Frank Herbert’s Dune and Children of Dune

I recently revisited the Sci-Fi Channel’s mini-series Frank Herbert’s Dune for the first time since its release in 2000, both to reappraise this interesting project in its extended DVD version and to precede my first look at the sequel mini-series, Children of Dune. I was both disappointed and pleasantly surprised with what I found.

Adapting Dune as a mini-series was a terrific idea, allowing Herbert’s narrative and themes to be more faithfully captured than both film in general and David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation specifically. I adore Lynch’s work, but his Dune film was hamstrung by length considerations and outside interference and blighted by the unnecessarily twisted sensibility he infused it with. Dune should be provocative, but not freakishly disturbing. John Harrison’s mini-series promised a more dignified and elaborate treatment of the material.

It certainly gets a lot right. The changes wrought by the years that the story spans are much more apparent, bolstered by Alec Newman’s performance as Paul Atreides, who despite some wooden and cheesy moments manages to clearly transform his boyish Paul into the mature leader Muad’Dib. Harrison’s script also captures the political intrigue surrounding the three noble houses more comprehensively than a film ever could, allowing the Fremen’s overthrow of the Harkonnens to feel much more organic. The set and costume design is sumptuous too. You’ll noticed the scattered nature of this praise, which is sadly due to how much the mini-series is unable to accomplish.

Two factors hinder this new Dune, the first being the production values. The dedication of those behind this project cannot be doubted, and their ambition in attempting to tell this story within the budgetary confines of television is laudable. The decision not to film in the desert is also understandable, as such a shoot is taxing enough for a big-budget movie, let alone a TV production. But the setbound outdoor shoots are so jarringly integrated with the matte painting and CGI backgrounds that the mini-series looks painfully cheap. The effects shots themselves are also awkwardly mediocre, being tasked to forge such sights as sandworms and a Guild Navigator on a TV budget circa six years ago. The producers have tried to compensate for the lack of location shooting by deliberately aiming for a theatrical style that allows greater focus on character and story, but sadly, that style is so rough around the edges that it ultimately distracts from those elements.

Which brings us to the next hindrance: writing and acting (two factors, yes, but in this case they’re inextricable). Harrison achieves a lot in his screenplay, but the dialogue is such that the subtlety of Herbert’s story is often either smothered by stilted moments or made too obvious by exposition. He also fails to learn a lesson from the Lynch film, which made the Harkonnens cartoonish and genuinely vile (something Herbert himself specifically objected to), raising the question of how on earth they had become such an influential force in a universe clearly beholden to serious financial and political machinations. While the mini-series lacks the disease-ridden, deviant, grotesque Baron of the film, its own recalls cartoonish supervillains of sci-fi films past. This Baron is so hollow and dull in his powermongering that he sabotages the sincerity of Paul and the Fremen’s struggle, failing to provide a strong ideological opponent. He even ends scenes actually laughing maniacally – Dune is more sophisticated than that. This is no fault of McNiece, who could undoubtedly pull off a more nuanced character if the script allowed it. His nephews, the yawn-inducing, typically amoral Feyd-Rautha and the staggeringly cheesy Rabban, do not help matters.

Other performances, either due to the actors themselves or Harrison’s directorial choices, let the affair down. William Hurt was a big coup for the production, but he gives such a dull performance that he barely registers. P.H. Moriarty’s Gurney Halleck actually seems amateurish, oddly so given how smooth he was in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Newman sometimes interrupts the gravitas he has accumulated as the older Paul with strangely whiny delivery. Plus, there are numerous cheesy moments that belie the Dune series’ intelligence and depth.

I usually hate the expression “for fans only”, as it usually comes from smug critics unfamiliar with source material who imply that fans will lower their standards if a movie even resembles what they cherish. Still, I couldn’t recommend Frank Herbert’s Dune to anyone who hasn’t read and appreciated the book. The mini-series stands as an interesting curiosity for Dune fans, but is too lacking in other respects for newbies to be able to embrace the glorious strangeness of this universe.

Children of Dune, however, is a quite different matter. Harrison again provides the screenplay – adapting the second and third books in the series into one package – but was unable to direct due to other commitments. He is succeeded by episodic TV director Greg Yaitanes, who has since helmed episodes of Lost. Ironically, despite being new to Dune, Yaitanes provides a far smoother and more cohesive experience, although he is no doubt assisted by the difference that two years can make in visual effects and compositing.

