In the previous article in this series, I dissected David Lynch’s feature film adaptation of Dune, which I had watched for the first time. I found it to be an incredibly intriguing sci-fi film with a lot of potential that unfortunately suffered from several fatal flaws. Today, I’ll review the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel mini-series, Frank Herbert’s Dune, directed by John Harrison and generally considered the best of the two existing adaptations of the novel.
John Harrison’s epic 5-hour mini-series adaptation, Frank Herbert’s Dune, was actually my first exposure to the classic sci-fi story when I was a teenager. My parents had the DVD and I remember falling in love with this bizarre and fascinating world that was unlike anything I had ever seen before. However, after only one or two viewings, the DVDs went missing and I never saw the series again. Years later, my fond memories of the series prompted me to read the novel, which, to my delight, was even richer and more complex than the brilliant adaptation.
I was very excited to finally revisit this mini-series this week and see if it’s as good as I remember. With David Lynch’s Dune still fresh in my head, I was also curious to see how the two adaptations stacked up against each other. Let’s jump in:
- Dune is a very complex story with a large cast of characters and a rich mythology that really benefits from the longer format that a TV mini-series can provide. Whereas David Lynch’s Dune felt incredibly rushed and often muddled, Harrison’s mini-series takes its time and gives the story its much needed breathing room, resulting in a much more satisfying adaptation. One of the Herculean tasks facing any filmmaker trying to adapt Dune is how to introduce the key concepts of the universe (the various factions and prophesies, the spice, the worms, the navigators, etc.) in a way that feels natural without overwhelming the audience with information. Unlike Lynch, who tried to cram too much of this exposition into clunky voice-overs, Harrison allows the information to flow much more organically from character situations and conversations. He puts a lot of faith in his audience and we rarely feel like we’re being spoon fed information just because the machinery of the plot demands it. Although there is a lot to digest here, Harrison deserves credit for making the narrative surprisingly coherent and easy to follow. Some Dune purists may be annoyed by a few simplifications of the mythology, but this is really a necessity for any cinematic adaptation of the novel. With a sci-fi world this dense, some things have to get streamlined. Nevertheless, the series is still incredibly faithful to its source material and it’s clear that Harrison has a deep respect and fondness for the novel.
- The extra runtime allowed Harrison to really develop and flesh out the characters from the novel. Even characters with small, yet important, roles such as Dr. Kynes/Liet, are given their moments in the sun. Harrison’s attention to his characters grounds the story and really helped keep me invested for the 5-hour runtime.
- In David Lynch’s Dune, I was particularly disappointed that once Paul meets up with the Fremen in the desert, everything becomes extremely rushed. The Fremen almost immediately accept Paul as their leader and are suddenly taking on Harkonnen troops. In Harrison’s mini-series, Paul’s integration with the Fremen is much slower and begins with a great deal of distrust. It’s much more satisfying to watch Paul grow and gradually earn the Fremen’s respect and admiration. Also in Harrison’s mini-series we get a much better idea of the Fremen’s distinct culture and warrior ways, which enriches the story and makes the universe feel much more alive.
- The acting overall was quite good. I much preferred Alec Newman as Paul Atreides over Kyle MacLachlin’s languid performance in David Lynch’s adaptation. Newman plays Paul as a somewhat whiney and childish young man, who, by the end of the series, has completely transformed into a fierce, revenge-fueled warrior and religious prophet who may be the most powerful being in the universe. Newman has an edge to him that MacLachlin lacks, which allows him to be much more convincing as the somewhat terrifying Muad’Dib and significantly strengthens his character arc.
- The Harkonnens have been toned down from the Lynch version. Although they are still larger than life and a bit ridiculous, they are much less over the top cheesy. However, I did not like Vladmir Harkonnen’s penchant for rhyming at the end of all his scenes. Maybe Harrison was going for something pseudo-Shakespearean, but it was kind of odd and out of place.
- The action scenes were really well done! From the last-minute rescue of the spice miners to the Fremen guerilla attacks on the Harkonnen and the climactic duel between Paul and Feyd, Harrison manages to keep all of the action scenes exciting and meaningful. He makes us care about the characters and then infuses his action scenes with the sense of danger, adventure, and fun that Lynch’s film lacked.
- The visual effects and CGI were, for the most part, much worse than what I remembered and in many scenes you could see the matte paintings and green screening. In some places, the effects were even worse than David Lynch’s Dune from 15 years earlier. It also annoyed me that, depending on the shot, the Fremens’ eyes would change between blue and regular. These technical issues called attention to the fairly low made-for-TV budget of the adaptation. However, I was so engrossed in the story that the shoddy effects did not totally pull me out of the experience. It’s also possible that I am judging the series unfairly by today’s visual effects standards. After all, the series is 13 years old and today we’re so spoiled by fancy CGI overload in the movies and on TV. Back in 2000, the Dune mini-series actually won the Emmy for Best Visual Effects, so these effects must have been pretty impressive at the time. They just don’t hold up as well today.
- There were some downright bizarre costume designs in this movie, most notably Feyd’s Harkonnen robe that had a large triangle attached to the back. What was up with that? It just looked ridiculous. Also, I was not a big fan of the emperor’s wardrobe. He’s introduced wearing a glittery purple shirt that looks like it belongs in a strip club. Later he’s wearing a Napoleon-esque hat and still later a white uniform reminiscent of Tsar Nicholas. I just didn’t feel like it held together in any kind of unified style. I much preferred the more subdued costume design of the emperor in David Lynch’s film. Overall, I also preferred the set design in Lynch’s film over the set design in the mini-series adaptation. Although the set design in the mini-series is by no means bad, for the most part it just does not compare to the fascinating architecture and stylistic flourishes in Lynch’s film. I definitely missed the darker and more grotesque look of the Dune universe in the 1984 film.
Verdict: Frank Herbert’s Dune is a fantastic and faithful mini-series adaptation held back only by its shoddy visual effects, which betray its fairly low made-for-TV budget. The mini-series is significantly better than David Lynch’s feature film effort with stronger characters, better action sequences, and a much more fleshed out and realized plot and mythology.
Next Up: Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune (2003)