Lost and Found

The 10 Weirdest Excerpts From Frank Herbert’s Dune Screenplay

In 1976, Frank Herbert attempted to adapt his seminal sci-fi novel into a screenplay. He did not succeed.

Berkley Windhover
Dune

With Dune: Part Two continuing to conquer the worldwide box office, it is also causing some level of controversy among those who feel passionately about the original source material by late author Frank Herbert. Some Dune scholars argue filmmaker Denis Villeneuve did a disservice to the material by changing aspects of certain characters, such as the Lady MacBeth-ing of Lady Jessica as well as mostly excluding the character of Alia. These stalwart Herbert-ians may or may not have salient points, but we have literal evidence that a strongly faithful adaptation of the novel wouldn’t have worked either.

Last year, while preparing for the release of my book, A Masterpiece in Disarray: David Lynch's Dune – An Oral History, I discovered a copy of a 321-page screenplay adaptation of Dune written by Herbert himself, and recently wrote an extensive rundown of said script for Wired. Commissioned in 1976 by producer Dino De Laurentiis prior to either Ridley Scott or David Lynch's tenure on the project, it was one of many scripts attempted throughout the 1970s by an array of writers, including Rospo Pallenberg (Excalibur) and, of course, Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) — the latter documented in the famed 2013 documentary Jodorowsky's Dune. But the thing about Herbert's script is, even the author himself later spoke very negatively about it.

"I don't know how many scripts floated around during this time period. I tried one. It didn't work," said Herbert in Ed Naha's 1984 book The Making of Dune.

Concept art from Jodorowsky’s Dune, one of cinema’s greatest (and most infamous) unmade films.

Sony Pictures Classics

One cannot help but agree with Herbert's opinion about his script not working after reading it. It is beyond bloated, buckling under the weight of choosing to include almost every major character and incident from the book. Even if this adaptation was split into two parts, as was the initial plan, there is very little in the script itself to suggest Herbert had a grasp of what constitutes effective visual storytelling. Even David Lynch's fairly faithful interpretation of characters and scenes in his 1984 Dune does not hold a candle to the slavishness Herbert showed towards his writing in his own attempt.

Don't believe it? Here are 10 excerpts from Frank Herbert's Dune screenplay that show just what happens when you lack an experienced cinematic craftsman interpreting the classic sci-fi novel.

PAGE 3: AGONY OF THE BOX

During the script's very first scene where Mohiam administers the test of The Box on Paul Atreides, we get three very awkward pages of dialogue between the Reverend Mother and the young Prince as the pain is inflicted on his hand, including…

MOHIAM
We must know if you are animal. Humans can make the conscious choice despite the agony. Animals never think of consequences!

Compare this line to the more compelling words from Mohiam in the novel itself:

“You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind."

Then compare this to Villeneuve's more streamlined version from the 2021 Dune film, where the scene takes place 25 minutes into the runtime:

"An animal caught in a trap will gnaw off its own leg to escape. What will you do?”

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune simplifies the scene between the Reverend Mother Mohiam and Paul.

Warner Bros.

PAGE 25: TORTURE BY EXPOSITION

A major problem with Herbert's script is that it appears to have no perspective on how odd the nomenclature of Dune is for the uninitiated. Take this small exchange (out of six pages) between Piter and Baron Harkonnen as they discuss their plan to videotape the torture of Dr. Yueh's wife Wanna in order to force Yueh to do their bidding against House Atreides…

PITER
The Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles is terrified of the Sardaukar.
BARON
But you told me yourself, Piter, that the Great Houses of CHOAM love profits more.

The effect feels more like clumsy word salad than a vivid back-and-forth between the two.

