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The Story of Dune

The toughest adaption from book to film is the Story of Dune.

By Futurism StaffPublished 8 years ago 18 min read

Dune is one of those rare stories that transcends the tastes and interests of a particular decade or generation. It takes us very, very far away from the ordinary concerns of life today to a place more than ten thousand years in the future, a time when human beings have spread far across the galaxy.

For more than 10,000 years there has been a continuity of power in the Known Universe as a result of the interaction of three major forces:

  1. The Spacing Guild which controls interstellar travel by "folding” space as a result of ingesting the spice melange which can be found only on Arrakis, the desert world also known as Dune.
  2. The Landsraad, the governing body of the planetary ruling clans.
  3. The Emperor of the Known Universe, who rules by military might and conspiracy.

All prosperity, interstellar trade and the Empire itself depends on the spice melange. Without it the Guild Navigators, grotesquely deformed by the enormous amounts of the drug they have consumed for generations, would be unable to glimpse the future and “fold” the endless distances of space between the stars.

On Kaitain, the planet of the Emperor of the Known Universe, Shaddam IV, there is great concern over the growing popularity of Duke Leto, head of House Atreides, ruler of planet Caladan.

The Atreides have developed advanced sonic weapons (such as the voice-operated weirding modules) and the Duke's army has been trained in their use. The Atreides' stock in the Landsraad is on the rise, not only because of their growing military power, but also because of their increasing popularity throughout the Universe.

But the Emperor Shaddam has conceived a terrible plot, a plan by which he will utterly destroy the Atreides. He has ordered the House Harkonnen, evil rulers of Giedi Prime, to quit Arrakis which they have tyrannized and exploited on behalf of the Emperor for many years. In their stead Shaddam has appointed the Atreides.

In reality the move is a deadly trap, set by the Emperor, with the aid of the Imperial Sardaukar, the most feared soldiery in the Universe. House Harkonnen, headed by the evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, will be secretly ordered to attack the Atreides clan on Arrakis and destroy it.

As the Emperor well knows, the Atreides and Harkonnens are locked in a perpetual blood feud which he hopes to use to his own advantage. Also, the Guild itself is aware of the Emperor's plans and fears his plot will endanger the safe production of the spice, without which they cannot live.

The Secret Sisterhood

Throughout the Empire there exists the secret sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, trained in such arts as telepathy and the use of The Voice to control the actions of other people. The long-term aim of the Bene Gesserit is the carefully orchestrated breeding program among the Great Houses to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, the one "who can bridge space and time," who can look into the dark place where even the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers, for all their mental powers, dare not.

On Caladan the Atreides prepare to leave for Arrakis, their new domain. Duke Leto and his top advisers such as Thufir Hawat, his Mentat (human computer), are aware of the dangers they face. The Harkonnens are sure to have left all kinds of treachery and sabotage behind.

Paul, son of Duke Leto, has studied Arrakis and despite his superb training and conditioning, he faces the move with apprehension. Such concern grows with his increasing ability to see into the future through his dreams, dreams that include the planet's paired moons, and the beautiful girl who repeats, “Tell me of your homeworld, Usul.”

His mother, the Lady Jessica, brings the Reverend Mother Helen Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit to see him. The Reverend Mother Mohiam telepathically witnessed the Guild Navigator's meeting with Shaddam IV, whom she serves. She has come to test Paul Atreides to discover for the Bene Gesserit why the Guild fears this young man. She does so, placing his hand in a pain simulator box while holding a poisoned needle to his neck. Should he flinch from the agony induced by the box holding his hand she will kill him.

He passes her test.

Soon afterwards House Atreides lifts off from Caladan in thousands of Atreides spaceships, small ships that can travel within a single solar system. The Atreides vessels rendezvous with an interstellar Guild Heighliner and enter its immense hold.

Gruesome Geidi Prime

Meanwhile, on Giedi Prime, a world covered by slag, industrial waste and vast seas of black oil and ruled with brutality and corruption, the loathsome Baron Vladimir Harkonnen has received Duke Leto’s defiant renewal of the feud between their houses. The Baron will proceed with the plan to crush the Atreides. But it must be kept secret, for if the Landsraad were to find out it would rise against the Emperor and destroy him.

Deep in his city of steel, which floats on one of the vast seas of oil, the Baron and his Mentat, Piter, dictate strategy to his vicious nephews, Feyd and Rabban. The Baron reveals a startling secret: one of Duke Leto's most trusted advisors has turned traitor, an advantage far more important than armies or even the Sardaukar warriors. He gloats over his future victory.

On the planet Dune, the Atreides flag is flying from the Palace in the capital city of Arrakeen, above the energy shield.

