Dune the HBO Series Pitch (What Game of Thrones Taught Us About Serialising Novels)

Concept art for an unproduced Dune game

Concept art for an unproduced Dune game

I recently re-read Dune, and am now making my way through the sequels, and all throughout I’m picturing how great it would be on television. I can’t help but think of similarities to Game of Thrones, of course, having just finished season 4 – but also how much cooler Dune would be if HBO had chosen it as its foray into fantasy.

In a way, Frank Herbert’s masterpiece suffered from being the first. The world at large did not know what to do with it. Frank Herbert couldn’t get it published, until he eventually persuaded Chilton Books, publishers of auto-repair manuals, to put it out in 1965. Adaptations of the book received a similar fate – a film version was in the works from the early 70s (a documentary is, I believe, now in theatres in some regions, about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempts to put one together – which, by all accounts, would either have been an unprecedented gem, or a complete disaster).

patrick stewart pugEventually, an adaptation was released in 1984. I hadn’t seen it for a long time, and while I recalled it being a poor adaptation, Directed by David Lynch, it is an absurd mess. Intense moments are played for laughs (Patrick Stewart carrying a pug into battle springs to mind). The villain is so horribly, cartoonishly evil and disgusting that I literally just found other things on the screen to stare at to avoid looking at him – but that did not make him menacing, or a serious threat. On the whole, the story is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read the novels – and even then, it’s jarring at best. Roughly the first hour is exactly like the novel – almost unnecessarily so, the overall film might have benefited from less careful (though faithful and by far the most interesting part of the film) an introduction, to devote more time to a the second half, which is without a doubt supposed to be the meat of the story. “The weirding way” – a way to subtly manipulate people and events using zen awareness of surrounding and understanding of psychology and logic is reduced to a sonic weapon. What is left, then, is Paul Atreides coming to the desert, training the Fremen to use a new kind of weapon, and taking power. Very little is made of the messianic elements of the character – the fact that Paul’s greatest strength was his ability to insinuate himself into a people’s myth as their promised, legendary leader Muad’Dib, to survive, then using them to take his revenge. This is not to mention the terrible special effects – which I normally would not hold against a film, especially one which is 30 years old, except that the budget was huge, and the movie came years after both Star Wars and Alien, both of which look miles better.

The next adaptation was a step in the right direction. The majority of my gripes with it are just that – gripes, but the 2000 Sci Fi miniseries would still have benefitted from one major thing which makes HBO’s Game of Thrones a success – running time. Game of Thrones is a massive hit because modern television’s capabilities to compete with cinema in terms of production value was met with television’s ability to let stories breathe, give them proper time to develop complex narratives and character relationships. The politics were always Dune’s strength, and had the Dune series come now, I think it would be even better than Game of Thrones is. The miniseries that we got in 2000 got a lot right, but there were drawbacks. Paul’s reluctance as a hero made sense in the first half of the show, but ultimately Alec Newman could not pull off the hard man and vicious leader that Muad’Dib was to become. But more importantly, there was too little time for the intrigue to build. The opening was, once again, quite well executed. But while that strong beginning would make for a great first two or so episodes, the important thing would be to maintain the suspense, balancing the adventure with slow-burning drama and only rarely tipping into full-on action.

So, this would be my pitch. First priority – what would the show be about? At its heart, it should be about the dangers of following heroes. Frank Herbert has said it himself – “I am showing you the superhero syndrome and your own participation in it.” The prominence of superheroes in our current pop-culture makes this particularly timely. Is there anything more contemporary than “Game of Thrones with corrupt super beings”? Paul Atreides is betrayed, his father is killed, and he becomes Muad’Dib to both survive and get his revenge. To do so, however, he plays into ancient prophecies (which may or may not truly be about him) to overthrow the regime that wronged his family. And while he is a reluctant hero, and his prescience allows him knowledge of the atrocities which may ultimately be committed in his name, he walks head-first into the one path which he knows will allow him to come out on top – survive, get his revenge, and put his family back into the prominence it once held. If Paul were merely interested in survival, he could have fled, but he chose to fight. It’s like Star Wars, if Luke became the new Emperor at the end – a pattern which is repeated, in various ways, by his heirs. There are no purely good characters – today’s charismatic hero of the people is tomorrow’s tyrant.

