“Hope clouds observation.” (Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, Dune)
It was, the nerds have whispered to another since the late 1970s, the greatest science-fiction movie never made. The director, the Chilean Jewish wildman Alejandro Jodorowsky, wrote a script that, if filmed, would run somewhere close to 14 hours. All that was left behind was a storyboard, 3,000 images thick, a promise of the glorious madness that might have been.
The storyboard and its illustrious creator are the stars of a new documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune. Its thesis is simple and convincing: By taking a stab at filming the sprawling 1965 desert-based novel by Frank Herbert, Jodorowsky had assembled in 1974 a team of inspired artists who had given contemporary sci-fi its visual language, from the light sabers of the Jedi to the face-huggers of Alien, and helped propel the genre to the peak of pop culture cool.
It’s all true—but it pales next to Jodorowsky’s even grander and more questionable achievement, which was to move Dune—and, with it, much of the sci-fi genre—away from the thorny questions of ideology and social conflict and toward a softer, more luminescent set of concerns, like identity and self-empowerment, that now reign supreme. To adopt for a moment the director’s colorful, inflamed language, Jodorowsky was the prophet of the flight from the real. Instead of Herbert’s geopolitical toughness, he gave us rainbows and unicorns of self-revelation. And the rest of us are paying the price.
Alejandro Jodorowsky was born in Chile in 1929 to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants who were the architects of his preternaturally unhappy childhood. His mother, Sara, was an unremitting toughie, and his father, Jaime, was a Stalinist obsessed with assassinating the nation’s generalissimo, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo. Like many in his condition, Jodorowsky turned to artistic production, first poetry and then performance, traveling to Paris and becoming a mime, a theater director, and a guru.
That last title is not to be taken lightly. In a decade littered with self-proclaimed seers, Jodorowsky was, literally, a man of vision: Turning to cinema in 1967, the middle-aged and wild-haired artist had a way of distilling complex belief systems into striking images, which he placed just out of consciousness’s reach, leaving viewers, like dogs on too-short leashes, to strain for clarity and meaning. What does the man with no arms carrying on his shoulders a man with no legs represent? Viewers could never be sure, but John and Yoko were big fans—and viewers packed midnight screenings in Europe and in New York, thinking that Jodorowsky might be the herald of an entirely new form of cinematic expression. He ended his third feature, 1973’s The Holy Mountain, by breaking the fourth wall, revealing the movie set, lights, and crew and yelling “Zoom back, camera! Real life awaits us!”
Film number four, then, had to be larger than life. “My ambition was tremendous,” he recalled in a Jodorowsky’s Dune. “I wanted to make something sacred, a film that gives LSD hallucinations without taking LSD, to change the young minds of all the world.” That being his aspiration, there was really only one appropriate target: Dune, the complex, symbol-laden, science-fiction best-seller by Frank Herbert. Jodorowsky had never read Dune, but that hardly mattered: By the late 1970s, the book’s gravitational pull was strong enough—sci-fi maestro Arthur C. Clarke hailed it as second only to The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the fantasy pantheon—to inspire men like the Chilean director. With a considerable financial commitment from French investors, Jodorowsky embarked on his next and greatest cinematic crusade.
Two things are worth noting about Jodorowsky’s Dune. The first has to do with style. Letting his passions run free, Jodorowsky soon accrued not only a talented team of dedicated young artists to help him bring his vision to life, but also a phalanx of older and pampered ones, each with his own demand: Salvador Dalí, slated to play the emperor of the universe, insisted on a rate of $100,000 per hour, which would have made him history’s best-compensated thespian, while Orson Welles was swayed to join the endeavor only after Jodorowsky promised to engage his favorite Parisian chef. And that’s saying nothing of Pink Floyd, Mick Jagger, and other luminaries who were also promised key roles in the extravaganza. Before a single camera rolled, Jodorowsky had already spent millions.
But that wasn’t his greatest debacle. To understand the mess that Jodorowsky made of Herbert’s painstakingly drawn universe, a brief discussion of plot is in order: Fearing the rising popularity of one aristocratic family, the interplanetary emperor takes steps to have it wiped out, unaware that its young son, Paul Atreides, has escaped. The youth finds shelter on Arrakis, a harsh and arid desert planet in which only two things thrive. The first is mélange, a potent and rare spice which is used as currency and is instrumental to life in the future. The second are Fremen, a tribe of warriors that are so skilled at mastering their murderous planet that they’ve learned how to ride the giant predatory worms that emerge from the ground with little notice and big appetites. The Fremen believe in a prophecy of a coming redeemer and grow convinced that Paul’s their guy. The stronger he grows—there’s some wonderful stuff about prescience I won’t even try to explain—the more he realizes that the Fremen’s Jihad—that’s Herbert’s word, one of many he borrowed from Arabic—will end up destroying the world. As the book ends, and this is hardly a spoiler in a tome obsessed with prophecies announcing the inevitable, Paul ascends to absolute power and obliterates his enemies—but realizes that he has unleashed a torrent of violence and that his zealous followers will not stop until the world is soaked in blood.
Herbert’s vision was too grim for the gregarious Chilean. After a concentrated dose of all-purpose mythology—he made Paul’s father a castrato, and inserted a cheerful sequence in which the hero is conceived when his mother inserts a drop of his father’s blood into her ovaries—Jodorowsky arrived at a very different ending for his fable. In his telling, Paul’s throat is slit, at which point Arrakis sprouts columns of light, pretty forests, and shiny rainbows, morphing into a source of untrammeled cosmic joy. It becomes, its creator mused in the recent documentary about his effort to bring Dune to the screen, “a world illuminated, which crosses the galaxy, which leaves it, which gives it light—which is consciousness—to all the universe.”
