Now that we've all reconciled ourselves sourly to the idea that Peter "The Kingdom" Berg will be directing a big-budget remake of Dune, it's time to talk about what the Dune movie really should be: a generation-spanning epic about war, full of vast, dramatic landscapes ala The Searchers or Lawrence of Arabia. Nobody adapting Dune for the screen (big or small) seems to understand that the book isn't so much about spaceships and giant worms as it is about landscape. We've got some suggestions for Berg before he starts filming.
Arrakis, the "desert planet," full of blinding sands and barren, eye-splitting beauty, should be the star of the show. Consider, for example, how director David Lean depicted the vastness of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. You can see two tiny figures slowly making their way along a dune in this clip, and only after we've absorbed the hugeness do we finally get a closeup of the humans.
John Ford's The Searchers, a movie about a posse of men (led by John Wayne) searching for a woman kidnapped by Natives in the Old West, was filmed on location in Utah and Arizona's Monument Valley. It's an epic set in another kind of desert — one full of vast, eroded rocks and huge, haunting pillars carved by wind. It's the kind of place you might easily find on Arrakis, and should serve as a model for Berg. Notice how the landscape swallows up the people, providing a frame and a sense of power.
What Berg should also absorb from these filmmakers is their sense for character-driven drama that takes place within an action-packed war zone. There are fights and spilled blood aplenty in both Lawrence of Arabia and The Searchers, but what people remember about both films are the intense characters that drive the stories. We know that Berg can make a war movie, and that he gets the fact that there's a parallel between Middle Eastern politics and science fiction. (See clip from The Kingdom, below, with the weird reference to Saudi Arabia being "like Mars.")
But can Berg make the transition from an interior-heavy flick like The Kingdom, where the Mars-Saudi Arabia parallel borders on xenophobia, to a film set in wide-open spaces where the desert terrorists are the romantic heroes? Remember, if you want to read Dune as an allegory about the Middle East (and you should), the heroes are the guys who live in caves and bomb the shit out of the developed-world imperialists who've come to suck up their spice.
So Berg's got a lot on his plate if he wants to make a truly kickass Dune worthy of the epic sweep of the novels. He needs to learn how landscape on film can speak for itself. And he also needs to give us a desert people full of heroes and justice-seekers rather than the alien villains of The Kingdom.
Image of Monument Valley by Duane Shoffner.