Bright Lights Film Journal

Big Worms and Big Fish: Jodorowsky, Dune, and Jodorowsky’s Dune

Baron Harkonnen, to be played by Orson Welles, as drawn by Jean "Moebius" Giraud for Jodorowsky's Dune

“Jodorowsky capitalizes on the cachet of exclusivity, the wonderful feeling of being one of the elite few who “get it,” and, in treating it like a source of esoteric wisdom, Jodorowsky’s Dune makes the Dune project seem like a lost gnostic gospel. The fact that the film does not exist to substantiate any of this only reinforces its power.”

About three-quarters of the way into Frank Pavich’s 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, we are told the ending to what would have been Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film adaptation of the science fiction novel Dune, had the project not fallen through in 1976. The hero, Paul Atreides, the only son of a murdered duke and psychic messiah of the planet Arrakis, is stabbed to death, but his spirit immediately possesses the body of another. Then another, and another, and another, and then multiple people at once. A crowd of people in unison chant “I am Paul,” and Arrakis, a nearly lifeless desert world, suddenly blooms with water and life. Forests and rivers and animals appear out of nowhere, and all humans on Arrakis immediately join a collective mind-spirit. The planet then shoots across the galaxy to spread its enlightening vibes to the rest of the cosmos.

It’s not important that you know what any of this means. Anyone familiar with Frank Herbert’s original novel knows what a radical departure it is from the book’s tragic, ambiguous ending. Anyone unfamiliar with it is in a perfect position to experience Jodorowsky’s version, which depends neither on Herbert’s book nor on the audience’s ability or desire to understand what’s going on.

The extent to which you consider this a good or bad thing is partly a matter of taste, or even ideology. For me, it was the final insult in a series of preposterous artistic decisions and obfuscations that the film presents as fascinating insights. Jodorowsky himself, in his early eighties at the time of filming, had this to say about it:

“I changed the ending, evidently … I did that. It was my Dune. When you make a picture, you must not respect the novel. It’s like, you get married, no? You go with the wife, white, the woman is white, you take the woman, if you respect the woman, you will never have child. You need to open the costume and to rape the bride. And then you will have your picture. I was raping Frank Herbert, raping, like this! But with love, with love.”

There’s something malicious in attacking a film that was never made and never will be. It’s easy to say that Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been a disaster when the film itself doesn’t even exist to defend itself. Then again, it’s just as easy to say it would have been a masterpiece, and the documentary’s tagline, “The Greatest Science Fiction Movie Never Made,” seems to have been readily accepted by critics and cinephiles. Certainly no one in the film seems interested in exploring the possibility that the project was an artistic bungle and doomed to failure, much less that Jodorowsky himself was the bungler. Pavich at least employs some critical distance that allows this possibility, but otherwise he offers no counterpoint to Jodorowsky’s side of the story. For those skeptical of the Dune film and the cult of Jodorowsky in general, Jodorowsky’s own words illuminate issues that the documentary discourages us from considering.

I changed the ending, evidently.

According to Jodorowsky and Dune‘s producer, Michel Seydoux, when Seydoux offered to back anything Jodorowsky wanted to make, Jodorowsky blurted out “Dune!” without hesitating. He admits that he hadn’t even read the book at the time. Jodorowsky frequently alludes to fate when discussing the production, and he implies that this impulsive decision was part of some grand cosmic plan to put him together with Herbert’s novel, but that’s a dubious premise considering that the film never got made. It’s more likely that Jodorowsky knew of Dune as a best-selling science fiction book with the kind of offbeat subject matter he liked to make movies about: mind-altering substances, messiahs, deserts, Zen, bizarre violence, and alien imagery ripe for sexual and religious symbolism.

What’s troubling is that Jodorowsky never actually claims to have read Dune at all, even though he spent a full two years working on the film adaptation of it. The telling use of the qualifier “evidently” in the quote above may be due to Jodorowsky’s occasionally broken English, but, judging by his new ending, I have no trouble believing that he didn’t actually know how the book originally ended. Every scene from Jodorowsky’s Dune that the documentary describes is absent from the novel. The only exception is the death of Duke Leto Atreides, the protagonist’s father, which is so different from how it plays out in the book that, again, you could be forgiven for thinking Jodorowsky hadn’t actually read the book (for those familiar with it, Jodorowsky has Duke Leto tied to a wall with his limbs getting cut off one by one while the fat villain, Baron Harkonnen, laughs and eats fried chicken).

It ultimately doesn’t matter if Jodorowsky read the book or not, and that’s part of what makes Jodorowsky’s Dune so frustrating. It’s refreshing that Pavich bucked modern trends in documentary filmmaking and did not give himself any visible presence in the film, but it’s unclear if it’s actual subtlety when he doesn’t challenge Jodorowsky or if he’s simply inexperienced and caught up in Jodorowsky’s charisma. I suspect it’s a bit of both, which is admirable for its honesty and humility, but the film’s greatest weakness is that it fails to address the elephant in the room – namely, that Jodorowsky is completely inappropriate for Dune.