I would start each episode with a quote from the universe’s writings about the events, the way Herbert did with each chapter of the book. The quotes do a great job of both giving flavour of the world, and foreshadowing the chapter’s content. Imagine an episode beginning with an ominous refrain of “Yueh! Yueh! Yueh! A million deaths were not enough for Yueh!” It would also go a long way towards explaining the zen-like Bene Gesserit philosophy, which I find to be among the most interesting aspects of the books. The famous Litany Against Fear, which was shown only partially in the previous adaptations, should be used in its entirety – and once again, could be made full use of when time is not a constraint. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Finally, given adequate time, the ecology of Arrakis could be adequately explored – while that may sound boring, it is important that the spice Melange be the one truly magical aspect of the universe. All of the departures from our reality should be based on it – Muad’Dib’s prescience and Bene Gesserit use of Voice. The navigators which make faster than light space travel possible, and their mutation due to its extended use. The sandworms, which are inextricably tied to both the presence of spice and the difficulty in harvesting it. Slowly, but surely, the audience must be made familiar with the precepts of its use, so that when the time comes, the audience’s reaction will not be “oh, well I didn’t know the spice could do that,” but rather “I never would have thought to use the spice like that, but it makes perfect sense!” Setting clear limits to what the spice can do, and then exploiting those limits in unexpected ways would be the essence of “magic”. Take, for example, the transformation Paul’s son undergoes towards the end of the third novel – which would here be the finale of the second season. The mechanics for it are carefully laid out in the book that precedes it, while the reveal still comes as a complete surprise. The limiting of the believable aspects would also necessitate, in my opinion, the removal of the vile Baron Harkonnen’s ability to fly. I’d read the first novel before seeing any of the adaptations, and must have simply missed the part where it was made clear he hovers, because I was completely thrown by it. I realise it’s in the source material, but it just looks goofy – the floating fat man must go!

Finally, the casting – the important thing would be to find genuinely hard-looking people to play the Fremen. Actors that could believably be flourishing in the harshest conceivable climate, whose tough, leathery skin Frank Herbert described. The effect of the dry skin could certainly be accomplished through make-up, but I would caution against casting traditionally good-looking people. The Fremen would describe them as “water-fat” (the men, at least – there are plenty of malnourished-looking actresses around as it is). And surely, there must be a practical way to do the blue-on-blue Fremen eyes? They looked terrible in both adaptations, inconsistent in the intensity of the colour and seemingly glowing (Fremen’s eyes certainly do not glow in the dark).

So, this would be my idea for a modern adaptation of Dune. I have thought about it a fair amount, and really don’t see how a faithful film adaptation would be possible, simply due to the density of the novel. A Game of Thrones-type series would definitely be the way to go. Could it ever happen? I honestly don’t know – Game of Thrones has been on the air for four years now, and still no other show came close to doing high fantasy on television. The troubled history of Dune’s adaptations may also prevent it from ever getting off the ground – but in today’s reboot and franchise-heavy marketplace, Dune just might be the next big thing.

I’ll leave you with Paul Pope’s excellent one-page comic fable about Muad’Dib, which I believe does a great job of illustrating just what the entire series of books is really about.

Paul Pope’s interpretation of a passage from Children of Dune (1976)

 

An Answer to Someone Who Hated Aronofsky’s Noah

NoahI get it. Noah wasn’t your cup of tea. I didn’t intend to like either, I went purely out of curiosity for what Aronofsky could have possibly wanted with so ludicrous a picture. Surely, it wasn’t mere folly? No. No! Look, I insist. The man actually knows what he’s doing. I realise you think the premise is simply too ridiculous to bear, and I would agree, were it not for the fact that Aronofsky clearly figured out something of substance to do with it. I’m a firm non-theist agnostic, yet I was still brought to tears by the beauty and raw emotion in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (a film which made the Noah controversy seem completely trivial). Much in the same way, though to a much lesser extent, I appreciated the truth of the story on the screen completely separately from any expectation for it to either portray the literal reality I inhabit, or to serve as an accurate adaptation of a story I heard once. Is that why you don’t like the movie? If so, I suppose I get it, the movie certainly attempts to do neither. You’re missing out, though, by not being more open to what the movie does do!

