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Dune (1984) vs the Classic Sci-Fi Novel: What Worked, What Didn’t

For some scenes, the film was an improvement on the book; for others, writer David Lynch might better have stuck with the original

Last time we talked about the opening of Dune 1984. The Hollywood Strike has delayed the sequel to the current remake till March but the classic is worth revisiting in the meantime, both for its successes and failures.

The 1984 writer, David Lynch, made various changes to the story that gave the viewer a clearer understanding of what was going on than Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 novel did. After the first two scenes, which help establish the situation in the world of Dune, the Reverend Mother flies to Caladan to test Paul Atreides with the painful Gom Jabbar. I’ve agreed with his choices so far. His opening showed the viewer why the Reverend Mother chose to visit Paul when she did by revealing the stakes right at the beginning. It also helped the viewer understand a crucial point: the unappealing Harkonnens are merely puppets, not the main villains.

But then there were changes that didn’t work too

Unfortunately, not all of Dune 1984’s changes are for the better. One change, in particular, creates a large plot hole in the story. In the book, the Reverend Mother’s tests Paul with the Gom Jabbar in the opening chapter. In the movie, a new feature is inserted. We are introduced to Paul during his training session with Gurney. The scene begins with a sparring session using the energy fields that surround a person’s body as a shield. I have to say that these shields are by far the worst special effects in the movie, but it was back in 1984, after all. The movie then adds a strange weapon to the mix during Paul’s training session: After sparring with Gurney, Paul is told to fight a robot using what is called a Weirding Module:

The module is basically a laser gun that uses sound to increase its power. No such weapon is mentioned in the book, and its addition created a burning question that bothered me through to the climax of the film. How did Paul arm the Fremen with these weapons? All the Weirding Modules were destroyed during the Harkonnen attack.

At any rate, Paul finishes his training with Gurney, then encounters the Reverend Mother’s Gom Jabbar. His 1984 scene with the Reverend Mother is mostly identical to the book’s version and the 2021 movie’s. Paul passes his test, and the Reverend Mother tries to help him and his mother Jessica as best she can. In the 2021 version, the Reverend Mother helps by asking the Baron to spare Paul and Jessica. In the 1984 version, the Reverend Mother simply tells Jessica to help Paul with the Voice, a Bene Gesserit trick that enables them to force people to do whatever they say.

After this, the House Atreides moves to Arrakis, which introduces another change that I didn’t care for. In the book and the 2021 film, Duncan Idaho plays a large part in the story. He is the one who finds Paul and Jessica and leads them to Dr. Kynes. He also sacrifices himself to give Paul and Jessica more time to escape when the Sardaukar attack the Fremen.
Duncan is given no such glory in the 1984 version, just a few lines with Duke Leto and Paul. Then he’s unceremoniously killed off during the Harkonnen attack. I understand why David Lynch chose to do this. The movie is only two hours long, and some of the plot points had to be cut. But Duncan was too large a character to be killed off so quickly.

That said, I felt the cuts to Dr. Kynes role were more appropriate. The 1984 version doesn’t address the fact that Dr. Kynes is the leader of the Fremen, and the movie only mentions that he is stranded in the desert rather than showing his conversation with Paul and his death. However, I should mention that these cuts do create a minor plot hole in that version because, without Kynes’ eventual betrayal of the Emperor, there is no reason for the Harkonnens to kill him. As far as they know in the 1984 version, he is the emperor’s man.

The story elements that worked

Beyond these changes, the 1984 version hits all the same points as both the 2021 version and the book. The Harkonnens eventually attack House Atreides. Leto is betrayed by Dr. Yueh, but Yueh gives Paul and Jessica a pair of Stillsuits and leaves Paul the Duke’s signet ring. Then Paul and Jessica escape their captors by using the Voice. After this, Paul and Jessica realize that Duke Leto is dead, and they go in search of the Fremen.

The only other comment I will make regarding these events is that—as in the book and the 2021 version—in the 1984 film, Duke Leto fails to kill the baron. As I’ve stated before, this annoys me. To be blunt, after the Harkonnens attack House Atreides, the baron is a useless character. Everything he does following Duke Leto’s death could’ve just as easily been done by the emperor, and killing the baron off earlier in the book would’ve further justified the emperor’s eventual arrival on Arrakis. Failing to kill the baron only served to make Duke Leto’s failure as a ruler complete. But it added thousands of words to the book that simply didn’t need to be there. Plus, killing the Baron at this point in the story would’ve been much more believable than his ultimate fate.

But this was where the changes in the 1984 version paid off. Because the movie version has already shown the emperor conspiring with the Spacing Guild, the viewer understands that the baron is just a puppet, not the main villain. This change created some much-needed clarity that I felt the book lacked.

In any case, Paul and Jessica must cross a dangerous stretch of desert to find the Fremen and are chased by a Sandworm, Arrakis’s most notorious predator. However, the Fremen distract the worm and meet the two remaining members of House Atreides.

Sandworm (1984)

Here was another good choice on the part of David Lynch: He completely omits the scene where Jamis challenges Paul to a duel. This is a needless moment in the book, and it was the weakest part of the 2021 version. In the recent remake, a big deal was made about the subjective nature of Paul’s visions. It was a plot point that needed to be addressed, but they created a subplot where Jamis was Paul’s ally in his visions, which didn’t make any sense because Jamis was far too hostile to make such a friendship possible. In the 1984 version, Paul and Jessica are accepted by the Fremen with no trouble, and we’ll cover what happens after that in the next and final segment.

You may also wish to read: Where did Dune 1984 succeed? Where did it fail? The Hollywood Strike postponed the release of the sequel to the new film version of Dune until March so, for now, let’s have another look at the 1984 version. The decades-old film retelling relied on some risky techniques but they turned out better than we might have expected, given the scope of the plot.

Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

Dune (1984) vs the Classic Sci-Fi Novel: What Worked, What Didn’t