Suddenly in Paul's room there is danger. A poisonous hunter-seeker device appears from behind the headboard of his bed, searching for Paul through its sensitivity to motion. When the Shadout Mapes, a Fremen housekeeper in the Arrakeen Palace, enters the room Paul grabs the device as it turns to strike her and smashes it against a wall. In turn, she warns him of a traitor, but she does not know his identity.

As the film opens the Bene Gesserit breeding program has been in progress for 90 generations. However, against the expressed command of the Bene Gesserit, instead of giving birth to the daughter they had requested for their plan, the Lady Jessica gave her beloved Leto the son he craved–Paul.

And there is Arrakis, where the mysterious desert Fremen live, with eyes that are blue-within-blue from constant absorption of the spice. Arrakis is a desert world with a peculiar ecology dominated by the enormous sandworms that live in the deep desert environment. Spice melange can be harvested, but only at great risk because the sandworms react to vibrations on the desert surface by attacking and devouring the sources of such vibrations. The big worms are often over 400 meters in length.

Third Stage Guild Navigator

Equally forbidding are the immense sand storms that sweep the deep deserts and can render flesh to dust in minutes.

On Kaitain, Home Planet of House Corrino and Emperor Shaddam IV, a rare event is in the making. A Third Stage Guild Navigator has come to visit the Emperor in his golden palace.

The Emperor is more than troubled by this, for such visits are not made easily by this aged Navigator. (Longevity is one side effect of the spice; the Emperor himself is 204 years old.) The Guild Navigators are Ioathe to ever leave the control rooms of the Heighliners, the enormous guild ships. Because they float in spice melange gas, the control rooms are the only environment in which they are ever truly comfortable.

The doors of the throne room open and a huge tank containing the Navigator, swimming in swirling orange gas, is brought in by First Stage Navigators. Shaddam waits alone to greet his grotesque and terrifying guest. The Navigator demands that the Emperor explain his plot, for the Guild is determined that there shall be no interruption in the supply of the spice, especially as a result of such petty human squabbles. Ultimately, the Navigator agrees to the Emperor's plan that dooms Duke Leto, but only if the Emperor also ensures the death of Paul Atreides.

This puzzles the Emperor but he dares not quarrel with the Guild.

That traitor within House Atreides is already at work. The Harkonmens strike. The traitor is Doctor Yueh, the Ducal family's personal physician. The Doctor drugs Paul, Jessica and the Duke.

Yueh (who is assassinated at the Baron's orders) has destroyed the army's precious weirding modules and has turned off the energy shields that surrounded the Palace. The Harkonnen ships dive over the city. Giant explosions shatter the land. Harkonnen ships land and unload thousands of terrifying Sardaukar troops who overwhelm the Atreides soldiers.

The Baron Harkonnen comes to gloat over his captives. Lady Jessica is kept bound and gagged to prevent her use of the Bene Gesserit Voice. Yueh (to fulfill his bargain with the Duke) has suggested that Jessica and Paul be flown into the desert and left to fend for themselves. The Harkonnens have received special orders from the Emperor to kill the two and they must obey despite their inclination to more sadistic cruelties.

Aboard the Harkonnen ornithopter, carrying them to apparent certain death, Paul and Jessica combine forces to trick the Harkonnen guards into removing Jessica's gag and they eliminate their captors. But the ornithopter is damaged and they can do nothing but fly on into the deep desert and eventually crash land.

A Prophetic Dream

In the midst of the great airborne quantities of the melange, Paul experiences a shattering vision through one of his dreams when the Mouse Moon, the second moon of Arrakis, rises into the night sky. He hears his father’s whisper, "The sleeper must awaken.”

Soon afterwards they come upon Stilgar and the Fremen of Sietch Tabr. Her life threatened because she is presumed useless, Jessica's incredible Bene Gesserit combat skills take Stilgar and the Fremen by surprise. Stilgar sees the pair as potentially valuable, with the possibility that Paul is the person who will fulfill the Fremen prophecy: one will come who can “bridge space and time'' and see where even the Bene Gesserit dare not look.

The Fremen welcome mother and son to their tribe. Paul is given the name “Usul'' and also “Muad' Dib,” after the mouse face visible in the second moon of Arrakis. He also meets Chani, the girl he has seen in his dreams.

At Sietch Tabr, Paul and Jessica begin to learn the secret strength of the Fremen. They find the Sietch is an enormous complex, cut out of the rock with lasers and they discover part of the great reservoir of water that lies secreted beneath the Sietch.

As they become accepted by the Fremen, Paul teaches them the use of the weirding modules, weapons that can shatter rock and kill with nothing more than sound. To avenge his father, Paul promises to turn the Fremen into killing machines and rid Dune forever of the Harkonnens.