The differences between the two versions are radical and illuminating. Herbert’s notion of holy war is literal and harsh, the sort of bloody feud that blooms when resources are scarce, passions are high, and resentment is deep. Jodorowsky, on the other hand, would have none of that. His reworking of the book’s ending was a declaration of war on everything that Herbert meant. Like the modern-day apologists who argue that we should interpret the concept of jihad as a struggle for self-control and not as an invitation to behead the infidels, he could accept no drama except for the one that unfurls in our own minds—a colorful and trippy place where happy endings are the norm.
It’s a testament to Jodorowsky’s uncanny ability to so perfectly capture the spirit of the age that his Dune intuited that with the political predilections of the 1960s leaning heavily toward the throbbing questions of identity, science fiction could serve as an intellectual and spiritual Petri dish in which to allow radical ideas to grow. Jungian theories of collective consciousness, Freudian notions of personal psychology, jitters about authority, and an approach to technology that embraces its potential as a tool of salvation while simultaneously recognizing its power to corrode all that is human—these would be the themes of the new art. The novels and stories of writers like Philip K. Dick, the advent of the Internet, and the rise of the cyberpunk movement placed Jodorowsky’s themes at the crux of popular culture, giving us one complex meditation on the nature of the self after another. Some of these meditations are intriguing and inspired. Many others are inane. But none have anything to do with the world of Frank Herbert.
Born in 1920 in Washington state’s Burley Colony, a self-sufficient socialist commune on the lip of Henderson Bay, just north of Tacoma, Herbert had a childhood, to trust the slim biography written by his son, that was shaped by twin forces. The first was nature, which, when the boy was a toddler, dispatched a Malamute dog with mauling on his mind. The beast’s leash, thankfully, was too short, and Herbert escaped intact, but not before gaining an admiration for the uneasy relations between man and his environment.
The second force that shaped Herbert was just as mighty, and just as difficult to control: Everywhere he looked, the young boy saw communal ideologies in full bloom, demanding of their followers more or less everything. “Make way for brotherhood, make way for man” was the motto of the Burley commune, where folks spoke of “we” and “ours” rather than “I” and “mine.” These middle-American socialist ideas bled into the devout Catholicism of Herbert’s maternal aunts, who were just as communal-minded if considerably more stern, and further impressed on the young writer the notion that life was governed by belief systems that demanded total obedience but that offered in return protection from the predatory world outside.
It’s not hard to imagine in these beginnings the seeds of Dune, a novel preoccupied primarily with ecology and religion. Hebert, then a middle-aged newspaperman, spent six years on research before putting pen to paper; every bit of it shows. The Fremen are not only utterly familiar to anyone acquainted with desert tribesmen, but their language is a playful and largely faithful spin on Arabic, often grounded in Islamic and Arab culture. The Fremen, for example, rely on their Fedaykin, or death commandos, to perpetrate their most daring raids against the oppressive imperial forces, raids that often take the form of suicide attacks. Herbert likely had in mind the Egyptian Fedayeen, Arabic for redeemers, who attacked Brits around the Suez Canal in the 1940s, or their Palestinian namesakes, who targeted Israelis a decade later. In the Middle East, Herbert must have found the dystopian version of his boyhood landscape, ripe for intellectual and literary exploration.
After being rejected by 20 publishers, Dune was finally released to immediate acclaim, instantly making Herbert a wealthy and admired writer—but Herbert had missed his moment. By 1965, layered meditations on war and peace and the clash of civilizations were old-fashioned, too jagged and grim for the generation busy turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. Herbert’s success was, quite literally, singular: There were no popular Dune clones emerging in his wake, no sweeping sci-fi works of political and economic depth. Even as something resembling Herbert’s world began to rise from the real-world sand dunes of the Middle East, with real-world jihadists struggling for real-world resources and afflicting real violence on innocents at home and abroad, Dune was not the example anyone sought to follow. It was far more tempting to ask, to paraphrase the title of Philip K. Dick’s iconic short story and the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner, whether androids dream of electric sheep, and what it meant to be human, and what, really, was real.
It was this capacity for introspection that made Jodorowsky’s proposed film so daring, an epic that unfolded inward, a space opera interested primarily in the space between its hero’s ears. The Dune that finally got filmed, helmed by a reluctant and increasingly miserable David Lynch, lacked that spirit and failed miserably. But many other works of science fiction did not.
And it is the works of Jodorowsky’s heirs, for the most part, that you’ll find in college syllabi, a random sampling of which at Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere shows a superabundance of brooding techno-noirists like William Gibson and almost no trace of Frank Herbert. Which is no wonder: To read Dune seriously is to entertain the thought that maybe we haven’t progressed all that much; that maybe, for all our infinite terabytes of digital doodads we’re still struggling to seize just a little bit more of exhausted resources like water or oil; that maybe some cultures, some belief systems, hold within them the coiled threat of violent calamities; that maybe we’re doomed not to design another app but to fight another war, as crushing and senseless as all other wars have ever been; and that maybe what we thought was a genteel meadow of progressive ideas was really just an arid dune from which terrifying predators might emerge. These are not ideas one could seriously explore anymore, particularly not on college campuses.
The good news is that we may finally be ready. After years of marching in Jodorowsky’s crazy light, after so many playfully post-modern explorations of identity and cyberspace and virtual realities, we seem primed to get back down to our own reality and own space, to look past our own identities into larger, more complicated structures. With two TV series based on Herbert’s original Dune novels produced in the last decade, we may finally be taking this monumental work of fiction seriously. We definitely should.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.