Thursday, September 11, 2008

Concept: Dune, the movie.

For my birthday my parents got me Dune, and it was the first time I'd seen this film in about eight years. I watched this film constantly in 7th grade, and it became one of my favorites of all time. In 8th grade I picked up the book by Frank Herbert, and wasn't as impressed by the book as by the film. Many friends told me that the series went downhill from there, but I am still intrigued by the rumors that have reached me about what happened to Paul Atreides.

Now I realize that I am in the minority here in two ways: that Dune is a good movie and that the movie Dune is better than the book. I won't make the claims that I have about Dead Man's Chest... that this film is underrated because it is supremely crafted in an uncommon medium. But I think it may be underrated nonetheless because we have a bias toward, for example, good acting and plot coherence over lavish setpieces and effective imagery. These things are each neutral on their own... in the case of Dune the latter grant relief to the former. The script might be neither as tight nor as accessible as we would like, but for me, the spectacle of the blue-eyed Fremen, a sand-worm on the attack, or Baron Harkonnen indulging his blood fetish (not present in the book) is enough to make a very dense and difficult experience into something quite enjoyable.

Which brings me to another point. I also like the shorter cut of Dune more than the extended edition and this ties into why I like the film more than the book. In Herbert's novel, Paul Atreides sojourn into the bad trip that is melange gradually dominates more and more of the book, until he is completely overcome with a messianic grandeur so saturated as to seem inhuman. The extended film cut attempts to preserve this plot arc. The shorter cut (while hardly economical) jettisons much of this in favor of the political arc of the story. Which is marginally more human and certainly more accessible.

It might be fairly observed that this is a bit of an artistic cop-out. On the one hand, I don't think that an adaptation can exist independent of its source material; otherwise it wouldn't be an adaptation. That being said, the transposition of an object from one medium to another, and all of the attendant issues, makes it self-evident that these should be considered different works of art. For that reason, it is fair if the film emphasizes what the novel does not. One might say that political themes can be more thoroughly and deeply engaged in a three hour film than an abstract philosophical construct (if you want to pose Star Wars as a counterexample, I have an answer to that). One might argue, though I would disagree, that films being a popular medium (as opposed to books) have a greater obligation to ease and accessibility. However, I definitely believe that this film mitigated the story in a way that was beneficial. It took a novel that had struck me as coldly intellectual and through flesh-and-blood and abridgment brought the story some distance toward the opportunity to access through sense and emotion. Far from depleting its mystical ruminations, it has provided the audience with a point of entry to them.

Dune is a flawed film, but its atmosphere and viscerality continue to inspire me. It is, much like Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho a work whose conspicuous flaws render equally conspicuous the risks it takes and its successful efforts to innovate and engage.

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