At its core, Dune is traditional storytelling that wants you to buy into the realism of its fantasy world. Jodorowsky is neither a storyteller nor interested in realism. He’s a circus ringmaster who deals in surrealist excess, and Jodorowsky’s Dune occasionally feels like hagiography when it doesn’t acknowledge that this movie would have been insufferable for most people.

Whatever Pavich’s opinions on the Dune project may be, all his interview subjects who were not part of the project itself – including filmmakers Nicolas Winding Refn and Richard Stanley and critics Drew McWeeny of HitFix and Devin Faraci of Badass Digest – are of the opinion that Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been an awesome, mind-blowing epic that could have changed filmmaking forever. More than once, they even suggest that it could have replaced Star Wars in popular culture. As attracted as I am to the idea of a world without Star Wars, I find the idea that any film by Jodorowsky could have had major pop culture impact difficult to swallow. Even ignoring Jodorowsky’s asinine insistence that the movie should have been at least six hours long, Dune seems to have been filled with the same sort of sadomasochism, LSD aesthetics, and humorless New Age bullshit that keeps his other works out of the mainstream. Jodorowsky specifically says that he wanted the film to induce the same kinds of visions as an acid trip. 2001: A Space Odyssey was financially successful partly because of the hallucinatory effect of its final sequences and its provocative tagline (“The Ultimate Trip”), and Jodorowsky’s acid western El Topo was the original midnight movie, but there’s no way such loopiness could have ever displaced the simplistic fable of Star Wars.

It was my Dune.

Along with Kubrick’s Napoleon and Welles’ Don Quixote, Jodorowsky’s Dune is one of the most famous films that were never completed, and is often discussed alongside them in terms of tragic waste of artistic potential. However, unlike Napoleon and Don Quixote, which are usually (rightly or wrongly) brought up as examples of auteur obsession clashing with Hollywood shrewdness, Dune may actually be more famous for its eclectic cast and crew. In two years of pre-production, Jodorowsky wrangled together a mythic all-star team that’s more provocative than Jodorowsky himself: special effects by Dan O’Bannon; art design by H. R. Giger, painter Chris Foss, and cartoonist Jean Giraud (aka Moebius); music by Pink Floyd; Orson Welles as the villain Baron Harkonnen; and, most famously (and infamously), Salvador Dalí as the Emperor of the Known Universe.

Concept art by H. R. Giger for Dune

“Guild Tug” art by Chris Foss for Dune

This crew of Argonauts seems to confirm that Dune might be the greatest science fiction movie never made, but there are countless problems bundled up in this list. Chris Foss, for instance, whose brilliant paintings of spaceships are on the covers of countless science fiction paperbacks, admits to never having read the book – indeed, his only familiarity with the story at all is through Jodorowsky’s screenplay. Giger also hints that he’d never read the book. It’s unclear if Giraud read the book, since he died in 2012 and his interviews in the film are very limited, but, in any case, there seems to have been no attempt by Jodorowsky or anybody else to make the wildly different aesthetics of these three artists compatible or cohesive. They all seem to have been given free rein with no instruction from Jodorowsky whatsoever regarding the overall look of the film. We never see O’Bannon’s special effects work, either. We’re simply told that he “solved” the problem of turning these artists’ designs into practical sets and props and that Hollywood, in its foolish wisdom, still thought it would be too expensive.

Art by Jean “Moebius” Giraud

Dalí’s presence gives the film some surrealist credibility – something Jodorowsky has sought his entire career – but he contributed nothing but stunt-casting. Jodorowsky insists that he “knew” that he “must have” Dalí play the Emperor, but gives no reason other than his reverence for Dalí as an artist. Dalí, by all accounts, actively tried to sabotage the production by demanding ludicrously expensive accommodations, including a pet giraffe and a helicopter. Jodorowsky, seemingly as much a sycophant for Dalí as his own fans are for him, kowtowed to all of it and blew a large portion of the budget to get Dalí in the film for just under five minutes.

Casting Welles as the villain Baron Harkonnen was also little more than starfucking. I have no doubt that Welles could play the part well, but Jodorowsky, who seems a sincere fan of Welles, only expresses interest in him for his directorial talents and his girth. Jodorowsky betrays an agonistic envy of Welles when he says that he was actively trying to outdo the opening shot of Touch of Evil, and it’s difficult not to interpret Welles’s casting as Jodorowsky’s way of subduing him. Jodorowsky even tells a doubtful humiliating anecdote where he convinced the reluctant Welles to join the cast by bribing him with gourmet food.

