The end of Harry Potter left me looking for something else to read, and, to ease my withdrawal pangs, I needed a new series I could love just as much as the Hogwarts chronicles. None of the new stuff on the shelves at Barnes and Noble was turning my crank, and I desperately needed a book to take on vacation. So, on a whim, I picked out the 40th Anniversary edition of Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”
I’d always thought that I’d read the novel “Dune” prior to this year, but I don’t know when or where, and I certainly couldn’t have told you anything about it. The only scene I could recall prior to rereading it this summer was when the Duke dumped a glass of water on the ground and made everyone else follow suit. A few of the moments in the book had a familiar ring to them, but, for all intents and purposes, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was reading this masterpiece for what seemed like the very first time.
Which is not to say the book is easy to read. Like Harry Potter, “Dune” creates a fully realized fictional universe, which, in detail and scope, is far more expansive than Rowling’s wizarding world. The fundamental difference is that Rowling goes out of her way to make her world accessible to the average Muggle, while Herbert does exactly the opposite. His book is loaded with jargon that requires constant reference to the glossary in the back. I kept asking things like “What’s a ‘gom jabbar’? What does he mean he’s a ‘mentat?’ And what the Sam Hill is a ‘Kwisatz Haderach?’” Reading the first few pages was extremely tedious, and it made me wonder if I had actually read the book before or if I had just given up when I realized I neither knew nor cared about Kwisatz Haberdashers.
Jargon, in my mind, is an elitist storytelling device. It’s designed to be exclusive, and it usually indicates a condescension on the part of the author – i.e. if you were only as smart as the guy writing the story, you’d know what was going on. At worst, it’s just plain silly, as in the case with “Battlestar Galactica,” when people use words like “centons” and “yahrens” to describe seconds and years. We’re suspending disbelief long enough to pretend these offworlders are speaking English, so why clutter the language with incomprehensible nonsense? Centons and yahrens are typical of what James Blish used to call “shmerps.” He pointed out that some writers will describe a fluffy, hopping animal with long floppy ears, soft white fur, and a cotton ball tail as a “shmerp” instead of a rabbit, just to make it sound more alien. To me, a rabbit by any other name is a pretty stupid idea.
There are a fair number of shmerps in “Dune,” but they’re fully developed, well-thought-out shmerps. Herbert has created a world much in the same way Tolkien has – it’s clear the world came first, and the story is almost an afterthought. I don’t think Herbert was being silly or elitist in his use of jargon. I think the “Dune” universe existed so clearly in his mind that by the time he started crafting this story, he had almost forgotten how little the rest of the world knew about sietches and such. I’ve never seen a more intricate tale of science and religion, woven together seamlessly like this. Once you get acclimated to the bizarre language and enter Herbert’s “Dune,” the book becomes a very rewarding experience.
Upon completion of the novel, I had a strong desire to see the movie that everyone seems to loathe. I steered clear of it back in ’84 during the summer of “Gremlins” and “Ghostbusters,” and the impression my friends gave me was that I wasn’t missing much. After reading the novel, I understood very clearly why the movie was reviled, even without having seen it. I came away from the book with the impression that this story was entirely unadaptable to the big screen. So much depends on what’s going on in everyone’s head, particularly Paul’s, that I can’t imagine how you could put it on the screen at all.
Which is why David Lynch’s “Dune” movie is so singularly remarkable.
I say that without irony. I loved it. It’s an amazing achievement, and I will likely watch it several more times. But that’s not to say it’s a good movie. It isn’t. But it’s not really a movie, per se. It’s like an illustrated storybook, with moving pictures accompanying the written text.
Characters stand still as chunks of the novel are voiced over to explain their thoughts. The entire movie is nothing but exposition, and I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t read the book being anything but baffled unless they stopped the show every few frames to consult the glossary in the back of the book. Still, it’s faithful to the novel to a fault, which shows that Lynch had tremendous respect for his source material. As one who has just completed the book, it’s fun to see Lynch’s cinematic illustrations.
From a design standpoint, the film is almost note perfect, from the sumptuous emperor’s chambers to the House of Atreides to the rugged stillsuits of the Fremen. (“The House A-who-ides? Stillsuits? Fremen?” Read the book.) True, they made the Baron Harkonnen a bit too foul for my taste, what with the pustules and the spittle and the heart plugs and all. And what’s with the bug drinking and the cat milking? Geesh. And, yes, the effects are spotty in places, and the mounting of the worm is ridiculous, particularly with the Toto guitar power chord we get at the top. But the miniature work is strikingly effective, even today. I’m glad this movie was made pre-CGI. It’s extraordinarily inventive, and, visually, it holds up pretty well.
The cast is outstanding, and it was delightful to see a pre-Picard Patrick Stewart in a heroic role. The only thing I’d ever seen Brad Dourif in before “Dune” was “Lord of the Rings,” and I’m curious now to see if he performs every role with his right hand at his face and his left hand holding his right elbow, like some demonic Jack Benny. The sore-thumb exception to the great cast rule is Sting, who stinks. He’s a high-school actor in a professional film, and it’s painful to watch him bug out his eyes occasionally to feign menace. I’ve occasionally wondered why his film career never really went anywhere. Now I know. Still, given the high jargon quotient this film carries, it’s amazing how much gravitas this cast is able to milk from lines like “The spice IS the worm! The worm IS the spice!” And the chick who plays Lady Jessica is hot, even when she’s bald. The creepy kid who ends the movie weirded me out, though.
In the final analysis, the real reason to love the film Dune is that Michael Bolton bangs a drum in it. I saw him and did a double take. Take a look and tell me that’s not him.