Director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s doomed attempts to bring Frank Herbert’s novel Dune to the screen are the stuff of movie legend. In seeking to adapt Herbert’s sprawling sci-fi fantasy, Jodorowsky’s proposed adaptation seems, with the benefit of hindsight, unbelievably quixotic.
In 1974, the director decided that he would follow his surrealist western The Holy Mountain with a big-screen retelling of Herbert’s story of rival families and warring empires in a distant galaxy – a decision he made without even having read the book. He was attracted by its themes of messiahs and emotional dislocation, he later said, and readily agreed to producer Michel Seydoux’s proposal to adapt it (“I needed to support my family,” Jodorowsky explained in a later interview).
Dune would feature an eclectic star cast, including Orson Welles, David Carradine, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali. It would feature the designs of the era’s foremost artists, including Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, HR Giger and Chris Foss. It would also cost an absolute fortune to make, and would, according to various estimates, clock in at anywhere between three and 14 hours long…
Having secured some funding from European financiers, Jodorowsky began pre-production work in earnest. Overseen by Dan O’Bannon – who was hired because of his work on the cult classic Dark Star – Giger, Foss and Giraud began generating page after page of artwork and concept designs.
Although Jodorowsky’s attempt to cast artist Salvador Dali in the role of Emperor Shaddam IV soon fell apart – Dali demanded the absurd sum of $100,000 per hour, and was later asked to leave the production for making “pro-Franco statements” – the pre-production was wildly productive. Giger was generating some quite remarkable designs, including a huge castle that was simultaneously a stronghold and a hideous replica of its builder, Baron Harkonnen, and some beautifully creepy, skeletal chairs. Foss designed some appropriately fantastical space ships, and Giraud had painstakingly drew storyboards based on the hulking Dune script.
Then, after two years of work and the outlay of about $2 million in pre-production fees, Dune fell apart. Its French financiers grew nervous of its spiralling budget, and when Jodorowsky’s attempts to gain some co-funding in Los Angeles failed, it seemed that the director’s Dune had been thwarted by its soaring ambition.
In the best of possible outcomes, Jodorowsky’s Dune could perhaps have been a trippier take on Star Wars – a film that bore several similarities to Herbert’s novel, and whose success in 1977 would revive interest in bringing a Dune adaptation to the screen. It’s also possible, of course, that Jodorowsky’s film would have been just as flawed and commercially troubled as the one made by David Lynch in the 80s. But with the sheer amount of talent involved in Jodorowsky’s Dune, and the remarkable work its artists turned out, it’s impossible not to look back and wonder what might have been.
Although Dune’s collapse left its collaborators despondent in the aftermath – Dan O’Bannon returned to the US, emotionally shattered and penniless in 1975 – the project was indirectly responsible for several happier events. Had O’Bannon never been involved in Dune, he may never have formed a partnership with Ronald Shusett, with whom he co-wrote the original story for Alien. Had Salvador Dali never mentioned the name HR Giger to Jodorowsky, it’s far less likely that the Swiss artist and O’Bannon would have met, either – and without Giger, the Alien creature we all recognise today would never have been born.
Jodorowsky, meanwhile, looks back at the production of Dune fondly. “It was a wonderful failure,” he once said, and pointing to a book of Giraud’s storyboards, added, “For me, the film remains there, and that’s okay.”
Even 37 years after Dune’s demise, it’s still far from forgotten. Over the weekend, the first glimpse arrived of Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary that goes back over the production’s explosive period of creativity. As Lost In La Mancha and Hearts Of Darkness prove, the story of a film’s making can often be as fascinating and dramatic as the feature itself. And in this instance, the documentary will at least give us a flavour of what Dune could have looked like – a film that, in Jodorowsky’s own words, would provide “the hallucinations that you get with [LSD].”
We can only imagine what the actual Dune would have looked like, but at least the documentary will finally bring to the screen the story behind one of science fiction cinema’s big missed opportunities.