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The spice must flow – Marvel Super Special #36, “Dune”

June 2, 2011

I like Dune. The David Lynch movie, that is. I’ve read all but the last of Frank Herbert’s classic books in that series, and, while I admire the breadth and variety of the universe he imagined, I found reading them to be a bit of a chore. They plod along, and the philosophy propounded therein was forgettably obvious. But they have their legions of fans, and no one can deny them that. And I can’t deny that I’ve read five out of six of Herbert’s entries, and I’ll likely someday read the sixth, so there has to be something compelling about them that’s bringing me back to the trough. No one could call me a devotee, though.

But the movie…

I’ll grant that Lynch’s film has many, many faults. It’s confusing to a novitiate, (they actually handed out programs in theaters — can’t tell the players without a program), it too is too languid for stretches (it’s certainly faithful to the source material in that regard), and the effects are at times laughable (it must be remembered that The Return of the Jedi — which Lynch reportedly turned down directing in favor of Dune — came out the year before). The editing is odd, largely thanks to Lynch not having that all-important director’s weapon, the final cut. Baron Harkonnen, with his bubbly lesions, perhaps goes too far with his “disgusting fat guy” act. And there are scenes so dark a viewer will be excused if he doesn’t know whether he’s looking at the side of a fish or a concrete wall.

Perhaps a dutiful, exciting adaptation of Herbert’s book is impossible. The attractive but soulless 2000 miniseries and the bloated and abandoned 1970s try that was to have Salvador Dali(!) play the Padashah Emperor would certainly support that apparent difficulty.

But…

This one has Lynch. It seems preposterous that a man who forged Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and (perhaps my fave TV show of all) Twin Peaks would make a big budget sci-fi spectacular, but he did. I always think of Dune and Lynch as being akin to Stanley Kubrick and Spartacus for this reason: both films are like unmatched socks in their respective director’s oeuvre. These directors shoehorned themselves into big studio films where they didn’t have the final word, and that was a mistake both regretted and neither repeated. Each also tried to grasp that broad scope that makes something truly epic, though Spartacus was the only one to get hold of it.

The weirdest thing about Lynch’s Dune? It may be his most conventional film. It’s hard to believe that could be true about a motion picture with stillsuits, sandworms, stained-lip Mentats and gom jabbars, but the case can definitely be made.

What do I like about it? How about the at times bombastic, at times haunting score from Toto (! again) and Brian Eno? How about the eclectic supporting cast, featuring, among others, Max von Sydow, a pre-Picard Patrick Stewart and a crazy-looking Sting (who at one point gets all greased up and wears what looks to be a metal diaper)? How about that cool ominous back and forth at the beginning, in the gold throne-room of the Emperor, between that uniformed tyrant and the mutated freak Third-Stage Guild Navigator that, as a friend of mine once amusingly observed, “looks like it’s talking through a cooter!”?:

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This is one of those movies that I look at objectively and know that I should hate. But I don’t. As I said, I like the damn thing. Quite a bit, actually. There’s an element of the “splendid failure” at play (though detractors would quibble with the “splendid,” while I’d take issue with the “failure”).

And now we come to the comic.

This is that most dangerous of things, an adaptation of an adaptation. Like a photocopy of a photocopy, the risk is run of blurring the edges of whatever it was that made the original worthy of transference. But this mag (it was also reprinted as a three-issue regular comic), while closely attuned to the Lynch film, does some things better than its source. Make that both sources, book and movie.

Most of the credit for that would have to go artist Bill Sienkiewicz. Writer Ralph Macchio would seem to have just taken dialogue from scenes in the film and plugged them into balloons — no crime, but no great feat either. And, to be fair, it’s possible that he took part in planning the layouts. But it’s Sienkiewicz that really runs wild in here, and it’s a joy to behold, especially for a fan of the film. I got off on the wrong foot with Sienkiewicz years ago. I recall hating his covers as a kid. They looked odd and ugly to my youthful eyes, but I’ve come full circle around when it comes to his work. As an adult I now gladly eat my vegetables, and I now enjoy his stylish, angular art. That’s progress, I suppose.

He does a marvelous job of recreating the looks of the characters and the overall aesthetic of the film without being too beholden to what showed up on screen. That’s Step 1 in any successful adaptation, but it’s in the broad sweeping panoramas of the Arrakis landscape where his work takes off. Take for instance this spread as Paul Atreides (the underrated and underused Kyle MacLachlin in the film) and his father head out with Liet Kynes to inspect the harvesting of the spice melange:

There’s a quality in a static image that conveys the swallowing immensity of a desert planet like its moving cousin never could.

Sienkiewicz also handles some of the more should-be-awesome moments of the story better than the film. The first appearance of a sandworm as it destroys a spice extractor is a major milestone in the movie. It’s when we finally meet one of the great monsters of the universe, but the effect falls a bit flat. There’s lightning and a sandstorm, but the maw of the worm remains mostly submerged as it slowly gobbles this mechanical interloper:

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It falls to Sienkiewicz to invest this top-down shot with the savage majesty it so richly deserves:

There isn’t the same discrepancy for the scene in which Paul, now Muad’Dib, tames Shai-Hulud, but Sienkiewicz once again gets the scale just right:

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I’ve always liked the loving look Paul and Stilgar exchange while they’re on the back of the sandworm. Hey! You two! Get a room!

Lest we think that only vast open-air scenes work here, we have this nicely arranged final battle between Paul and Sting’s Feyd Rautha:

For comparison’s sake:

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Just an aside, but I get a kick out of how a manic, shrilly shouted “I WILL kill him!” became a running gag amongst the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang. Thank you for that, Gordon Sumner.
And that about wraps it up. Bravo, Bill.
I had been looking for this book for a while now, and I was glad I spotted it the other day (even if there is a little crease in the lower left of the cover — d’oh!). I was even happier when I flipped through it. This is a worthy companion to the film, even if many find that bit of celluloid to be horrifically unworthy of the original book. And I had way too much fun throwing together this post.
“Arrakis. Desert planet…”
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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Edo Bosnar permalink
    June 3, 2011 4:21 am

    I’ll do you one better: I really like the film, despite its flaws, but have never read any of the Dune books – nor do I even have any real interest in doing so.
    By the way, just a quibble, and it may be because I’m misunderstanding the phrase, but if you’ve come “full circle” on Sienkiewicz’s art, wouldn’t that mean you hate it again after having liked it for a while?

    • June 3, 2011 12:23 pm

      Good to hear. I know this movie has its fans. Maybe there’s a new “silent majority” in town.

      You’re right about “full circle”. I meant “come around.” Hey, I was only off by 180 degrees. Fixed.

  2. Thelonious_Nick permalink
    June 6, 2011 2:26 pm

    No great fan of the movie, but I did get into the books in a big way in middle and high school. Even now, only partly as a private joke, I have the Litany of Fear on my email signature line at work, much to the mystification of many of my co-workers.

    Didn’t know this item existed–and Senkiewicz art! Thanks for the review–I’ll definitely be seeking this one out.

    • June 10, 2011 11:19 pm

      There’s never a bad time to start muttering “fear is the mind-killer” under your breath, I find.

  3. Matt permalink
    March 31, 2013 3:52 am

    Not to Necro an old thread, but it is amazing how far the Litany can travel.

    http://zenpencils.com/comic/17-frank-herbert-litany-against-fear/

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