Why David Lynch Says He Died Two Times With His Version Of Dune

As a fan of Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel "Dune," I've always been perplexed by the hostility to David Lynch's 1984 filmed adaptation. It is a wildly truncated take on the book, one that makes a couple of key alterations to the text, but I don't go to movies for slavish takes on great novels. I've already had that experience.

Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" and George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun" (based on Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy") are distinctly different from their source material, and, thus, illuminating and thrilling in exciting new ways. It's akin to listening to the Cowboy Junkies' cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" — I'm hearing a brilliant song for the first time.

While Lynch was able to place his singularly perverse stamp on Herbert's universe — he was, unsurprisingly, quite fond of the twisted Harkonnens — he had a much grander vision in mind. He did not, however, have final cut over this $40 million production ($115 million adjusted for inflation), which meant he was subject to the meddlesome whims of executive producer Dino De Laurentiis. (This is why he's advocated for a director's cut, though he doubts it'll come to fruition.)

This was only Lynch's third feature, following the seven-year production of the midnight-movie classic "Eraserhead" and the more audience-friendly, critical/commercial triumph of "The Elephant Man." He'd given himself over to the Hollywood machinery, and he suffered tremendously for it.

The one time David Lynch sold out

David Lynch was one of the hottest directors in the industry after "The Elephant Man." His gorgeously stylized film about the deformed Englishman John Merrick was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and prompted George Lucas to offer Lynch the opportunity to direct "Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi." Lynch turned him down flat. He didn't understand why Lucas would want him to play traffic cop on a production that had been pre-visualized without his creative input.

"Dune" was a different beast. Lynch could design the entire world and set the tone for the film. He basically had the run of the store. He just lacked the power to close it. When "Dune" arrived in theatres in December 1984, at 137 minutes, it was a compromised, stitched-together representation of Lynch's vision. Looking back, the director took responsibility for accepting the gig in the first place. He told Far Out:

"I started selling out on 'Dune.' Looking back, it's no one's fault but my own. I probably shouldn't have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in. There was so much room to create a world. But I got strong indications from [producer] Raffaella and [EP] Dino De Laurentiis of what kind of film they expected, and I knew I didn't have final cut."

"Dune" underperformed commercially, grossing just $30 million at the U.S. box office. But Lynch bounced right back with 1986's "Blue Velvet." Four years after that, he would be hailed as a television pioneer for his sui generis evening sudser "Twin Peaks," but his surrealistic instincts quickly turned off mainstream viewers. With the poorly received premiere of prequel film "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me" at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, Lynch's creative impulses were once again being impugned. But this time around, Lynch could withstand the critical brickbats.

Lynch's Dune isn't perfect, but it is 100% Lynch

During an Emmy nomination roundtable in 2017 for the revival series "Twin Peaks: The Return," David Lynch discussed how "Dune" and "Fire Walk with Me" were different types of heartbreaks.

"With 'Dune,' I sold out on that early on, because I didn't have final cut, and it was a commercial failure, so I died two times with that. With 'Fire Walk with Me,' it didn't go over well at the time, but I loved it so I only died once, for the commercial failure and the reviews and things. But, over time, it's changed. So now, people have revisited that film, and they feel differently about it."

Some of us identified "Fire Walk with Me" as a masterpiece from the jump, and, like Lynch, we feel vindicated. But it's sad that Lynch can't cut himself a break on "Dune." If you know Frank Herbert's book, Lynch's film makes perfect sense. Also, his invention of the "Weirding Module" as a replacement for the martial-arts concept of the "Weirding Way" is ingenious. Paul Atreides' name is a killing word. Why not literalize that? I also love the blocky look of the Holtzman shield, which values functionality over coolness. And Toto's overwrought, electric-guitar-tinged score is just the right kind of chintzy.

I would rather watch Lynch's "Dune" than Denis Villeneuve's scrupulously faithful 2021 adaptation. Lynch's version is kinky, crazy, and, in the end, a fascinating rendering of the book. It might not be the film he intended to make, but it is, front to back, David Lynch with a budget he'd never get again. That's my kind of madness.