for bright, colorful eye-candy images left us feeling somewhat subdued by the drab visuals.  Otherwise, the production was excellent and brought us to the conclusion of the story.  Not surprisingly, the series garnered a huge audience for Sci Fi and was a major success and is still among the top Sci Fi shows of all time.  In fact, this adaptation won a pair of Emmy Awards. A sequel to the miniseries was aired in 2003 under the title Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, also a successful miniseries.      

Which brings us up to date (2021) for the latest film adaptation of Dune, this time billed simply as Dune, though on screen the title reads Dune: Part One.  You ask, “Why do they refer to this film as Part One?”  Because the darn 156 minute movie does not take us all the way to the victory of Paul Atreides!  That left us feeling kind of unfinished and unfulfilled at the end of the film.  Directed by Denis Villeneuve (with sci fi major films Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival under his belt), a French-Canadian film maker with legitimate science fiction chops, the Legendary Pictures film was released in September of 2021, and has already more than doubled its $165 million budget at the box office.  Filming took place in exotic locations such as Hungary, Norway, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, and apparently on the planet Arrakis!  Not only was the box office take considerably better than the 1984 version, but the critical reception was also likewise quite positive.  We have to agree that the film has superior directing, acting, costuming, special effects and general cinematography, but once again we were dismayed by the many, many “dark” scenes seemingly filmed in the shadows.  (We like bright, clear and colorful films.  Perhaps other viewers are not as picky.)  This time the iconic role of the Baron was played by Stellan Skarsgård (Baron Vladimir Harkonnen), nowhere near as creepy as the first film or the miniseries character, though ably and convincingly played nonetheless.  Professional wrestler Dave Bautista plays the Baron’s nephew, a departure from the weaselly portrayals in the other films.  Once again, the main hero, Paul Atreides is played by a less than imposing actor, this time Timothée Chalamet who seems to be several years younger than his real life age (25 as of 2021).  Star power is enhanced with Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, and Oscar Isaac.  Some cameos are thrown in, including British singer Marianne Faithfull (“As Tears Go By” and the onetime girlfriend of Mick Jagger.)  Much like the television miniseries, the 2021 version of Dune is an excellent overall production and is worthy of the franchise, though of course we will have to see the “second half” of the film to bring it to its logical conclusion.

All three of these major adaptations of Dune are worthy of your time and attention and we think are quite entertaining.  Our recommendation is to watch all three in order (we did).  If you are a science fiction fan, the latest iteration is of course a “must see.”  Enjoy!

Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite adaptation of Dune?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Herbert, Frank. Dune Complete Series Set, 6 Books. Ace Books, 2020.

Lapointe, Tanya. The Art and Soul of Dune.  Insight Editions, 2021.

The featured image in this article, a poster for Dune (1984), DVD cover image for the Sci Fi Channel’s 2000 miniseries Frank Herbert’s Dune, and a poster for Dune (2021), are used in an article that provides critical commentary on the films and miniseries in question on a website used for education purposes whose servers are located in the United States per fair use under the copyright law of the United States.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.