Most problematic, though, is Giraud’s role in pre-production, which included not only art design but also drawing all the storyboards. There is an impressive book version of Jodorowsky’s Dune that’s essentially a comic book of Jodorowsky’s screenplay completely storyboarded by Giraud. A copy of this book was apparently sent to every studio in Hollywood. It’s difficult to navigate Jodorowsky’s and Pavich’s obfuscations on the issue, but it seems that Jodorowsky had Giraud create, in his drawings, the mise en scène of the entire film. Giraud would read the screenplay and draw each scene, as he saw it, shot by shot. Jodorowsky says that when he saw these drawings, it was like watching the film play out before him. In effect, Giraud directed the film before the cameras were even set up.

So, then, to what extent was this actually “Jodorowsky’s” Dune? His status as an auteur depends mainly on how he usually functions as a kind of one-man band on his low-budget films, but that wasn’t the case with Dune. The screenplay was his own creation, more or less, but he seems to have been perfectly willing to change almost anything about it on a whim according to whatever his collaborators felt like doing. The story, such as it is, was a futurist scaffold to tack his art designers’ visuals on.

Jodorowsky as El Topo

What does hold everything together as “Jodorowsky’s” is his gravitational force as a figurehead. Jodorowsky is the most cultic of cult filmmakers, and Jodorowsky’s Dune is mainly about celebrating Jodorowsky’s cult following, rather than any real investigation of the Dune project. Indeed, Pavich treats Dune less like a film-to-be than a specific experience confined in time and space, like Woodstock or the Summer of Love. The film is fuzzy on the details, but it seems like the pre-production team for Dune all lived together on a French estate for over a year, a psychedelic commune powered by the wistful promise of eventually turning their labors into a Hollywood feature film. Jodorowsky gave pep talks every morning and distributed drugs. He referred to the crew as his “spiritual warriors” (at one point, he claims to have turned down the services of Douglas Trumbull, the special effects wizard behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, because he was “not a spiritual person”). He even cast his 12-year-old son, Brontis Jodorowsky, as Paul Atreides, and made him undergo martial arts training and brain exercises to actually turn him into a real-life version of the film’s messianic superhuman.

Thankfully, Pavich doesn’t use this as a tool for pummeling Jodorowsky’s obvious self-absorption (his son Brontis, now grown, is clearly ambivalent and hurt by the whole experience), but he also doesn’t offer any critical alternatives. There are no dissenting voices in Jodorowsky’s Dune – or, more appropriately, no heretics. Jodorowsky’s personal charisma and counterculture street cred seem to have gotten the better of Pavich, who disallows any perspective that would break the spell.

Imagine that Peter Jackson, instead of adapting The Lord of the Rings with a team of earnest professionals and a sense of monastic duty, had tried to get Boris Vallejo, Jacek Yerka, and Frank Miller to do the art design, Sigur Rós to do the music, and Roman Polanski to play Gandalf the Grey. It sounds neat on paper, but, when it inevitably fell through, I doubt Jackson apologists would come out of the woodwork to spin the story as another case of mean old Hollywood keeping a genius down. Jackson has a devoted fan base, but nothing compared to the zealotry inspired by Jodorowsky’s magnetic dime-store mysticism.

You must not respect the novel.

The ethics of adaptation are unsolvable, and, to some extent, most people probably agree with the basic sentiment behind Jodorowsky’s comment. Everyone knows novels rarely translate into film without some heavy hedge-trimming, and especially in science fiction and fantasy, where necessary background information on the world is delivered in narration.

There’s a difference, though, between being faithful to a novel and simply respecting it.1 A hunter can respect the deer by only killing what he needs. Jodorowsky rampages through the woods with a Gatling gun. Not only does he litter what is already a complicated story with his trademark extravagances, but he takes the religious and ecological core of the novel – one of the things that has made it the best-selling science fiction novel of all time – and crumples it like paper. Where the novel focuses on Buddhism and Islam and humanity’s symbiosis with the natural world, Jodorowsky’s version is yet another iteration of his own brand of syncretic neo-Christian shamanism. Aside from the most basic plot elements, the only aspect of the novel Jodorowsky seems to have left intact is its worst, i.e. Herbert’s homophobia: the villains, the Harkonnens, are drawn as effeminate decadents with golden G-strings and giant peacock feathers.

Where a true auteur, like Welles or Kubrick, might whittle down a source text to the dramatic elements that suit their sensibilities, Jodorowsky simply guts the book and shoves in his favorite thematic knick-knacks. Considering that Dune was never made and all of Jodorowsky’s other major works are of his own invention, this is an empty complaint, but it points to the hypocritical egotism at the heart of much of what makes Jodorowsky Jodorowsky. On the one hand, he says he doesn’t buy into the idea of intellectual property (which explains the ease with which he desecrated Herbert’s novel) and that he’s glad that others stole ideas from the Dune project for later films. On the other, while I don’t doubt for a second his admiration for his collaborators’ talents, he always discusses Dune in terms of his struggle, and he tries to take credit for some very popular films that he had nothing to do with by pointing to vague similarities between them and Dune.

