Can a line in the sand be drawn under Hollywood’s desert disasters? It’s a sci-fi classic that’s sold 20m copies. But even the biggest stars couldn’t stop Dune flopping on screen. Now critics are hailing a stunning new movie version, writes TOM LEONARD

Gargantuan, majestic, awe-inspiring: the critics have run out of adjectives to describe the new sci-fi blockbuster rumbling inexorably through space towards our screens.

And that is entirely fitting, as Dune is all about epic vastness: a huge intergalactic empire with monstrous spaceships, sandworms as big as ocean liners and a sprawling plot through a series of novels that spans tens of thousands of years.

It’s not surprising that, for decades, mighty film-makers have looked on the best-selling novel in the history of sci-fi and despaired.

Pictured, Sting who appeared in the 1984 adaptation of Dune, directed by David Lynch

The original 1965 tome by American writer Frank Herbert has confounded the best efforts of film-makers from Ridley Scott to David Lynch, whose cinematic visions — with vast budgets and lavish casts including Sting, Mick Jagger and even Salvador Dali — have either failed to make it off the launch pad or imploded horribly in outer space.

Dune was written off as ‘unfilmable’ — but that’s what people said about The Lord Of The Rings, which became one of the biggest Hollywood money-spinners of all time.

Now it seems the modern marvels of CGI (computer-generated imagery) have finally made even Dune ‘do-able’.

A new big-budget spectacular starring millennial pin-up Timothee Chalamet and directed by the Oscar-nominated Canadian film-maker Denis Villeneuve is heading for UK release next month.

The film, reported to have cost £120 million, also features Charlotte Rampling as the reverend mother of an order of mystical nuns, young U.S. beauty Zendaya (who prefers not to use her surname, Coleman), Josh Brolin, Spanish actor Javier Bardem and Mission Impossible star Rebecca Ferguson.

Villeneuve has already made two clever and successful sci-fi films, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. Now, he has tried to resolve Dune’s sheer density (the book runs to some 500 pages) by dividing it into two films.

Based on the stunned verdict of many of those who saw the first instalment last week at the Venice International Film Festival, it seems he may finally have achieved what many in Hollywood thought impossible — although a few critics have complained that the ravishing visuals come at the expense of a gripping plot.

It’s certainly true that Dune makes even the intricate world of The Lord Of The Rings seem simplistic.

It is set about 20,000 years in the future, when noble families rule planets as part of a feudal empire. At the beginning of the story, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) has been dispatched to take over a desert planet.

Arrakis is inhospitable and inhabited by a people called the Fremen — as well as huge and terrifying sandworms that swallow large mining machines for breakfast.

Although Arrakis sounds like the ultimate dead-end posting, crucially, it is the Universe’s only source of ‘the spice’ — a mind-expanding, body-altering drug that makes space travel possible.

Out of the treacherous desert sands, Dune’s characters say, ‘the spice must flow’: and there was always intended to be a parallel with our own planet’s historical reliance on Middle Eastern oil.

Furthermore, according to ancient Fremen prophecy, a leader will one day arrive, free them from their barren planet and steer them to glory. Might this saviour be Duke Leto’s teenage son, Paul Atreides (Chalamet)?

Astonishingly, for a book many people have never heard of, Dune has sold 20 million copies and is regularly cited as the best-loved sci-fi book ever. Yet, unlike devotees of The Lord Of The Rings, Star Trek and Star Wars, hardcore Dune fans don’t turn up in costumes at Dune mega-conventions spouting Dune catchphrases.

One reason for its popularity could be that it’s not really very ‘sci-fi’ at all. It may be set in the distant future but there are no robots or even computers in Dune. The story is more mystical than technological: a world where characters still sometimes fight with swords and daggers, and speak in almost Shakespearean language.

This welcome technophobia, coupled with the novel’s strong philosophical tone, was entirely intentional, as Herbert was fascinated by Zen Buddhism.

