I turned seven the year Star Wars celebrated its 20th anniversary. The space opera film trilogy’s re-release on VHS turned into a three-night movie event in my house, which in turn spawned my lifelong love affair with the franchise. I read the Star Wars Encyclopedia for fun, absorbing stories about Cindel Towani, Guri, and Nomi Sunrider, and I practiced using my Force powers, Silent Bob-style.
And so, when my father came home from the video store a year later with a new cassette, pointed to the foregrounded man in black, and said, “This boy is a prince, and he’s sort of like a Jedi,” well, you can imagine just how sold I was.
That was all it took for me to fall head-over-heels in love with David Lynch’s 1984 Dune adaptation. Screw being a Jedi, I wanted to be one of the Bene Gesserit. The litany against fear became my mantra, and—as soon as I laid hands on a copy of Frank Herbert’s source novel—I began trying to hone my powers of persuasion and physical mastery in order to be just like one of them.
It would be more than a decade before I realized that my deep and abiding love of David Lynch’s sci-fi epic had landed me in one of the most unpopular film fandoms, ever.
You see, people hate Dune almost as much as they love Dune. That is, sci-fi fans revile Lynch’s film almost as deeply as they revere Frank Herbert’s novel. Over the years, I’ve heard many theories on why Lynch’s Dune is so terrible, but I’ve never been convinced they’re right.
Look, I’m not saying the film is perfect, by any means, nor am I arguing that Alejandro Jodorowsky or Ridley Scott couldn’t have done a better job. Even Lynch himself hates Dune, after all. Valid criticisms about it exist, but, on the whole, I’ve just never understood what was so unspeakably godawful about the 1984 film that hardly anyone seems to be able to enjoy it, when I love it so fervently.
Writing for Tor.com in 2017, Emmett Asher-Perrin argues that “David Lynch’s Dune is what you get when you build a science fictional world with no interest in science fiction,” and they’re absolutely right. All his body of work’s weirdness aside, Lynch has shown very little interest in sci-fi over the course of his career.
That doesn’t stop Dune from being a sci-fi film, however. The opening voiceover—one of the picture’s many, many voiceovers—explains that we’re dealing with a story set in the 11th millennium, and all of the strange technologies, from space travel and personal levitation to body-moisture recycling and voice-activated weapons, reinforce that we are not in 1984 anymore. None of these elements are executed in a spectacularly poor way, with the exception, perhaps, of the force shields Paul and Gurney Halleck wear while training, which are so stunningly Eighties that you practically need sunglasses—at night—to look at them.
So if Dune is, in fact, a sci-fi film, what’s the problem?
Most of the film’s critics seem to agree that Lynch’s cult classic simply isn’t a very good sci-fi flick, for a variety of reasons. Ask critics who aren’t familiar with the source material, and they’ll tell you Dune is nigh incomprehensible.
Take Janet Maslin, for example. In her 1984 review of the film in The New York Times, Maslin asserts that the “psychic” powers the heroes possess “[put] them in the unique position of being able to understand what goes on in the film.”
That’s one hell of a burn, but here’s the thing: I’ve never shown Dune to anyone—and trust me, it’s one of the first ten movies I’ll ask if you’ve seen—who seemed confused by the story.
At its heart, Dune is a simple tale, much as many fans will hate to hear it. There’s Leto Atreides, a weak duke who’s about to be overthrown; Jessica, his strong, gorgeous, and secretly pregnant witch of a concubine, whom he regrets never officially marrying; and Paul, their son, who was never supposed to be born. The guy who sells this royal family out happens to be secretly in love with Jessica, so he helps her escape with Paul. Mother and son wind up living as refugees on a remote desert planet, Arrakis, where there be monsters and a valuable resource: the spice, which just so happens to be the very thing that Leto’s enemies wanted to unseat him in order to obtain. By embedding themselves among the locals and winning them over, Jessica, Paul, and Alia—Paul’s younger sister, in-utero at the time of the coup—exact their revenge on the bloody Baron Harkonnen, who killed Leto.
And how can this be? Because Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach—the super-powerful boychild that the Bene Gesserit have been waiting for. Really, folks, it’s all right there, in the movie.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that some parts of Lynch’s Dune really don’t make much sense. Like that grotesque pet cat/rat the Baron Harkonnen gives to House Atreides’ longsuffering servant, Thufir Hawat, to milk. Why does it have to be a cat with a rat taped to its side? Why does Thufir have to milk it in order to rid himself of Harkonnen poison? Why does he have to do this every day or risk death? Why does Sting have to be the one to carry the cat/rat? The easy answer to all of these questions is that Thufir’s pet is one of a generous handful of elements that aren’t fleshed out enough for us to understand them, at least not in any capacity that goes beyond the mental image of Lynch shrugging and saying, “Make it weird.”