PAGE 55: HOT SEAT

The scene where Leto, Paul, and Gurney are given a tour of spice mining operations that is interrupted by a worm attack is an exciting incident in both Lynch's and Villeneuve's versions. In Herbert's take, he adds several unnecessary beats that eliminate the urgency of the scene, including this one in the Duke's ornithopter…

LETO
Gurney! Strip all but my seat. Each of us can carry two more men that way. Tell the guard pilots.
GURNEY (VO – shout)
Strip out all but the pilot seats!
MLS ACROSS THE THREE 'THOPTERS – SEATS BEING REMOVED

So yes, in the middle of this tense scene, we stop to watch seats being taken out of ornithopters. Another unnecessary beat takes a whole page to deal with two Fremen stragglers still on the crawler as the worm approaches. There's another half a page describing what looks to be the two Fremen's likely death as they are engulfed in sand by the worm attacking the crawler. While Paul gets a little dig in about this being the Fremen's lot in life, it's a fairly pointless scene unless this were the audience's first dramatic introduction to the Fremen… which already happened on Page 27 (and for seven pages after that).

PAGE 61: SIDE-BY-SIDE

Herbert’s script might’ve had Javier Bardem and Jason Momoa interacting, but at the cost of clunky exposition.

Warner Bros.

While we would be all about a cinematic bromance between Stilgar and Duncan Idaho, Herbert includes a ridiculous scene of the two of them fighting Harkonnen troopers near a desert rock outcropping while dumping buckets of exposition. The result is as absurd as a Zucker/Abrams/Zucker movie

MLS – THE FIGHT- CENTERED ON IDAHO IN HIS GLIMMERING SHIELD
STILGAR (shout)
No shields, you fool!
A Harkonnen lunges at Stilgar, trips him. Idaho Saves Stilgar, fends off another attacker as Stilgar regains his feet. CAMERA closes in on Idaho and Stilgar fighting back to back.
STILGAR (grunting as he fights)
Your shield will bring a… worm!
IDAHO (grunting exertion)
I know! But one of these fools was about to use a lasgun!
They whirl around to one side of the melee, take on three Harkonnens. Harkonnen blood spills.
STILGAR
Your Duke is a fool to put a shield around the Residency!
IDAHO (fighting)
If the Harkonnens use lasguns on a shield, the explosion could not be told from Atomics!
STILGAR (fighting)
You think that would stop them?
IDAHO (fighting)
The Baron fears the Emperor's Sardukar!
STILGAR (fighting)
I've heard of these Sardukar. Are they as good as Fremen?
IDAHO (killing a Harkonnen)
Almost as good as Atreides!

PAGE 73: SHIELD ME UP, SCOTTY

Because Herbert's script begins with the Atreides having already arrived on Arrakis (presumably to save money on building Caladan sets), the shield practice between Paul and Gurney is simply a kindjal knife fight between the two. What's funny is Gurney has a distinct Scottish accent…

HALLECK
But y' seemed to get the mood of it… and no shield slowing you, either.
PAUL
Would you really have cut me?
HALLECK
If y' hadn't done your best.
I'd have cut y' one to remember!
I'll not have y' fall to the first Harkonnen tramp who happens along!

As funny as it would have been to hear Josh Brolin with a Scottish lilt, that other guy playing the bagpipe was enough.

PAGE 92: PUTTING THE BANG IN BANQUET

Herbert attempts to compress events by having the hunter-seeker attack on Paul, the banquet scene, and the Harkonnen attack on the Atreides all happen in one busy day. The banquet scene itself, a favorite of Herbert's, never found its way into Lynch or Villeneuve's films. You can see why, too, especially with pointless cul-de-sacs like this…

Duke Leto (Jürgen Prochnow) stills his son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) in David Lynch’s Dune.

Universal Pictures
Mapes is within the portal's shadows. She wrings out the towels from the laving ceremony, catching the water in a basin. Idaho moves into the FRAME.
LETO
Duncan, what's she doing?
IDAHO (turning to face Leto)
Those are the towels from the entry --- the water ceremony of welcome to your guests.
KYNES
It is the custom, m'Lord, to sell that water to beggars for a few coppers.
MCU – THE GROUP AROUND LETO- MAPES IN BACKGROUND CONTINUES TO WRING WATER FROM THE TOWELS.
Leto faces Kynes.
LETO
Sell it? The water in which people have washed their hands?
KYNES
It is an old custom.
LETO
It stops now.

So glad Leto got to the bottom of towel etiquette right before being murdered by his archenemy.