I’ll admit that the beginning of the film had me worried. The actual opening, that sets up the background of the film’s pre-existing conflict, seems like an after-thought, complete with a Papyrus-like font that, frankly, they could simply have done better than. This then transitions to show a young Noah losing his father to the sneering, scenery-chewing Tubal Cain, played by Ray Winstone. I had to remind myself, in those moments, that this is essentially a fantasy movie, and the next hour or so supported that theory nicely. This allowed me not to take too much of what happened on-screen too seriously. So I get why you hated those sillier aspects, such as rock-giants, over-acting villainy, over-earnest heroes, and the general tone of the movie’s first half, but you’re wrong.

First of all, it all looks fantastic! I could have been shown this vision of a “land before time”, so to speak, at times desolate as the moon, at others as fantastically lush, for a good while longer before becoming bored. It quite frankly simply does not look like anything – I understand it was filmed in Iceland, and I can tell that a good amount of it may well have been shot on-location outside. That being said, I can’t help but think that a lot of the backgrounds were either painted or composited from two very drastically different landscapes. Aronofsky fully succeeds in creating something that looks fake in the most wonderful way conceivable, in the sense that it is truly outside of our previous experience entirely. Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, which, while depicting fantastic technology, largely relied on real-world locations. Noah, on the other hand, recalled in my mind the painted backgrounds of Georges Méliès’ films. Similarly, the rock giants, while clearly CGI, move in a way reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons – imbued with enough fluidity to not be an eyesore, and yet not perfect enough to be forgotten about, or to seem properly of this world. The shot where one of them chases a kid darting through his massive legs is at once adorable and visually pleasing in a way I cannot fully describe. God does not speak directly to Noah (a booming voice from the sky or Morgan Freeman would have been a tad much), but instead presents gloriously shot dream-like and appropriately apocalyptic visions. The director of Requiem for a Dream is a natural fit for these sequences. Then, of course, there is the creation scene which is, in a word, one of the best pieces of cinema you’ll see all year:

Secondly, I really understand that the first few acts are almost absurdly banal. Crowe’s Noah is a great guy (though perhaps overly devoted to his cause), and when he’s visited by visions he spends a little while questioning them, but ultimately really believes in both the existence and the beneficence of the creator, following his instructions as he understands them. He’s aware of the coming flood, builds an arc, all the while having to defend it from some evil humans (led by his father’s killer), with the help of some giants.

While that is an accurate representation, I would argue that the apparent simplicity of that plot is there to lure one into a sense of normalcy, of “I’ve seen this before!” before delivering the one-two gut punch at the midpoint (much like the fictional play “The King in Yellow” is said to do in Robert W. Chambers’ stories). Noah goes into town to procure wives for his sons (I love the preservation of the Bible-logic here), but receives another vision. He witnesses horrible decadence in the world of men, and ultimately witnesses a doppleganger of his partaking in it, deciding from this that he is not meant to be saving humanity at all. Instead, that he is meant to preside over its end. This is a chilling concept, and despite it occurring before the deceptively climactic battle, is the turning point for Noah’s character. Noah was a vegetarian before, and certainly demonstrated the belief that animal life was as precious as a person’s. It is here, however, that he makes the utilitarian calculation that humanity is fundamentally bad for the whole of the creation, and should be allowed to perish in the flood. This is not only a dramatic and interesting twist – it is actually the logical extrapolation of his mission statement. If humanity was bad for the world, its loss would result in a net positive. Noah does not do so out of misanthropy – he does not hate people on an individual basis, and is clearly capable of compassion. He only does as his conviction demands. This is merely setup, however. The true drama occurs after the arc is in the water.