But there’s another, less easy answer, and one that I think gets to the heart of why I love Lynch’s Dune so much. All of the elements of the film that grate on critics, from the near-constant voiceovers to the unexplained powers of the Mentats and Bene Gesserit, are near and dear to me, because they made sense to my 8-year-old, Star Wars-loving self. More than that, Dune gave me a world in which everything was not guaranteed to turn out all right—something to temper the almost relentless optimism of Star Wars.
Let’s get one thing clear: the problem isn’t that Lynch’s Dune doesn’t explain things. It does, sometimes to an excruciating degree. The bigger issue, however, is that the film, for all its info-dumping, never gives viewers a solid picture of what the world looks like outside of House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and Arrakis. Unlike Herbert’s novel, Lynch’s film doesn’t have the time to introduce you to the Padishah Emperor and his Sardaukar, or to the ongoing struggle between the Atreides and Harkonnen. Those elements are reduced, largely, to the spare summary I gave above—the barest minimum required to set in on the action.
Altering or erasing elements from the source text is a common in any page-to-screen adaptation, even more so with a doorstopper like Dune, but Lynch’s choices continue to rankle Herbert’s fans. In particular, his decision to prioritize interior scenes over exterior ones gives his version of Dune a deep and unabiding strangeness. Revisiting Dune for The Atlantic in 2014, Daniel D. Snyder writes, “If the movie’s goal was to create… a world that felt utterly alien, then Lynch and his surreal style were the right choice…. [Dune] seeks to put the viewer somewhere unfamiliar while hinting at a greater, hidden story.”
Where The Return of the Jedi wrapped up its space opera in a bow of happily ever after, Dune leaves viewers wondering what’s to become of Paul and his loved ones. Will his decision to enter into a loveless marriage with the Princess Irulan protect his people from another attack from the Sardaukar? Can Chani handle the burden of being his concubine, as Jessica did for Leto, given that her husband will have an official wife? Will the warchild Alia be forever scarred by her actions on the battlefield? What will the rain Paul has brought to Arrakis do to its native fauna, the giant sandworms known as Shai-Hulud, who are sacred to the Fremen?
Some of these questions have answers in Herbert’s books, and some don’t. Even as it opens these lines of inquiry, Dune doesn’t feel like a movie that’s gunning for a sequel. When the credits roll, you know it’s over, even though you want answers to all your burning questions about rain on Arrakis and Harkonnen heart plugs. If you’re an adult when you see Lynch’s Dune for the first time, you’re angry that the film doesn’t give you what you want.
But if you’re eight years old and watching the film for the first time, it’s a different matter. At that age, it’s OK if you don’t know how something works in a movie, because you don’t know how plenty of things work in real life. And no one will tell you how anything works in real life, just like movies and books gloss over things you don’t need to know.
That persistent ignorance lingers once you reach adulthood. The difference is that no adult wants to admit that we don’t know how the Internet, or newspaper printing, or fine dining works. Instead, we demand answers, even though most things become a lot more fun as soon as you stop banging out questions long enough to enjoy them.
That’s the problem detractors have with Dune. The movie possesses a cinematic claustrophobia, that, as Snyder points out, is “actually closer to Kubrick… than Lucas.” Dune takes place in a gigantic, unfamiliar galaxy, but only introduces you to a small corner of it. What you see is what you get. Everything outside is darkness.
Could Lynch have done a better job of giving us context for Dune’s weirdest elements? Of course. But Dune is much more enjoyable without the nitty gritty. The only thing required to enjoy the movie is to embrace the childlike sense of wonder that makes peace with not knowing everything—a trait all SF/F fans should try to cultivate.
That, I think, is why I still love Lynch’s Dune, in spite of its faults, more than 20 years since we were first introduced. As soon as I see Princess Irulan’s face floating in space, I become the eight-year-old kid I once was, in love with Star Wars and all other things SFF. I’m not critical. I wait for answers instead of searching for them. I permit the film to pass over me and through me, and I remain. More than two decades after I first saw it, and approaching 40 years since its theatrical release, David Lynch’s Dune remains—unchanged by time, still waiting to welcome me back into the halls of the Houses Major and the sandy peaks of Arrakis.
Dune will have a new, theatrical successor soon. Denis Villeneuve is at the helm, with an all-star cast lined up on the other side of the camera. That film may not have the same flaws as Lynch’s adaptation, but it still won’t be the 1:1 analogue to the novel that some fans want. It will be its own monster, perhaps one full of bite and vigor, but faulty all the same.
I’m sure I’m going to love Villeneuve’s Dune, too. Because when the lights go down on opening night, I’ll be that eight-year-old kid learning about Paul Atreides’ world for the first time, all over again.
And right beside me in that theater, there will be other kids experiencing Dune for the first time. I hope they hold onto their wonder and joy whenever they re-watch Villeneuve’s film. I wish them the same sort of renewed beginnings I have in Lynch’s Dune. After all, a beginning is a delicate time.
Kristian Wilson Colyard writes fiction and poetry, reads, and does nerdy stuff at her home in the rural American South, where she lives with her husband and their clowder of cats. She’s on Twitter @kristianwriting, and you can find more of her work online at kristianwriting.com.