I don't envy the task John Harrison had adapting such a multi-faceted multi-plotted novel as Frank Herbert's Dune. Well, actually I do. Then I'd be writing for a living instead of for a web site I administrate with Popup windows every fifteen seconds, but that's not what I mean. What I mean is, Dune is such a rich tapestry of a work with equal parts action and introspection that I can only imagine any writer banging his head against the computer monitor hissing "How am I ever going to get this on film!? How am I ever going to adapt this!?" I can't imagine the work that must go in to even attempting a rewrite of Dune but when I try I figure it probably makes what Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman went through look like an evening with George Plimpton sipping smooth wine and discussing Mouseterpiece Theatre! It's not that Dune is vapid or dull in any way, shape or form... on the contrary, it's one of the more exciting novels I've read! However, so much of the excitement of the novel takes place either within the inner mind or with such subtlety that it would be difficult to translate to film. Let's face it... some things are novels because they should be on the printed page, and are harder than diamond saws to film!
I'd like to point out that Writer/ Director Harrison really does seem to have given his all in adapting Dune, but it seems pretty clear that the difficulties therein translated to the small screen in much the same way David Lynch's 1984 adaptation (the inaccuracies of which are copied here far too often, sadly) were translated to the big screen. In many ways I was very excited to see what Harrison left in! On the other hand... I was shocked and awed at some of the parts that were either left out or changed. Clocking in at just over four and a half hours (sans commercials) you'd expect they could get most of it in. A full production of Hamlet doesn't take more than four and a half hours! Alterations in timeline, in naming conventions, and in the flow of the story itself were also a little annoying. When reviewing an adaptation one must be careful not to take off points for differing opinions... much of what Harrison did was not the way I might have handled it (for example, the area of pronunciation of certain Herbert-created words), but that's no reason to criticize. However, in my opinion, when reviewing an adaptation, consideration of the source material should always be taken!
Alec Newman does an excellent job as Muad'Dib, the prophet that Paul will one day become! The intensity, the intelligence, and the strength and zeal are all there. He's almost perfect. Unfortunately he is this way throughout the entire Mini-Series... even as Paul Atreides at the age of sixteen. Sure Paul isn't some silly-putty copy of O.C. and Stiggs or someone, however, Paul had a lighter side and even made the occasional joke. Newman's Paul is so serious all the time that when he tries to enter in a Harrison-penned mockery of Baron Harkonnen, it feels forced and humorless. Likewise lines like "I just want to see my father!" don't sound like an affectionate cry for the love of Duke Leto, but more like he wants to kick someone's ass. Newman's character has almost the exact opposite ailment than Maclachlan's! William Hurt practically sleepwalks through the role of the aforementioned Duke Leto! There's nothing inherently wrong with Hurt's performance to be sure, but he only sounds truly convincing when the character is enraged. The rest of the time he looks either bored or tired, either by his design or that of the director. There are really no poor actors here, which is a plus. All the Fremen are played by Czech actors, so there's the occasional misunderstood word or accented syllable, but wouldn't that fit perfectly that a desert race of humanity would have a different accent, especially from those who have hailed from other worlds? Might I add, rightly so! Ian McNeice is effectively disgusting as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, and handles the part well (aside from a few cringe-worthy overacting moments). It got a little unnerving how often Harrison felt that he had to prove the Baron was gay though... In the novel that element was certainly there, but here it felt like they were saying "Hey look, he's gay... here's another example of something GAY he's doing! Ah... I think he's going to kiss a man! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaait for it... See! GA-AY!" By the time it's finally revealed that he fathered a daughter, I wanted to laugh. Likewise (without any such overacting) Saskia Reeves is near perfect as Lady Jessica throughout... unfortunately the miniseries doesn't allow for as much character development as she could have had. The credits seemed to make a big deal out of Matt Keeslar playing Feyd-Rautha, but I can't really tell why. Sure he was fine, and he wasn't as over the top as Sting was in the same role, but he didn't stand out (nor was he given much material with which to stand out)!
For the most part the special effects and the sets were very good. Likewise, the costumes are fantastic (specifically the Harkonnen uniforms and the Fremen stillsuits). There seemed to be a few moments of reflecting on the beauty of the animation... which is fine, because it's pretty good, but also a little gratuitous. Harrison's depiction on the 'Thopters was not what Herbert prescribes in the book, (strangely, Dune influencee Lexx's Moths are more similar) but it's a really interesting design, and it's pretty close. The Fremen blue eyes (achieved with a UV effect) are just great! I also appreciated the subtlety of the gradual evolution of the blue eyes... Small kids didn't have the blue right away, nor did new recruits Paul and Jessica. How did they handle the WORMS? That's the sixty-four dollar question... and the answer is: quite well! Purists (and I am one) might argue that Herbert's worms were white, and blended in with the sand at times... these were black and segmented, and pretty much perfect. The worm riding scenes are well handled and the worms inspire the terror they should! Unfortunately there aren't enough of the worms and far too often people walk on the sand with no fear of them. But they were great... good work!
There are a few times in which Harrison twists Frank Herbert's timeline in rather annoying ways. Certain revelations take place far too late, and others far too soon. For example, Paul-Muad'Dib begins his military campaigns as a military leader and is far along in his career before Alia is even born. On the other hand Paul meets the Princess Irulan well before he had any reason to (in a lame subplot designed to let you "get to know" the Emperor and his daughter)! One major plot point in the novel is that Paul had no romantic or sexual interest in Irulan (only Chani). This doesn't really work when Paul and Irulan are dancing and making Goo-Goo eyes in Arakeen before the Harkonnen raid! These aren't the only situations in which time is distorted, unfortunately! This happens a lot and it's disconcerting for any watcher. It just doesn't always work. Further twistings of continuity in the vein of Gregory Benford include the deletion of the Thifur Hawat subplot, a wasting of time drawing suspicion toward Gurney as the traitor, and the suppression of other vital characters (like Suk Doctor Yueh and Duncan Idaho) so that when the traitor is finally revealed instead of "Eureka" the viewer might say "uh... who?" Also, a scene in which Dune's Worms are ridden into battle is wrong on so many textual levels that I'll no more on't... it hath made me mad!
The violence here is far too commonplace. The novel is filled with scenes of war and much blood is spilled, but never in a gratuitous way. Perhaps it is due to the fact that Herbert's subtlety admittedly is hard to translate to the screen, but here the violence pops up far too often in odd ways. No this isn't a Tarantino or Scorsese film by any stretch of the imagination, and never is the violence too excessive! However there are many times in which the Fremen, led by Paul-Muad'Dib, come off like terrorists. Perhaps this furthers the allegorical aspects of Herbert's work, but it also makes the Fremen hard to root for (especially now).
All in all, Dune is an above average miniseries, especially for basic cable, and I have got to applaud the risks that were taken here. It's far too common that television stations (and I specifically mean the Sci-Fi Channel because of Farscape) will not take chances and will only go with the status quo. Bravo this one time! Three and one half stars for Dune! It's a good miniseries, but it was an incredible novel! Maybe it should have stayed as a novel, but... In that works like this have a tendency to make one want to read (or reread) the source material, I highly recommend you check this one out if you get the chance, and maybe you'll become as big a fan as I am of the book! Or, hey, you could watch Larry King Live again instead... I hear he has Blake Edwards on again talking again about how his dog saved him from committing suicide... again!