Of all the science fiction properties for Hollywood to flirt with, Dune was among both the best and the worst. Best, because a universe as cinematic as Frank Herbert's creation fairly begs to be filmed; worst, because filming it poses such logistical and commercial complications. Maybe a theatrical film or even a live-action TV series isn't the answer; maybe Dune ought to make the leap across the ocean and become one of the few Western science-fiction properties to be translated into anime. It brims over with things that fit the medium: an exotic setting, a determined young protagonist, an epic storyline, and a kaleidoscopic gallery of allies and adversaries.
The spice must flow; decades later, it still does
Far in the future, the planets mankind lives on are ruled by an assortment of noble houses, all under the rule of a single imperial throne. House Atreides has agreed to take stewardship of the wasteland planet Arrakis, sole source of a drug that has empowered mankind's disapora throughout the stars. But the villainous House Harkonnen has arranged for the betrayal and downfall of the Atreides. The family's young dauphin Paul and his mother Jessica flee, taking refuge with the Fremen who live in the desert and know its secrets — and who believe Paul is a messianic figure come to lead them to glory.
The story's mix of soft SF and the sort of historical epic-making favored by novelists like James Clavell remained mainly a favorite of SF and fantasy fans after it first appeared in 1965. But the ripples from its splash in that pool reached quite far outwards; a decade later, a young filmmaker named George Lucas would turn to Dune as partial inspiration for a "space-age fairy tale" project he was working on.
A few years later, Lucas turned to another visionary young director, David Lynch, as a possible hired gun for Return of the Jedi. Lynch elected instead to work on Universal Pictures's own cinematic adaptation of Dune. There were many ostensible reasons the movie was considered a failure — the clunky adaptation of the source material; the rinky-dink special effects; Lynch's overall penchant for weirdness. But there are just as many things in it that stand up: the stellar cast; the rightfully lauded set and costume design; and, yes, even Lynch's trademark weirdness, which helped give the movie the otherworldly flavor it needed and strove for.
What was missing was major and meaty chunks of the original story, something that would never be seen in an official director's cut. The longer TV version, assembled against Lynch's wishes, bore the pseudonym "Alan Smithee" used by directors to disown their material. For Lynch, Dune was a giant and painful chapter in his history, one he doesn't wish to revisit — certainly not in the form of assembling a proper director's cut. What seemed more likely was to commission an entirely new take on the material, one less hidebound by the constraints of a theatrical movie.
In 2000, that new take came along in the form of a SciFI Channel TV mini-series under the hand of director John Harrison. This four-hour-plus version benefited from being able to stretch out, build character, and delve deeply into the book's political machinations, albeit with some storyline tinkering to better explain certain things. It made up for the incoherence and truncation of Lynch's version, but it looked and felt cheap, and it had only a fraction of the star power of the former film. Lynch had the steely-eyed Jürgen Prochnow (Das Boot) as Paul's father Leto; this version had William Hurt — a fine actor (see: Kiss of the Spider Woman), but at soporific odds with this material.
The most infamous movie version of Dune is the one that was never made — the version that came perilously close to being realized by none other than holy madman Alejandro Jodorowsky. Among the artifacts that survive the wreckage of that production, most tantalizing are the production art and storyboards, with legendary bandes dessinées artist Jean "Moebius" Giraud providing character designs.
It's impossible not to look at this material, especially as laid out in the magnificent documentary about the not-making of that film, and think: Maybe animation should have been the medium all along, a way to take the grandeur and alien-ness of Lynch's version and fuse it with the story construction and fitting length of the TV version. And not just any old kind of animation, but anime specifically.
The sleeper must awaken
The first reason Dune seems well suited to an animated adaptation is the form factor. Even a half-cour, or thirteen-episode, TV series provides you with around 280 minutes of running time to play with, a touch longer than the runtime of the 2000 version, and nearly two hours longer than the "Smithee" TV edit of Lynch's version. It's possible to do more than enough justice to Herbert's story in that space.
