In 1965, U.S. publishers rushed to get the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings into print. An unauthorized copy was selling briskly in the States until a lawsuit by J.R.R. Tolkien necessitated pulling it from shelves and replacing it with an official version, complete with swirling surrealist covers by illustrator Barbara Remington. There was just one problem: Remington hadn’t read the books.
The art on the paperback covers had almost nothing to do with the fantasy epic, and Tolkien loathed it. The buying public, however, embraced the dreamlike imagery, incongruence aside. It was one of several things that helped make The Lord of the Rings a perennial bestseller.
I kept thinking of Remington’s painting as I watched Jodorowsky’s Dune, the new documentary about the first attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s novel Dune to the big screen. Also published in 1965, Dune—like The Lord of the Rings—was a sprawling, otherworldly epic with literary aspirations that quickly found an audience among hippies and geeks. Set on a distant desert planet thousands of years in the future, Dune melded religion, philosophy and environmentalism into a tale about a galactic empire addicted to a psychoactive drug.
Chilean surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky optioned Dune in the early ’70s and set about making what he considered “the most important picture in the history of the world.” There was just one problem: Jodorowsky hadn’t read the book.
This didn’t phase the director of the cult hits The Holy Mountain and El Topo. Based on a script full of his own ideas about space prophets and sentient planets, he gathered a team of “spiritual warriors” to make his movie, including artists Jean “Moebius” Giraud, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss and Dan O’Bannon. His dream cast included Orson Welles, Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger, and he sought out Pink Floyd to do the soundtrack.
The project collapsed after two years of preproduction, which included a fully illustrated storyboard bound in a five-inch-thick tome, when Jodorowsky’s vision failed to land the backing of a major studio. Its easy to see why after watching this doc. “Jodo,” while still intensely passionate about his project, comes off as something between a bullshit artist and a cult leader. He is certainly not helped by an unfortunate choice of words when it comes to his analogy of “raping the novel” to get a good screenplay.
While faithfulness to the source material is not always necessary to make a great movie—witness Blade Runner, which bears only a superficial resemblance to Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—one suspects Jodo’s version of Dune would have been nothing short of a hot mess. There is every reason to believe it would have been more like Zardoz or 1980’s Flash Gordon (whose filmmakers thought they were making a deadly serious and important film, instead of the cheese-tastic camp that was delivered) than 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Indeed, when Dune was finally turned into a major motion picture in 1984, it shared many parallels with Jodorowsky’s version, subbing Sting for Mick Jagger, and, um, Toto for Pink Floyd. The widely panned result nearly derailed the career of director David Lynch.
This is not to dismiss the work done in the name of Jodorowsky’s vision. As one critic says in the documentary, this movie that never got made still has its fingerprints on many that followed it. O’Bannon, Giger and Moebius went on to make Alien with Ridley Scott a few years later, and much of that film was informed by their work together on Dune. Copies of the hefty storyboard book floated around studio backlots for years, and were apparently read by filmmakers from George Lucas to Steven Spielberg. Some of Jodorowsky’s claims of influence are a stretch, but there is no denying, to cite one example, that the long opening shot of 1997’s Contact is strikingly similar to Dune‘s opener.
Just as Jodo’s auteur ego begins to grate—”The picture needs to be exactly as I dream it!” he shouts at once point—there is a quiet moment when, deflated, the pain and frustration of a 40-year-old thwarted ambition shows on his face. It’s a look that every creator trying to cleanly translate the ideas in their head for the rest of the world is all too familiar with.