Comparing three versions of »Dune«

(September 19, 2021)

(this post is an extended version of a Twitter thread; original is here)

Across three days in 2021 (and one cinema visit in 2024), I watched all three film adaptations of Frank Herbert’s »Dune« novel:

  • David Lynch (1984)
  • TV miniseries (2001)
  • Denis Villeneuve (2021 / 2024)

Here’s a summary of what I found interesting when comparing the three.

(Disclaimer: I only read the book once 20+ years ago.)

First thing first: Contrary to what some people proclaim, Villeneuve’s version of »Dune« is not far superior, and Lynch’s version is not as bad as everybody says it is, at least not in my opinion. All three versions have some merit to them, and there’s no clear “best” adaptation.

All three have a good pace for the first half of the plot (until Paul and Jessica are accepted into the Sietch). 1984 starts to feel very rushed after that. Conversely, 2001 almost becomes too slow at that point; it mostly turns into a study of Fremen culture. The 2024 version pretty much nails the pacing.

Explaining the complex concepts is the hardest part for each Dune film. 1984 chickens out and resolves that with a lengthy narrated intro, and uses lots of inner monologue throughout. Some of that might actually being somebody reading somebody else’s mind, but you never know. Slightly confusing, but effective. Villeneuve’s adaptations, on the other hand, rely too much on the “show, don’t tell” principle that it’s sometimes hard to follow if you’re not 200% focused or unfamiliar with the source material.

Case study: The Voice
1984 uses inner monologue to explain it on first use.
2001 doesn’t explain it at all, making it extremely confusing to watch for people who aren’t already familiar with the subject.
2021 explains it with a nice and natural Paul/Jessica training scene, but it doesn’t really name it.

I can’t help it, but 1984 still is the de-facto design standard for Dune to me. (This might also be due to Westwood’s games, which I played a lot, being very close to the 1984 design.) 2001 deviates a bit: nicer Heighliners, boring Harvesters, manageable Thopters.
2021/2024’s design is its weakest point to me: Some of the ships and machinery just look wrong. Heighliners look organic, like slightly elliptical sandworms. Harvesters are boring slabs of machinery. Bene Gesserit has almost spherical ships, because of… reasons?

Again, 1984 is the de-facto standard here. 2001 goes overboard with its very weird costumes, but at least you can tell the factions apart more easily. 2021 is very understated in comparison; Reverend Mother Mohiam looks outright boring. 2024 steps up the weird costumes game in a few places, but things like Princess Irulan wearin a costume made of zipper handles is a bit on the nose.

1984’s lightning wormsigns may be non-canon, but they sure are iconic. I love the triangular worm mouths!
2001’s worms have a normal mouth, but much more visible teeth.
2021 goes up another notch with the teeth, but there’s no mouth at all. Overall, I don’t like it.

In 1984, it looks like a small fort in the mountains.
2001 depicts it as a sprawling village; by far the most believable version.
In 2021, it’s one connected military base, and looks a bit like the surface of Star Wars’ Death Star.

Harkonnen and Giedi Prime:
1984 made them extra-nasty, with heart plugs (non-canon) and an eczema-infested Baron. The planet looks drab and industrial.
2001 hits the mark for me: A plotting, talkative Baron and a perfect planet design.
2021’s Baron is very enigmatic and terse. The architecture is a boring case study in brutalism. The shot-in-infrared battle scene is pretty much superfluous.

1984 tries its best with what was possible back then. No complaints.
2001 looks extremely cheap, even for the era and budget. CGI like 2003-era computer games; even pre-vis looks better today! Badly painted backgrounds. All VFX shots only in SD resolution.
Unsurprisingly, 2021 has by far the highest production value.

The look of the Eyes of Ibad (blue “spice eyes”) differs.
1984 and 2021 mainly replace the white by blue. 2001 cranks it up to eleven and makes the eyes look like they’re light sources. (Interestingly, this seems to be done in-camera with UV light, or matte painting – no fallback to SD resolution!)

Lynch’s 1984 version has some non-canon things, some of which have already been mentioned. Atreides sonic weapon technology is another (IMHO superfluous) one.
The thopter-in-sandstorm scene is missing, and Shields are very “low-poly”, presumably due to technical limitations.

The 2001 miniseries used to be the only one to have Gurney play the Baliset for a few seconds; then again, Yueh doesn’t explain what the tooth actually does, the attack on Arrakeen is shortened a lot, and the whole iconic Paul-and-Jessica-escape-the-thopter scene is missing.
Part 2 of Villeneuve’s movie also shows a very brief musical interlude from Gurney.

For the 2024 movie, a few interesting deviations have been made. Neither (Liet-)Kynes nor Thufir Hawat reappear, and Alia isn’t born in the course of the movie; she only has a brief cameo in one of Paul’s visions.

So, to summarize again: There is no best »Dune« movie.
I can’t decide between the 1984 and 2021 versions for the first part of the novel. 1984 looks “as it should be” (but maybe only because it set the standard), while 2021 suffers from “form over function” syndrome in its quest for opulence.
For the second part of the first Dune novel, the 2024 version is clearly superior to the earlier adaptations, especially to Lynch’s 1984 version.

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