The ‘Dune’ miniseries is a fascinating piece of history

In December 2000, the Sci-Fi channel (since rebranded as Syfy) was released Frank Herbert’s Dune, an ambitious three-part miniseries. Science fiction author Rajan Khanna had just graduated when he first saw the show.

“I remember it coming out, and I honestly remember the Sci-Fi channel used to be a big deal,” Khanna says in episode 515 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcasting. “This was before there was all this geek stuff everywhere. It was kind of, ‘This is for us,’ in a way.”

With a budget of $20 million, Frank Herbert’s Dune was an ambitious project for the young network. The series won an Emmy for special effects and was one of the station’s highest-rated programs. But TV writer Andrea Kaili warns modern audiences aren’t exactly going to be blown away by the show’s production values. “I have a very clear memory of a specific shot where Jessica and Paul run away from the ornithopters, and they run in place in front of a bad green screen,” she says. “It was like watching a play being filmed. It wasn’t a movie, it was a play where someone pointed a camera.”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley agrees that the show has its issues, but it enjoyed a subplot involving Princess Irulan, a minor character in the novel who was completely omitted from the recent movie† †Dune is a combination of ‘space opera court intrigue’ and ‘hippie’ Lawrence of Arabia,'” he says. “Those are the two elements. I like the intrigue of the space opera court significantly more. [Irulan’s] storyline continued the space opera court intrigue throughout the story, so I actually really liked that.

Science fiction author Matthew Kressel says the quality of the underlying material shows through regardless of any rough edges. He particularly enjoyed the way the series captures the texture of the novel. “Obviously I love the Villeneuve movie, but it’s a very hectic movie,” he says. “I feel like there was something in this series that took the time to tell the story, and I respected that.”

Listen to the full interview with Rajan Khanna, Andrea Kail and Matthew Kressel on Episode 515 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Andrea Kail on Frank Herbert’s Dune against Dune (1984)

This one [miniseries] make the Lynch version look like the Denis Villeneuve version, and the Lynch version make the Villeneuve version look like a movie delivered by the hand of God. That’s how much this supported everything else… The [Lynch version] is a terrible movie, but I will never not watch it when it is on. It’s a bad movie, but it’s convincingly bad. I’m always watching it because it’s a spectacle. This one? I love Dune, but I’m not going to sit and watch this again. Do you see the difference? The [Lynch version] is visually interesting and a lot is happening. This is not something I would ever voluntarily look at again, and I am a Dune fanatic.

Matthew Kressel on special effects:

There were some places where they didn’t even do a matte painting, they just had a background that they rolled out behind the actors. That’s a strange choice, because maybe they didn’t have the money for a matte painting, but at the time they certainly had green screens. So I was very curious about that… We were spoiled by the special effects today. They are so good, everything seems real. It’s flawless. But we kind of forget that that was very, very hard to achieve. Even Star Wars, which had this huge budget, you look at the original — not the remaster — and it’s like, “Yeah, the Death Star is a model.” You can just see it in the close-up shots.

David Barr Kirtley on Frank Herbert’s Dune against Dune (2021):

The Villeneuve film doesn’t really explain anything. “Menta? Don’t worry about it. Guild Navigators? Don’t worry, it’s not important.” It focuses only on telling a compelling, emotional character story. The [miniseries] tries to explain a lot more about the way the world is built, and that’s very bad in many ways – dramatic – but I feel like if you’re watching this, you actually know more about the world and what’s going on in the book than you would by watching the Villeneuve movie – which is a million times better, but it’s a trade-off between dramatic effectiveness and world-building explanation.

Rajan Khanna on Adaptation:

I think this [miniseries] is one of the examples of how being faithful to a book can be a trap because what you end up with is an exercise of checking the boxes and not much of life. All major adjustments condense things, lump things together, remove things. Lord of the Rings is widely considered a great adaptation, and they cut all sorts of things. There’s always someone who says, “Tom Bombadil!” But Tom Bombadil had to go… You have to make those choices. I think this is an example of being faithful but also being flat and not having much heart or energy. So I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone except hardcore Dune historians.

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