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The untold truth of Dune

Dune is one of the most important, influential, and popular franchises in the history of science fiction. Beginning as a novel in 1965 by Frank Herbert, the Dune universe spans multiple volumes of books, short stories, comics, games, a TV miniseries, and a 1984 movie adaptation. At its heart, it's a deep-space saga set thousands of years into a future in which multiple powerful entities vie for control of Arrakis, a desert planet home to the powerful, superpower-giving spice called melange. Here's a look into the vast world of Dune—watch out for Shai-Hulud (or, you know, sandworms.)

The original Dune novel was inspired by the Oregon Dunes

Between the coastal town of Florence, Oregon, and the Pacific Ocean are the Oregon Dunes, massive sand hills that, in the 1950s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered were actually moving. They attempted to use certain breeds of grasses to stabilize and calm the dunes before they could continue to grow, move, and "swallow whole cities, lakes, rivers, and highways," as Frank Herbert's letter to his literary agent breathlessly suggested they eventually could.

Having published a few successful science fiction novels already, Herbert traveled to Florence in 1957 to explore this bizarre scientific phenomenon and to write an article. That piece was never completed, but the concepts of precious natural resources and monstrous sand dunes and what may lay within led to Dune. After five years of research and writing, Herbert published Dune World and The Prophet of Dune in serial form in the magazine Analog Science Fiction magazine from 1963 to 1965. The author then compiled it into a single-volume novel, Dune, which which was published by technical book publisher Chilton Books in August 1965 after more than 20 other publishers rejected it.

It took a long time to make it to the movie theater

Dune was published in 1965, but it didn't hit the big screen until 1984. For almost that entire span of 20 years, efforts were underway to adapt the book. In 1971, Apjac International, best known for the Planet of the Apes movies, acquired the movie rights and offered the director's chair to David Lean, the legendary British filmmaker behind another desert-based movie, Lawrence of Arabia. Lean passed, as did British director Charles Jarrott (Anne of the Thousand Days). While a director was sought out, screenwriters worked on the script and production plans were put into place, but it all fell apart when Apjac head Arthur P. Jacobs died in 1973.

Apjac sold the rights to Dune to a group of French investors, who hired avant-garde film and theatrical director Alejandro Jodorwsky as director. While he'd only directed three full-length films at that point, he definitely had the enthusiasm and ambition necessary to direct Dune...and then some. As detailed in the fascinating 2013 documentary Jodorwosky's Dune, the director planned to make a 14-hour movie with a dream cast including Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dali, with a soundtrack provided by Pink Floyd. To nail down the production design, Jororowsky consulted such innovative artists as Moebius and H.R. Giger. He also wanted to depict melange, "the spice," as a magical blue sponge and completely change the ending of the novel.

When that project died, the rights were sold to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who hired Ridley Scott to direct. He dropped out because, as he relates in Ridley Scott: The Making of His Movies, he was ready to film the movie immediately, but it was going to take at least two and half more years of pre-production. Also, his heart wasn't in it, because his older Brother Frank "unexpectedly died of cancer" while he was working on Dune. Ultimately, the gig went to cult movie icon (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) David Lynch.

It was one of the biggest (and most problem-plagued) productions in movie history

Dune finally started being committed to film in 1983 at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City. That location was chosen in part because it was adjacent to large swaths of desert that could stand in for the planet Arrakis, and because the Mexican economy was such that it would cost Universal Pictures far less to shoot the movie than it would have cost in the U.S. To create the intricate worlds of Herbert's novel, one of the biggest film crews of all time was assembled: 900 workers took six months of construction to fill eight soundstages. 

The cons of shooting in Mexico: the electricity and telephones at the studio were totally unreliable, cast and crew suffered from various bouts of illness and hospitalization throughout production, and more than 200 of the aforementioned 900 workers had to clean three square miles of desert of scorpions, snakes, and cactuses to replicate the lifeless surface of Arrakis. Filming at one location had to be suddenly moved when it was discovered that the ancient volcano bed was actually where locals dumped their dead pets.

The film was a disaster

Universal hoped Dune would be the next Star Wars, but while it was certainly as imaginative and ambitious as George Lucas's epic, it ended up being a huge disaster. Critics absolutely hated it: Roger Ebert said Dune was "a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time." It lacked the broad appeal and fun of more popular sci-fi like Star Wars—and Universal knew it on some level before the movie was released, distributing hundreds of thousands of vocabulary guides to movie theaters in order to familiarize audiences with the dense world of Dune settings, characters, and words. The guides didn't help much—it ultimately earned just $30 million at the box office, not even clearing its $40 million budget. As a result, the other two Dune books were never adapted for the screen.

