David Lynch’s Original Dune Ending Would Have Been a Lot Weirder (and Better)

Before last-minute cuts to the special effects budget on David Lynch’s Dune, the ending of the film was a lot more Lynchian.

Kyle Maclachlan as Paul Atreides in Dune
Photo: Universal Pictures

In Frank Herbert’s original Dune novel, the character Duke Leto Atreides is set up to fail. Awarded the mining rights to the arid planet Arrakis by a powerful emperor, and given a limited number of days to exploit them, Leto is sent to the desert essentially to die. And in the end, he should’ve known forces beyond his control were conspiring against him from the start.

One wonders whether back in 1984 if David Lynch felt he could relate. An already impressive directorial talent behind intriguing films like Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980), Lynch was a 34-year-old wunderkind when he was tapped by producer Dino De Laurentiis to direct, and eventually rewrite, Dune as a sci-fi epic intended to rival Star Wars. Yet through the vicissitudes of fate—as well as budget, location photography, and post-production studio mandates—the film that reached cinema screens was a fraction of his sprawling vision. It was also summarily dismissed by the critics of its day, with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert placing it among their “Stinkers of 1984.” Eventually, even Lynch took his name off an extended version (he had no editing oversight) when it was recut for television years later.

Nonetheless, the film’s legacy has endured for a small, dedicated, and growing subsection of cineastes and sci-fi enthusiasts. These fans see the larger esoteric vision of Lynch’s singular interpretation of Herbert’s novel; they appreciate the weird flourishes that no other filmmaker would dare with a mainstream property; and they recognize a masterpiece in disarray.

Film journalist and author Max Evry believes that last bit so strongly, he made it the title of his book about Lynch’s space opera, A Masterpiece in Disarray: David Lynch’s Dune – An Oral History (for which, full disclosure, this writer participated in). Providing a panoramic view of the forces that transpired to make and unmake the film, the author likens his text to being both “an autopsy and a reclamation.” And ahead of the oral history’s release this week, Evry invited Den of Geek to glimpse one of the most curious elements that mutated during Dune’s production: its ending.

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In the finished film, Dune does not so much end as it runs out of footage. The way it plays out is Kyle MacLachlan’s boyish hero Paul Atreides, now with glowing cerulean eyes, defeats the film’s villains, José Ferrer as Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV and the pop musician Sting as a spiky-haired youth in revolt. Paul is then crowned emperor of the universe while declaring he speaks with the voice of God. As he states, “One cannot go against the Word of God,” the skies open and for the first time in Arrakis’ history, rains fall from the heavens in such a deluge that the film’s closing credits are set against footage of a sea’s rolling waves—suggesting Paul’s will turned Arrakis into a paradise. Paul’s little sister Alia Atreides (Alicia Witt) even gilds the lily with the final line of the movie: “And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!”

Dune ends on the literal declaration that Paul is a messiah who will bring peace and prosperity to Arrakis and the universe, and cuts to black before the characters (or the audience) have time to really process what just occurred. To call it a departure from Herbert’s novel is an understatement. On the page, Paul’s messianic complex is something to be feared, particularly in later installments of the literary series. He also cannot make it rain on command. However, as Evry reveals in both his book and in a new video he’s assembled from early discarded storyboards on the production, it wasn’t the ending Lynch wanted either…

As you can see in Evry’s above storyboard footage, Lynch’s earlier vision for Dune was something altogether more metaphysical. He even storyboarded what might be best described as a spiritual awakening or epiphany, with the camera flying into Paul’s eye (which we see briefly in the finished film), only to enter his mind’s eye, which is a cacophony of surrealist imagery. The evolved (and deformed) Space Guild navigators we met at the beginning of the film, and which implicitly seem to control the galaxy (as it is they who control the emperor), are reduced to angelic maggots pouring from Paul’s eyes; the faces of revelation appear to him in the countenances of Alia and his mother Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis) as they in turn are submerged into the water of his dreams; and finally at the end of it all, a glowing gold lotus flower promises serenity.

Evry suggests this ending is truer to Lynch’s artistic impulses, contrasting it directly to Twin Peaks, as well as a clearer example of what the auteur wanted to do with Herbert’s novel.

“Just looking at the boards, it’s very clear that this is a transcendental [revelation],” Evry says. “This is Paul transcending himself and all these disparate elements, like Jessica and Alia, and the navigators, and all this stuff coming together to turn him into what he is at the end of the film.”

Evry also notes the golden lotus flower, an important image in Herbert’s second novel in the series, Dune Messiah, was crucial to Lynch’s vision for the ending of the film. “In all the drafts of the scripts that I read, only a little bit [of the ending] goes in Lynch’s scripts,” Evry explains, “a little bit about the light going off into infinity and the golden lotus at the end. Almost every draft ended with the golden lotus, even to the point where it felt almost shoehorned into the last draft. When he had to make it rain, he makes it rain, and then you see a golden lotus. It’s like Lynch was really trying to get this golden lotus into the movie. It was important to him.”

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And yet, the golden lotus is not in the version we all know. 