Pavich is complicit in this duplicitous self-aggrandizement when he tries to sanctify Dune for mainstream audiences with an unconvincing sequence that argues that Star Wars owed a lot to Dune. I’m usually the first to point out the many instances where Star Wars pillaged other works, but, here, it smacks of desperation. He even includes awful flops like Flash Gordon and The Masters of the Universe to beef up the list of films that supposedly owe something to Dune.

Whoever is doing it – Pavich, film critics, Jodorowsky himself – it’s all in service of venerating Jodorowsky, not Dune, which is the real animus behind both Jodorowsky’s Dune and Jodorowsky’s Dune. There’s a telling moment when Jodorowsky’s charm fails him and he overreaches in his attempt to make himself out to be like the martyrs in his movies. He complains about how hard it was to make a movie in Mexico in the sixties, a weird, surrealist movie that most people didn’t understand. However, it’s not government censors or conservative financiers or illiterate producers who were trying to stop him. Nobody wanted to stop him. He simply didn’t want to pay union workers to work on the movie, and he dismisses Mexican labor laws as harmful to artists. He says something to the effect that artists need to be allowed to express themselves while simultaneously taking masochistic glee in how difficult the whole ordeal was.

I was raping Frank Herbert.

Jodorowsky’s disturbing metaphor of raping a bride on her wedding night is the kind of calculated shock imagery that’s been his bread and butter since the mid-1960s. We can’t accept it at face value without thinking of Jodorowsky as a horrifying creep, but we also can’t dismiss it as hot air without calling into question the artistic validity of the entire Dune project. If he doesn’t believe in this bizarre outrage, how can we think that he believes in any of the others?

I’m curious as to whether many of those hailing Jodorowsky’s Dune as one of the great documentaries about filmmaking – and, by extension, Dune as one of the great unfinished movies – have actually seen Jodorowsky’s other films. Pavich shows some clips from El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and they are a carefully chosen handful of particularly memorable moments, but they fail to convey the exhaustion of watching a Jodorowsky film beginning to end. Simply put, they’re sloppy and ugly, and every scene is so overstuffed with deliberate strangeness that it becomes boring. Jodorowsky’s obvious insincerity, both in his work and in interviews, makes them even duller. Despite the documentary’s insistence that Jodorowsky’s sensibilities are outlandish and unique, I agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum, who said that Jodorowsky’s films are “very easy to watch and almost impossible to remember afterward.”2

Nothing in Jodorowsky’s Dune suggests that Dune would have been any different, but that’s part of Pavich’s agenda. Jodorowsky capitalizes on the cachet of exclusivity, the wonderful feeling of being one of the elite few who “get it,” and, in treating it like a source of esoteric wisdom, Jodorowsky’s Dune makes the Dune project seem like a lost gnostic gospel. The fact that the film does not exist to substantiate any of this only reinforces its power. It’s ironically appropriate, considering that Herbert dramatizes that very religious phenomenon, but it’s not much of a contribution to cinema.

To hear Pavich’s interview subjects tell it, Jodorowsky is something like a hip Luis Buñuel or a psychedelic Orson Welles, but, in Jodorowsky’s Dune,he comes across more like a pretentious Ed Wood. To paraphrase Rosenbaum, Jodorowsky is fixated on convincing the audience of his own obsessiveness, while a truly obsessive filmmaker (like Buñuel or Welles or Kubrick) is too concerned with his obsessions to worry about it. Jodorowsky wants us to think he was obsessed with Dune so that the emotional ease with which he dropped it all when the money ran dry seems like difficult wisdom rather than cynical pragmatism. He’s a charlatan, somewhere between a hippie guru and P.T. Barnum, and, while Jodorowsky’s Dune attempts to deconstruct the myth of Hollywood supremacy with a classic outsider underdog story, it engages in some mythmaking of its own, either consciously or unconsciously. The studio executives who turned down Dune are never named nor given a chance to defend their actions. They’re simply part of a nebulous system that oppresses the visionary Jodorowsky. We also don’t hear from David Lynch (whose Dune film Jodorowsky mocks with hesitant schadenfreude) or the Herbert estate. The only person who matters is Jodorowsky. As the most complete account of Jodorowsky’s attempt to adapt Dune yet produced, Jodorowsky’s Dune mainly serves to displace the Dune film itself as a strut for holding up Jodorowsky’s reputation, and it may very well succeed.

  1. This is not a case of something being lost in translation, either. The verb respetar has the same implications in Spanish. []
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Cinematic Obsessions,” Chicago Reader, June 22, 1990 http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1990/06/cinematic-obsessions/ []