A lot of misbegotten Dune merchandise was produced

Because Dune was a big-budget space-set epic sci-fi movie, a ton of merchandise flooded stores in 1984. After all, Star Wars did it not too long before, and it earned the franchise millions. However, a lot of that merchandise appealed to kids, because Star Wars was a movie with plenty for kids to enjoy; Dune, on the other hand, was decidedly not a kid-friendly movie—it was a hardcore science fiction for serious fans only. It seems like a bit of Photoshop trickery, but there's a ton of Dune stuff gathering dust in basements, garages, and warehouses that few kids wanted, including jigsaw puzzles, paper doll sets, bed sheets, party favors, action figures, and Viewmaster slides.

It inspired a lot of music

Dune and its sequels make for a thoughtful, sprawling, imaginative sci-fi epic, and the books were popular in the '60s and '70s, which can mean only one thing: It inspired a lot of progressive rock. In 1977, jazz keyboardist David Matthews released Dune, inspired by the books. In 1979, experimental German electronic music composer (and Tangerine Dream member) Klaus Schulze released Dune, an album of the music inspired by the novel. That same year, French electronica pioneer Bernard Sjazner (under the name Z) released a Dune themed album called Visions of Dune. Around the time of the film's release, Iron Maiden included the song "To Tame a Land" on its 1983 album Piece of Mind, having changed the song from its original title of "Dune," because Herbert wouldn't give permission. In 1999, German metal band Golem released the Dune-themed concept album The 2nd Moon, while two other metal bands have named themselves after the Duneiverse: Shai Hulud and Dune.

Sadly, Lynch opted not to honor this prog tradition when overseeing the soundtrack for the film; instead, an instrumental LP was commissioned from the '80s L.A. studio wizards in Toto.

There are other versions of the movie

Lynch estimated that his shooting script would translate to a running time of about three hours, but once it was filmed, edited, and effects were added in, Dune wound up being well over four. Rightfully seeing that as completely unmarketable, Universal ordered Lynch to cut a bunch of scenes and streamline the plot; because of all that unused footage, rumors have persisted for more than 30 years that there's a special, Lynch-curated "director's cut." There isn't—Universal has approached Lynch, but his displeasure and disappointment in the film has kept him from returning to cobble together another version.

There is, however, a three-hour version of Dune with extra scenes added in, assembled without Lynch's involvement for television broadcast. Lynch was so upset that he demanded his name taken off the credits for this version, replaced with the standard Alan Smithee pseudonym for director and the fake name "Judas Booth" for screenwriter—because Universal betrayed him (like Judas did to Jesus) and killed the movie (like John Wilkes Booth did to Abraham Lincoln).

David Lynch regrets directing it

In a career filled with weird movies and arguable missteps, Dune is about the only project Lynch says he truly wishes he hadn't made. In fact, he says it even soiled him as an artist. "I sold out, so it was a slow, dying-the-death and a terrible, terrible experience," he later reflected. "I don't know how it happened, I trusted that it would work out but I was very naive. The wrong move. In those days the maximum length they figured I could have is two hours and 17 minutes, and that's what the film is, so they wouldn't lose a screening a day ... it's money talking and not for the film at all and so it was, like, compacted—and it hurt it, it hurt it."

There were some reboots, and some failed reboots

Regardless of the film's lackluster performance, the Dune franchise continued to gather more fans with each passing year. The franchise itself also grew, with a well-received miniseries airing on The Sci-Fi Channel in 2003, and Herbert's son Brian Herbert writing more bestselling Dune sequel and prequel novels with Kevin J. Anderson. By 2008, Hollywood once again saw Dune as a hot property with a lot of commercial potential. Paramount announced plans for a new version of the first novel, and hired Peter Berg (Hancock, Battleship) to direct. A year later, Berg dropped out and Pierre Morel (Taken) replaced him, but the studio called the whole thing off in March 2011. Once again, Dune refused to die: As of 2017, a Dune movie is in the works at Legendary Entertainment, to be helmed by Oscar-nominated Arrival director Denis Villeneuve.

Dune on the moon

Unfortunately, the complicated and complex planetary systems of Dune are not real. And unfortunately, there is no melange on Titan, the moon of Saturn. Nevertheless, it's on Titan that Dune has become real. As of 2009, the names of planets from the novels are what are officially used to name plains on that moon. (For example: Chusuk Planitia.) A bit closer to home, Apollo 15 astronauts who visited the Earth's moon in 1971 identified and spotted a crater they named...Dune.