Over the years, including in a new interview in A Masterpiece in Disarray, Lynch has distanced himself not just from the film’s post-production, but the whole process of making Dune. He repeatedly has suggested the approach was compromised from the start. However, as the storyboards prove, he at least had grander ideas than what ended up on the screen. The reasons that finale, like so much else, was cut comes down to the movie running over-budget and its most hands-on producer, Rafaella De Laurentiis, parting ways with Apogee Inc., the special effects house headed by John Dykstra of Star Wars (1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) fame.

Apogee had set up operation on Dune at the movie’s production location in Churubusco, Mexico, where for three months the company constructed models, massive blue screens, and created numerous storyboards to Lynch’s specifications. Yet at the eleventh hour, the De Laurentiis family decided to terminate Apogee’s contract. Rafaela later told Starlog (via Masterpiece in Disarray), “It didn’t work out because of the way [Dykstra’s] operation works. I had no control over costs. I can’t work unless I know where I’m putting my money… to know that if you spend those $10 on this, you’ll get an effect on the screen worth $20.”

The storyboards Evry assembled in this video—placing them in an order based on their numbering and the author’s own intuition—come from a book of Apogee effects storyboards that were auctioned off in 2021 and later placed on Amazon for wider distribution. While he cannot be certain, Evry believes most of them were sketched by Mentor Huebner, the famed storyboard artist whose work includes Blade Runner (1982) and The Thing (1982).

“Cutting the video, you can see it,” Evry says. “It almost looks like an animatic, the way he skillfully illustrated everything.”

While Huebner stayed on the production separate from Apogee, the loss of Dykstra’s special effects company signaled the beginning of Dune’s post-production woes. While a talented visual effects artist named Barry Nolan and his Van der Veer Photo Effects company was hired to replace Apogee, the guiding star on the film became doing everything as cheaply as possible.

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Looking back at those decisions nearly 40 years later, Evry says, “I think it was just the fact that they ate up a lot of the time and budget that they had working with Apogee and also making the rest of the film. Like the movie did go over-budget, and I think that cut into what they wanted to do with the effects, which is really shortsighted because, in a lot of ways, the movie sank or swam based on the effects.”

This led to the far more basic and straightforward ending which occurs in the film, although even that appears unfinished. When Paul summons the floods, for instance, you’ll notice his mouth opens but no words or sound come out. That’s because the scene was scripted for there to be a great wind emerging from his throat (hence why the other characters’ hats and gowns begin blowing). Says Evry, “I guess they just ran out of money.”

Similarly, the entire third act climax was economized, with storyboards of the giant sandworms throwing their whole bodies against the shield wall and the emperor’s golden-tented ship getting excised. The film’s humbled ambitions can likewise be noticed in the scene where Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow) and Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart) speak of warning “the spotters” when watching an immense sandworm… but there are no spotters on the screen.

It’s worth recognizing, however, that none of these last-minute compromises affected what might be the ending’s most glaring issue for fans of Herbert’s novels: how it turned Paul into a true prophesied messiah instead of a young man who takes advantage of a religion to glorify himself. Herbert famously stated he wrote Dune, in part, to make readers wary of charismatic leaders (Herbert was a Republican speechwriter in the 1950s who had an intense dislike of John F. Kennedy). But the ending of Lynch’s film turns Paul into Space Jesus. According to Evry, this wasn’t always Lynch’s plan, but commercial considerations were made early on to lean into the boy hero iconography.

“I think [Lynch] flirted with it,” Evry says. “Certainly drafts of this script have almost the opposite of the ending we got. They have like an ocean of blood to signify the jihad that Paul has sparked. But then the ending slowly gets more and more spiritual, focusing less on the terrible thing that Paul has done.” He ultimately concludes, “When you’re trying to make a two, two-hour-and-change movie, the simplest way to go would be just to make him a real messiah.”

Still, Evry does not think the film’s departures from the novel, or even Lynch’s own distancing from it, should determine its legacy.

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“There are so many Lynch fans out there who just dismiss it or see it as a footnote in Lynch’s career,” Evry says, “simply because he himself dismisses it. I mean, he has his own reasons to dismiss it, but he put his name on it; he spent three years making it; it is actually his highest-grossing movie still to this day. It deserves to be reckoned with as part of his canon.”

The author even compares it to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, except that Scott had the opportunity to reclaim his sci-fi cult classic after it failed at the box office by tinkering with it via his director’s cut and eventual “final cut.”

“[Dune] could have been a real landmark movie,” Evry says, “and it was thwarted at every turn during production, post-production, and then even after the movie was released. Universal had the chance to work with David and Rafaella, and make a true director’s cut, and they just didn’t want to pay David any money. And that’s a lot of work. So I think they ultimately shot themselves in the foot, because when you look at what happened with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, it was just as sort of hated and just as much a failure when it came out… If they afforded David the same luxury, we’d be having a different conversation right now. It would be just a masterpiece.”

Masterpiece in Disarray: David Lynch’s Dune – An Oral History is on sale on Tuesday, Sept. 19.