Eventually, the storm comes, the battle for the arc happens towards its beginning, and the arc takes off, carrying Noah, his wife, two sons, adopted daughter/daughter-in-law Ila (Emma Watson), and unbeknownst to him, Tubal Cain. The film that was an epic fantasy before this becomes the last six people on earth stuck on a boat together, deciding the future of humanity. This is why the deceptively melodramatic and stereotypical first half of the film was necessary – the characters had to be archetypes, because they represent physical personifications of radically different viewpoints. Noah, of course, is the radical ecologist – humanity has clearly been bad for the world. It would be better off without us. His wife Naameh, Jennifer Connelly, on the other hand, is more compassionate – despite clearly seeing the damage, she cannot help but see the potential for good in people. Before the storm, she pleaded with Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) to do something, and he healed Ila of her infertility. Therefore, Ila is now pregnant, and poised to be the mother to all of mankind. Her boyfriend, naturally, is prepared to do anything to protect his unborn children. Noah declares that if the babies are born female, he will kill them instantly, preventing the future of humanity. Tubal Cain, having previously declared that he will do anything necessary to survive, resents Noah’s unique relationship with God. He is, ultimately, a humanist, despite also being a bloodthirsty, cruel tyrant. He refuses to submit to a higher good – and ultimately, is not the survival of us and ours not what we work for most of the time? Winstone’s snarling villain is the will to survive, to make the best of his situation. He is the human-centric viewpoint, the incessant presupposition by most people that we are above nature. I think it would be inaccurate to say that he is completely wrong, but he is the complete opposite of Noah’s viewpoint – the two are poised perfectly to clash.

The true conflict is within the family, however. Upon learning of Ila’s pregnancy, Noah becomes a villain in the eyes of the audience. At the beginning of the storm, he rebuffs his family’s requests to save the horribly screaming, drowning people just outside the arc. He is determined that the earth would be a better place without us. Crowe’s character definitely does not relish this task in the slightest, and despite his complete unwavering, it’s clear he would rather give in to his wife’s compassion. It is brought closer home, of course, when he’s confronted with the very real possibility that he may have to slay his grandchildren to keep his word. He is ostracised by his family, becomes the bald, weird creature in the depths of his arc, the religious zealot. He knows he’s right, and while his actions are without remorse, this does not mean it is lacking in the man himself. He does his best to carry out the act when Ila gives birth to twin girls… and ultimately cannot. Noah is reduced to weakness through compassion, and fails to deliver on his promise to end humanity.

This is not a fully happy ending. To start with, his inability to finish humanity off renders his previous acts of necessary cruelty unnecessary in retrospect. They could have saved the poor drowning souls, the screams of which tortured them. And ultimately, whereas it was an act of compassion that stayed Noah’s hand, the decision to go through with the plan may have been more so. The general note is that in the end, humanity will only screw up again, and have to be wiped out all over again. By killing two, he would have prevented the birth, and therefore suffering, of billions in the future. Methuselah warned Neelah against this – in the end, it will only come around to Noah’s way. Mankind will make the same mistakes again, and will be destroyed again through their hubris. Knowing the result of his actions, Noah is shown getting drunk in the first scene off the boat, trying to drown his awareness of Earth’s fate.

These are the reasons I appreciated Noah – a drama about the nature of humanity, and whether it deserves to continue, thinly disguised as a fantasy action movie. And yet when I look online, I largely see comments of either “OMG that’s not how it really happened” or “LOL that could never really happen.” I submit that both responses are equally ridiculous – this is a movie, that is intended as entertainment of one end of the spectrum, and allegory on the other. It is not meant to either be a faithful adaptation, or a statement of fact, but a beautifully conceived treatise on our responsibilities on this Earth – I suggest you try and take it to heart.

FilmStoned Podcast Episode 9: Ant-Man, Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men

In an absurdly long podcast, we dive deep into the Ant-Man contraversy, and review Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, and X-Men, while also discussing the movie franchise’s complex continuity.