The Sietch's own Reverend Mother Ramallo is dying and the Fremen press for Lady Jessica to succeed her by drinking the life-threatening Water of Life. By changing it in her body, she will proceed to the mental state in which she can absorb the memories of the thousands of Reverend Mothers which exist in the mind of the Reverend Mother Ramallo. If Jessica is unable to change the substance inside her own body it will kill her.

Jessica takes the blue liquid of tremendous psychic power. She accepts the memories of Reverend Mother Ramallo and survives.

However, Jessica fails to tell the Fremen and Reverend Mother Ramallo that she is pregnant with Duke Leto's baby girl, Alia, and now Alia also undergoes the transformation brought on by the Water of Life. Alia becomes aware of herself and of the memories of all the Reverend Mothers of Sietch Tabr, while still in her mother's womb!

Jessica succeeds Mother Ramallo in Sietch Tabr while her son Paul falls in love with the Fremen girl Chani. In the months and years that follow, urged on by their new leader, Paul Muad`Dib, the Fremen begin to carry the battle to the Harkonnens. Paul learns to ride the sandworms as every Fremen warrior must and the Fremen soon instill fear into the Harkonnens. Spice production is brought nearly to a halt. But Rabban, losing many men, has worked desperately to keep these facts from the Baron.

On Kaitain the Emperor is visited by angry Space Guildsmen. He must wipe out the Fremen, and regain control of Arrakis and spice production or lose the vital support of the Guild. Alarmed, the Emperor orders fifty legions of Sardaukar to proceed to Arrakis and systematically exterminate all human life on the planet.

In the deep desert Paul Muad'Dib takes the Water of Life himself. He penetrates to the secret place where only the Kwisatz Haderach can go. Paul now looks into the future and comes to understand the secret of spice melange. He now knows how to overcome not only the Harkonnens, but the very Empire itself!

From Pages to a Movie Screen

In many ways, the most amazing thing about Dune is that it ever became a movie at all. Dune first appeared in Analog Magazine back in December, 1963. Since then, Herbert's series of books about Dune have sold in excess of 12 million copies and the story of Paul Atreides–Muad'Dib of the desert planet Arrakis, known as Dune, has become a worldwide phenomenon.

Among those caught early by the spell of Dune's swirling plot and unique imagery was Raffaella De Laurentiis, at the time a student who worked on her father's films during her vacations, "I read Dune and really liked the book. I knew there was a movie that had to be made from this wonderful story. I knew, of course, it would be a very big challenge, but I wanted to produce it."

Another fan was Kyle MacLachlan. He first read the book when he was 14. “It had a tremendous influence on my life at that time. I would sometimes think of myself as Paul.” It is surely one of film history's greatest dream-stories come-true that Raffaella De Laurentiis should eventually produce Dune, and that Kyle MacLachlan should star in it as Paul Atreides.

Back in the 60s, however, Hollywood was uninterested in science fiction. The film rights to Dune remained unsold until 1972. Throughout the 70s Dune bounced from one unworkable script to another until it gained a reputation as the film that could never be made. It would always be too expensive, the script would always run hours too long and the sandworms of Arrakis were just impossible to capture on film. The whole idea was impractical.

Then in 1978, Dino De Laurentiis picked up the option to Dune's movie rights and began the incredibly difficult process of bringing Dune to the screen

After Frank Herbert and British director Ridley Scott (Bladerunner, Alien) had each produced scripts that, for various reasons, were rejected, the De Laurentiis's turned to David Lynch, a young American director who, to great acclaim, had just released The Elephant Man.

Raffaella was more determined than ever. I knew we could do the sandworms. I knew we could do everything. You can do anything you know, but getting that book into a script! That was the big challenge. After all, a lot of people had tried to do that and failed in the last ten years.”

From May, 1981 to December, 1982 David Lynch wrote seven drafts before a shooting script was finally accepted. Lynch notes that, "There are a lot of things you can do in a book that you just can't do in a movie, or the audience will nod off. Plus, with Dune, there were tremendous problems with time. There are so many things in the book to try and tell, and you'd love to just go on and on and fit it all in but you can't. You have to button it down and, with something like Dune, that takes time.”

While Lynch worked on the script the De Laurentiis production began to take shape. There were many serious problems, not least of which was choosing a place in which to shoot the film. After searching the Earth, Raffaella De Laurentiis finally chose Mexico to film this most demanding and fantastic of all science fiction films.

Her reasoning was simple, "We needed deserts and we needed studios. I looked in Europe, in Spain, in Italy, in England, I even looked in India. But countries that had great deserts didn't have studios and countries that had studios didn't have deserts. Even in the countries that did have studios, there wasn't enough space that was large enough. They were already half full with other productions. We don't usually make a picture that needs eight sound stages!"

