06 May 2013

SciFi Monday: Dune, the Movies

The novel Dune by the late Frank Herbert has been an obsession with me for over three decades now. I first discovered it in my local library with the above cover. That was in 1981 at the age of 11. Since then, I have read Dune faithfully at least once a year. So, I have read it a minimum of 31 times and probably closer to 45-50. This is "The" SciFi novel. What i find truly amazing is that even after reading it for so long, every time I read it, I can find something new, some layer or nuance that I have not seen or considered before. And I am not alone in that.
With such a large following, public media treatment of it was inevitable. The Avalon Hill board game is tremendous fun. There were several different computer games over the years. There was an attempt at a tabletop RPG by Last Unicorn Games that fell flat when WotC acquired LUG in a vain attempt to seize the Star Trek RPG license for themselves (they had Star Wars at the time as well). Both Paramount and the Herbert Estate utilized a "safety clause" in their licensing agreements to deny WotC the transfer of license. Incidentally, if you can somehow find a copy of Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium RPG--Ahoy, me mateys! ;) Ahem.--do so. Of course, the number of limited print copies go for upwards of $250 last I checked. It was, of course, inevitable that Dune receive a film treatment.
And here is where fans split as often seems to be inevitable. I sometimes wonder if all fans are really Southern Baptists they fracture so often. There was the 1984 theatrical release realized by David Lynch and then there are two miniseries, Dune and Children of Dune released in miniseries format by the SciFi Network (2000 and 2003). I refuse to take sides. Both treatments have areas in them that match my mental image of the Dune Universe. I so wish I could mix and match!
I will say this about the fan-boys, though, before I delve into the two: it disturbs me when they say that the theatrical movie is completely horrible and has nothing to do with the universe as encapsulated in the novel. I invoke the magic word POPPYCOCK! Frank Herbert worked with David Lynch closely on the production of the 1984 film and, as he said at the time in an interview, of course it does not match the book precisely. In a visual medium, the metaphors one must use are different than the ones used in prose.
I could, of course, write an entire book on the two, but I shall suffice by examining one of the prime characters in the universe: the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.
Dune (1984), Kenneth McMillan
In the 1984 film, the Baron is portrayed by Kenneth McMillan as an obese man with some really nasty sores that one assumes are venereal in nature. He has a penchant for lovely young boys that he likes to kill and is enamored of his nephew Feyd-Rautha (portrayed by Sting). There is the addition of the heart plugs, definitely a departure from the novels. The baron himself is, to not mince words,bat-shit crazy. He's completely obsessed with power and its acquisition and is completely over the top in almost every aspect of his nature. How does this mesh with the novels?
First, his appearance. The baron in the novels is obesely overweight, probably even more than portrayed in the film. Both use an anti-gravity harness to move; the movie baron does it for fun and image; the novel baron has to have the repulsors to move. So, mark this one down to trying to stay within the limits of human physiology. As for the sores, while not mentioned in the novel, it is mentioned that the baron "sampled many pleasures in his youth" and is most assuredly a hedonist. Showing him with these disgusting sores is a simple way to portray it and to shows us that his vices know no limits. same with the "snuff" scene. The novel baron is infatuated with Feyd and conceives an elaborate plot to have him reclaim Dune as the Messiah of the Freman and he even sets his sight on the imperial throne as well.
Now on to the heart of the matter. The heart plugs. Major addition. However, remember what Frank Herbert said about the visual medium needing a different set of metaphors? As Plinkett points out in his excellent Episode I review, the opening scene in Star Wars: A New Hope tells the audience everything about the political situation between the Empire and the rebels visually. That's what the heartplug is. It's a visual symbol of the power that House Harkonnen holds over its members....even the baron. One's life can literally end with a simple tug. No one is immune. Looking at the soldiers and Feyd and Rabban's costumes, one can assume that active soldiers have theirs covered. As for the baron not covering his, that's a symbol of his hubris, his overwhelming pride. No one can touch him; he's not afraid at all. Overall, this baron is more psychotic than evil.
Frank Herbert's Dune (2000), Ian McNiece
Bring in Ian McNiece from the 2000 and 2003 treatments. I would say that this baron follows the book closer. still obese (but not more morbidly so) and still a "floating fat man." The forehead rub/gesture he uses is documented in the novels and used appropriately in the Children of Dune miniseries. He's more suave and silky, a nice, yet still ruthless, evil. His voice is oily and calming not the harsh, frantic bark of McMillan's baron. this baron does not use a sledgehammer to show his evil; he's more smooth than that.
Of the two, I have to lean slightly toward McNiece's portrayal. I enjoy the heck out of both but Ian is far more subtle. And, in the real world, isn't that how evil usually is?


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