PAGE 135: DUKE IN THE DESERT

One thing neither film adaptation of Dune has concerned itself with is what happened to Duke Leto's body… because it's really, really, really not important. Don't tell that to Frank Herbert, though, who decided to devote practically a whole page to it, via a useless Fremen character named Radoon in Kynes' desert sanctuary…

KYNES
What've you learned, Radoon?
RADOON
Stilgar sent word. The Duke's body was dumped from a 'thopter near Harg pass.
Radoon looks at Jessica and Paul.
RADOON
There's a reward in water for these…
KYNES
The Duke was identified?
RADOON
Left for the worms, but our people got the body. It's him.

PAGE 191: ALL ALIA, ALL THE TIME

Fetus Alia was not Denis Villeneuve’s invention.

Warner Bros.

If you thought Jessica having conversations with fetal Alia in Dune: Part Two was weird, it was not a Villeneuve invention. Herbert tried it too, as a result of Jessica's Water of Life ceremony…

CU – THE FETUS
It turns and looks directly at the CAMERA. Its eyes are wide open and beginning to film with blue. Without opening its mouth, the Fetus speaks.
FETUS (deep echo)
Mother! What have you done to me?
JESSICA (VO)
I didn't know. Truly, I didn't know.
FETUS (deep echo)
I must be born immediately! Immediately!
JESSICA (VO)
Forgive me… forgive me…
FETUS (deep echo)
Before I'm even born, you give me every memory of that old witch – my grandmother!

Incidentally, that old witch is Mohiam instead of Ramallo. Mohiam does die during the ceremony, only to be inexplicably brought back through Bene Gesserit magic or something later on during Feyd's gladiator scene. You can't keep a good witch down! Also "Fetus Deep Echo" would be a great emo album title.

PAGE 197: BABY ALIA ORGY ANGST

Even stranger is the decision to have the newborn baby Alia (who talks like a grown woman, dear lord) bear witness to a post-birth desert-dweller sex party.

ALIA
Ninety generations for this?
Alia turns her head towards the SOUNDS of Fremen revelry.
ALIA'S POV – THE FREMEN ORGY
SOUNDS of hands clapping in rhythm. Some are coupling in the shadows. Others drink; others dance. Paul and Chani are not in the FRAME. Some Fremen suddenly turn, look off-CAMERA. They lift their hands and shout.
FREMEN
There they go! There they go!
MLS – PAUL AND CHANI
Arm in arm, they leave the chamber through a low, narrow portal. Chani has stripped off her robe and stillsuit. She carries them trailing over her shoulder as she walks naked beside Paul. He has abandoned his robe.

And so on and so on…

PAGE 308: MANLY KANLY

Skipping forward to the final confrontation between Paul and the Emperor in the Great Hall (which takes up 30 script pages), we realize why Denis Villeneuve was so gifted at honing this sequence down to its essence, eliminating unnecessary exposition hell. For example, this scene right before the knife fight with Feyd. Keep in mind, this awkward conversation between Paul and Gurney Halleck is taking place in a big room with hundreds of people watching…

Kyle MacLachlan, Sting, and Patrick Stewart in David Lynch’s Dune.

Universal Pictures
HALLECK (RAGE)
That one is mine!
Muad'dib is stepping out of his stillsuit. He stands barefooted in loin cloth. He takes the knife from Chani, turns and faces Feyd, but speaks to Halleck.
CU – MUAD'DIB AND HALLECK
MUAD'DIB
Have you suffered more at Harkonnen hands than I?
HALLECK
My family! My years in the Harkonnen slave pits!
MUAD'DIB
From which my father rescued you.
HALLECK
I owe this to your father!
MUAD'DIB
But I am my father's son… and this is Kanly. You know the rules of Kanly.

The real question is, "Have you suffered more at Herbert's hands than I?"

While a great screenwriter he was not, Frank Herbert was and is still considered today to be an exquisite worldbuilder on the level of J.R.R. Tolkien or George R. R. Martin. The universe he created over six Dune books reshaped the genre and eventually led to two wildly different cinematic takes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. It is a difficult world to parse out over even two films, and perhaps someday, decades down the road, another gifted filmmaker will try their hand at yet another Dune interpretation. All that hypothetical filmmaker needs to remember is one simple axiom: A book is not a movie.

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