In Mexico, however, there was Churubusco Studios, an enormous film facility that had everything the production needed, except high technology. Raffaella weighed the situation, “I took the risk with the lack of technology because Mexico had the studios, it had the desert, it had the room. We even did some of the most technical things that have ever been done in Mexico, like the blue screen mattes and the special effects with the sandworms.

In the latter part of 1982 the pre-production workers began the immense task of designing the film, producing the costumes and the props and building the multitudes of sets and models that would be required. On March 30, 1983 the filming of Dune's principal photography began and the film that couldn't be made was underway.

Hiring Sting

One of the most intriguing casting decisions made by Raffaella De Laurentiis and David Lynch, was the choice of Sting, the star of rock group Police, who agreed to take the role of Feyd, one of the wicked nephews of Baron Harkonnen.

Sting stayed in Mexico City for seven weeks. Most of that time was spent working with Kiyoshi Yamazakai, the production's martial arts instructor.

Sting has acted in such films as Quadrophenia and Brimstone and Treacle, but those were nothing like Dune. “I’ve worked on films before, but this was traumatic, in a small sense. My previous films were always on a small budget, films where you knew everybody's first name and things were kind of quiet. That was pretty reasonable. But Dune is eight huge sound stages, four film crews, umpteen sets and thousands of extras, so you can imagine the chaos. Let's just say it was an enjoyable trauma to be there.”

Enormous Number of Special Effects

Dune demanded an enormous number of special effects, including something like 400 model and miniature special effects shots. Englishman Brian Smithies was Model Unit Supervisor. "To complicate matters we had to import everything including such items as model kits used for fine dressing on models and sections of plastic also needed for dressing. Plastic was very hard to get through Mexican Customs obviously heavy materials like plaster and wood we could get but everything of a technical nature had to be imported. It was virtually impossible to get plastic through in time, so we had to do a lot of work in wood, plaster and fiberglass.

Constantly short of plastic, he model shop still made dozens of different spaceships on time, including 28 Atreides ships of two ships and eight Harkonnen ships, each around three-feet-long. There were also three different size models of the Guild Heighliner, including one that was six feet long.

There were also eight Harkonnen ornithopters, several spice harvesters and the carryall, plus a 15-foot-long model set for the Guild Navigator's cockpit. There were two different sized models of the shield wall that protects the city of Arrakeen. In addition there were several different sizes of sandworms, including three eight-foot-long models and two 16-foot models. These worms had fully articulated heads and the three beak mouths. The list of models built to Dune is simply monumental. Considering that Smithies and his crew were late in joining the picture and were starved of plastic parts by customs, their output was amazing.

So vast was the production of Dune that it's difficult to comprehend the enormity of the effort that was required to bring David Lynch's film to the screen. For example, there were 4,000 costumes made while 75 sets, many of them huge, were built on Churubusco Studios eight sound stages. Several different sizes of sandworms, 30 different models in all, plus the amazing Guild Navigator, were built in Los Angeles by Carlo Rambaldi's shop, and then flown to Mexico City.

How to Build a Sandworm

The amount of construction that had to be completed in Mexico boggles the mind. From early, pre-production days in the autumn of 1982, right up to the end of special effects shooting in early 1984, Churubusco saw innumerable sets and props, of all sizes, roll out of the carpentry and model shops.

The sandworms presented a unique problem of scale. No ordinary sand could be used with the models since the worms had to crash through dunes in the most dramatic way. They are enormous creatures, so to get the correct scale an artificial sand mixture was used that was composed of Fullers Earth and borosilicate microballoons with a diameter of 60 microns.

Five thousand pounds of the microbubbles were used, and because they were so small they were very dangerous. If breathed in they remained in the lungs, so everyone working on the sandworm shots had to wear breathing masks and goggles. Every night the sandworm models had to be cleaned by blowing air through them.

Yet Dune went to the limits of movie making in more than just the area of special effects. For example, just getting the beautiful floor of the enormous Arrakeen Palace set laid required two months work by skilled workers.

For the location shots enormous cleanup efforts were mounted. In the desert location at Samalayuca workers stripped three square miles of Mexican desert of all terrestrial life forms to make it as empty as a desert on Arrakis.

On the studio lot the problems ranged from the bizarre to the mundane. On occasion the Mexican Customs Service was difficult to deal with and many technological items were very hard to import into the country. For instance there was a general prohibition on the import of plastics as Mexico is encouraging its own plastic industry.

Administration was complicated by other factors. Mexican phone service was irregular, and there were occasional power outages.

Raffaella overcame the problem of power failures by the only means open to her. She brought in large generators to provide an alternative source of electricity to keep the cameras rolling no matter what "Just imagine making one of the most technically advanced pictures ever in a country that doesn't have too much modern technology!"

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