This marks the first time that Herbert’s Dune sequels have been brought to the screen, a risky proposition given how marginalised they are in relation to the original. While they have plenty of fans, the more straightforward and prototypical rite of passage narrative of the first novel may have afforded it greater permeability. The sequels get progressively weirder, and Dune Messiah and Children of Dune are more pessimistic, examining the cyclical nature of revolution and the inevitability of corruption. They also lack a high-concept narrative to pin it all on. I’ve loved those of the sequels I’ve read so far, but can see why many don’t. This adaptation manages to make them more accessible and emotionally engrossing even if they remain somewhat oblique.

The most noticeable improvement to the adaptation process is those production values. While still setbound and even creating entire indoor environments in bluescreen, the integration between set and artificial background is so much stronger. The transition between real and CGI sand is often seamless, even though the lighting confirms that is clearly not shot in a desert. But that smoothness means a lot, stopping the environments from distracting the eye. The CGI itself is also a lot better, including some gorgeous virtual sets and impressive sandworms. The cinematography is less stylised than the first mini-series and thus more efficient. For the first time, we can feel Arrakis as a place with a society and history.

The acting has also taken a big leap. Newman is flawless here as Paul/Muad’Dib, conveying a grandeur and wisdom beyond his years. He really should be going on to bigger things, as James McAvoy subsequently has. As Muad’Dib’s son Leto, McAvoy (Shameless, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Last King of Scotland) is simply stellar, giving a commanding performance that anchors this production and occasionally lulls us into thinking we’re watching a major motion picture. He’s that good, and his success since is understandable and deserved.

As Leto’s twin sister Ghanima, Jessica Brooks is ethereal and commanding, although she doesn’t get a great deal to do. Daniela Amavia is solid as Paul’s impossibly wise but unstable sister Alia, although the script lets her down by failing to offer much rationalisation for her descent into madness and tyranny. And the producers achieved another coup in snagging Susan Sarandon to play the former Emperor’s vengeful daughter Wensicia, but she’s tragically wasted in a one-dimensional villain role, this installment’s Baron Harkonnen. I’d say she should have been cast as Muad’Dib’s guilt-stricken mother Jessica, but Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact, Deadwood, seemingly everything) is quite affecting and does the role justice. It’s a shame that quite a bit of recasting had to take place, Krige foremost among them, but since they’re largely improvements, there’s nothing to grumble about. Edward Atterton is fairly bland as Duncan Idaho though, failing to convey the inherent alienness of his resurrected ghola incarnation. Jonathan Bruun is frequently wooden as key character Farad’n, and sadly, there are still several corny moments throughout (“Seize him!” and some sabretooth tigers spring to mind).

Special mention has to go to Brian Tyler’s gorgeously melodic orchestral score, an epic achievement that would be perfectly at home in a big-budget movie. Eschewing Graeme Revell’s tonal and moody score for the original, Tyler’s is unabashedly BIG, going a long way towards enhancing the production’s sense of scale. This is one of the best TV scores you’ll ever hear, and the producers were lucky to get it.

But on top of these perks, the best part of Children of Dune is that you feel something. The tragic developments of the Atreides father and son are keenly felt, unlike the largely unaffecting void of the first mini-series. The final scenes are genuinely poignant because they’ve been earned and, more impressively, are rooted in Herbert’s distinctive and heady take on personal sacrifice and responsibility. By largely conquering its production woes, the mini-series is able to finely hone the gorgeous majesty of this story, and since the screenplay captures that rich strangeness that only literary SF seems able to provide, Children of Dune becomes a wonderful way to spend a few hours. Not perfect, but more than satisfactory. Unlike the first novel, I don’t need to see another stab at this one, and this one I would recommend to anyone unfamiliar with the books. Harrison and Yaitanes hit the nail on the head.

On that note, I’ll mention that unlike many, I’d quite like to see another film version of Dune. Both adaptations have been hampered by their own setbacks – Lynch had the money but not the duration (especially when he was forced to cut it back even further) and Harrison had the duration but not the money. The prospect of a $100 million+ Dune film, with today’s effects and proper location shooting by an experienced director who loves the material and is right for it, is a rich one. It too could be plagued by its own problems, of course, and it’s hard to believe that a studio would greenlight such an intellectual science fiction tale with the requisite budget in today’s entertainment climate, but we can dream. One thing these mini-series did do was remind me how entrancing and deep Herbert’s saga is, abounding in ecology, politics, religious debate, and mythological archetypes. I’m going to finally read the rest of those sequels…

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