What makes Dune suited to being an anime specifically, though, is the way so many of its individual elements incarnate naturally as anime tropes. I use the word "tropes" here in the positive sense, as storytelling building blocks that resonate with an audience primed to recognize them. Paul Atreides has many of the attributes of a classic shōnen hero — young, untested, but prepared to channel his raw determination into self-mastery and ultimately self-transcendence. He has great powers at his command, but is uncertain how to wield them, and is even more unnerved by why they exist in the first place. All this puts him in good company with the tormented protagonists of properties like Tokyo Ghoul or even Naruto.
Anime also trafficks regularly in exotic settings. Dune's universe is right in line with those of Gundam (and Macross) and Legend of the Galactic Heroes — and while I am not sure if Yoshiki Tanaka (Galactic Heroes) or Yoshiyuki Tomino (Gundam) are Dune fans, I wouldn't be surprised if it was Dune that had influenced them to begin with. What will be tough is putting Arrakis on the screen without it looking drab, or without falling back on a look that's more based on recycled Westerns (Trigun) or post-apocalyptic wasteland-warrior stuff (Desert Punk). Dune is neither of those things.
What makes me most confident that Dune could be done well is a number of other SF-anime projects that have hewed close to the same territory, even if with mixed results. The psychedelic adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, Gankutsuou, could serve as a reference point for how to bring a really otherworldly look to the production. Glass Fleet, despite its relatively poor production values, mixed fantasy and SF in roughly the same proportions as Dune, and had the kind of shameless audacity and complete conviction in itself that's needed for this material. Shangri-la is pure narrative and logical lunacy, but it too had brazen certainty in itself, and the kind of panoramic, war-of-all-against-all factional struggle Dune wraps its mainline story in. And the underappreciated Jyu-Oh-Sei: Planet Of The Beast King has the kind of old-school SF vibe reminiscent of the kind associated with Dune.
Wanna hear the rest? Buy the rights
The toughest part of such an adaptation, unfortunately, may be the simplest: getting the rights.
Two other anime adaptations that have struggled with this issue come to mind. The first is Gankutsuou, which was originally intended to be an adaptation of Alfred Bester's proto-cyberpunk 1956 masterwork The Stars My Destination — itself a loose adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo! When the rights to Bester's book proved unobtainable, the producers opted instead to adapt the source material and put their own Versailles-punk spin on it.
The second, even more problematic casualty is the disastrous anime adaptation of E.E. "Doc" Smith's old-school pulp SF classic series Lensman. It was released in 1984 with Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust) and Kazuyuki Hirokawa at the helm, and hasn't been seen since. Despite some interesting visuals by way of early experiments in CGI, the end result had virtually nothing to do with Smith's original ideas. It was subsequently disowned by Smith's estate and now resides in bootleg limbo — rightfully, one might say. That's the other risk anyone considering such a project also has to be willing to take on — the possibility that the estate of a highly esteemed property may withdraw its support because they dislike the finished product, and leave everyone else on the hook.
It's not difficult to see, in the wake of the two previous big-screen adaptations, why Herbert's estate would be highly unwilling to let just anyone make a pitch. Denis Villeneuve recently hinted he was attempting to gin up his own remake as the next big endeavor after his Blade Runner sequel, and noted that the rights were the hold-up. I imagine the other big issue there is getting a studio to pony up the needed money for such a project — another reason why an animated version would be a better deal, since it could be done on a sliver of the budget needed for a live-action project.
When I first read Dune, it was around the time Lynch's films had hit theaters, and so it was all but impossible for me to read it without seeing Lynch's casting and designs in my head. Later, with the TV version, various fan artworks, and Jodorowsky's storyboards, it was all too plain how Dune was ripe for any number of fantastic interpretations. For some high-profile anime studio to try their hand at it seems like the next logical step on that road.