A new big-budget spectacular starring millennial pin-up Timothee Chalamet and directed by the Oscar-nominated Canadian film-maker Denis Villeneuve is heading for UK release next month

The inspiration for Dune came in 1957 when Herbert, then a newspaper reporter in Washington state, was sent to write about huge sand dunes in the adjoining state of Oregon. He was astonished by their grandeur and wrote to his literary agent saying the moving dunes could ‘swallow whole cities, lakes, rivers, highways’.

Herbert was also influenced by T.E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’, the messianic British Army officer who led the Arabs in revolt against the Turks during World War I.

And he drew inspiration from the oil politics of the Middle East and the budding environmental movement in 1960s America. As for ‘the spice’ — also called Melange in the book — Herbert drew on his fascination with consciousness-expanding psychedelic mushrooms.

However, he was most influenced — rather too much so, say critics who stopped short of accusing him of plagiarism — by an obscure 1960 history book, The Sabres Of Paradise, by British writer Lesley Blanch, about a 19th-century conflict in the Caucasus between Imperial Russia and Muslims.

Herbert spent six years working on his novel and, like J.R.R. Tolkien, had difficulty finding a publisher when he had finished.

‘It is just possible that we may be making the mistake of the decade,’ said one who turned it down. The manuscript was eventually taken on by a company best-known for publishing car repair manuals.

It wasn’t an immediate bestseller but word-of-mouth praise and steadily rising sales finally allowed Herbert to give up journalism and devote himself to writing five equally long sequels between 1969 and 1985, the year before he died.

Too much sand?

Herbert’s son Brian certainly never thought so, as he and sci-fi writer Kevin Anderson have since churned out a further 15 Dune prequels and sequels.

The film featured Lynch’s characteristically striking imagery but it was a flabby, kitsch mess and virtually incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t read the book

In 1973, the film rights were bought by a group of French directors on behalf of avant-garde writer and director Alejandro Jodorowsky.

He had enormously ambitious ideas for Dune — music by Pink Floyd and a cast that included Salvador Dali (in his debut film role), Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson and Mick Jagger.

But the project was crushed by its own grandiosity. Jodorowsky’s script was so vast (‘It was the size of a phone book,’ recalled Frank Herbert), the film would have had to be 14 hours long.

Meanwhile, Dali agreed to play Dune’s emperor only if Jodorowsky paid him $100,000 an hour (about £450,000 today), while Welles signed on only when assured his favourite chef would be on hand to cook for him.

Unsurprisingly, the movie had to be scrapped when no studio proved willing to finance it to the director’s specifications. Film mogul Dino De Laurentiis next took up the reins, buying the film rights in 1979. He first turned to British director Ridley Scott, who’d just had huge success with Alien.

Scott had envisaged his Dune being in the Star Wars mould — but dropped out to direct 1982’s Blade Runner instead.

So De Laurentiis recruited David Lynch, another acclaimed but rather quirkier director, to film Dune. His attempt was at least released in 1984 — although many wish it hadn’t been. In a particularly baffling bit of casting, the British pop singer Sting was chosen to play the villain, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, wearing a comical codpiece.

The film featured Lynch’s characteristically striking imagery but it was a flabby, kitsch mess and virtually incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t read the book.

It had cost $45 million — a huge sum at the time — but flopped. Critics savaged it and Lynch subsequently disowned the film.

This failed to deter others: a 2000 TV mini-series won two Emmys — and in 2007, a group of Spanish students released a four-minute trailer for a fan-made version. However, the trailer was removed from YouTube at the request of the Frank Herbert estate and the film was never released.

Paramount Pictures then spent several years trying to get a new Dune feature film off the ground, but again to no avail.

Finally in 2016, the Chinese-owned Hollywood studio Legendary bought the rights and announced a deal with Villeneuve (with plans, too, for a spin-off Dune TV series). Villeneuve has said he is determined as many people as possible will watch it on the big screen rather than at home.

So, might this latest Dune, the rousing tale of a messiah leading his tribe to the promised land, be the film that finally leads us back to the cinema?

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