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)