Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Dune by Frank Herbert: A Good Version

When it comes to sci-fi novels, there may be none more revered than Frank Herbert's Dune, which I like to call the Lord of the Rings of science fiction. At it's heart, it's a sort of sci-fi Messiah tale, similar in many respects to Star Wars (except it came first) but with a staggering amount of world-building and mythology built in. I may as well tell you that I don't have a ton of interest in giving plot outlines on this blog. That's not what it's for. It's mostly about finding the right cast for it, and generally I assume that if you're reading the blog, you're already familiar with the source material.

In the case of Dune, however, there have already been two filmed versions; David Lynch's 1982 bomb and the somewhat-more-successful 2000 Sci-Fi Channel mini-series. Of the two, the mini-series was marginally better, at least in getting across the ideas in the novel, which the movie tried to compress into just over two hours, and, like a lot of movies based on long novels, poured a ton of detail into the first hour and then rushed the second.

I think Dune is pretty cinematic, and since its sequels mostly feature different characters and lots of time-jumps, I think it fits much better as a movie. Perhaps it could be turned into a six-hour "Event" television series, or perhaps it could follow Kill Bill and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and just split into two (three hour plus) movies. I'm good with either option, and it doesn't change my casting choices either way.

So, let's get this party started. First of all, we have our hero, Paul Atreides, son of the Duke of the planet Caladan, and young unlikely hero of the Fremen. Paul is described in the novel as being fifteen (though he is seventeen or eighteen before the novel concludes) and small for his age. Honestly, his being small is just kinda mentioned. The character's height really has nothing to do with how he is portrayed, and is probably just to make him seem even less likely to be a hero. Paul is often quiet, moody, intense and very intelligent. At the novel's start he is less moody, but the longer the novel goes on, the more of a brooder he becomes.

Anton Yelchin
To play the character, you want a young-looking actor capable of the sort of intensity Paul later shows while still able to play a privileged youth who was raised to be an heir to a Ducal title. For that, I pick Anton Yelchin, a very likeable young actor with a nice range who I think could easily handle both Paul's powerful and vulnerable sides. He's in his mid-twenties, which is okay, because he can be believed as a teenager, and as a young adult. He would, in fact, be the youngest actor to ever play the character.

Cate Blanchett
Paul's mother, and the female lead, is Lady Jessica, who is a Bene Gesserit "witch" that became his perpetually unmarried father's concubine. Jessica, as a Bene Gesserit, is secretive and manipulative, but also, as Paul's mother who loves the Duke very much, a solidly heroic character. She needs to look austere and mysterious without looking evil. Cate Blanchett should be able to pull that off.

The role of Duke Leto Atreides, Paul's father, Jessica's lover and, at the start of the story, the Duke of Caladan and also of Arrakis (the desert planet known colloquially as "Dune"), is not a huge part, but is very important and memorable, and will require a solid, recognizable actor in the part. Since he is nobility, he will have to look high-born and noble, but since he's a good man, it's important he also be likeable. I admit, I struggled with this one. None of the movies got the Duke right before. I struggle between Jason Isaacs and Mark Strong, with Strong ultimately winning out.
Mark Strong
Jason Isaacs
Yes, I know both men are known for playing bad guys, but their also actors with a ton of presence who have great range. Strong, to my mind, looks more like a noble, but if he's unavailable, I pick Isaacs.

The story's principle villain is Vladimir Harkonnen, the despicable Baron of the planet Geidi Prime, who is the other half of an ages-long feud between his house and House Atreides. He is secretly in league with the Paddishah Emperor and the Spacing Guild to destroy House Atreides. He is described in the book as being grossly fat, to a degree that he needs an anti-grave belt to even stand up, and speaking in a rumbling "basso" voice. He had red hair as a young man, but that's not important to the character, plus you could even make him bald.

Neither film version really cast him well. They just went for a heavy-set actor. Baron Harkonnen is supposed to be almost inhumanly fat. After going through a number of fat actors such as Pruitt Taylor Vince, Timothy Spall and Simon Fisher-Becker, I decided that it was far more important that the actor chosen have villainous gravitas and an evil look than that he be overweight. After all, there's probably no one outside of Guinness World Champions who would be fat enough, so I decided to choose a creepy, evil looking actor and let a thousand pounds of latex (like so) take care of the rest. I chose Hugo Weaving.
Hugo Weaving
And that should be all I have to say about that.

Ellen Page
From here, it gets a little harder. I'll start off with Paul's Fremen lover, Chani, who is supposed to be physically small and rather elfin. I know that some people equate the desert-dwelling Fremen with a middle-eastern look, but to be honest, I just don't know enough middle-eastern actresses the right age and look. I'm sure there are some, but I'm not familiar with enough of them. So I'm sticking with my first choice, which was Ellen Page.
She's a tiny little wisp of a thing that just looks so much like Chani is described that I can't see anyone else. Well, I considered Chloe Grace Moretz, but she is still a child, and whoever plays Chani will need to be able to do at least one nude scene. By the way, yes, I know Ms. Page came out recently. Words cannot describe how little I care. I say that because I don't want the comments section to devolve into a discussion of her sexuality.
Ray Stevenson
For the Fremen leader Stilgar, I went with a guy who is large and powerful, yet capable of some powerful acting with some grand presence. Ray Stevenson seems more than capable of pulling off this part. For the Imperial Planetologist turned Fremen sympathizer Dr. Liet-Kynes, well, honestly this part is kinda nondescript and could be played by any solid actor over the age of 55. I choose Jonathan Pryce because, well, he's a solid actor, and over 55.
Jonathan Pryce

Ray Winstone
Now we come to the supporting characters; that colorful cast that Dune is known for. I'll start with the three House Atreides retainers who seem to be commonly associated with each other: the Mentat Thufir Hawat, the musical Marshall Gurney Halleck, and the traitorous physician Dr. Wellington Yueh. Hawat and Yueh are short on descriptors, other than to describe both as old men, but Gurney is described as short, squat, blonde, ugly and baring a scar (which makeup would take care of). For whatever reason, they gave this role to Patrick Stewart in the movie version. What? Today, the best man I can think of for the job is Ray Winstone. He's short and compact, and while not hideous he's not handsome, either.
Michael Gambon
Plus, he looks like he could kick your ass. Hawat is a man whose mind has been enhanced to the point where he's practically a human computer. He's kind of a Dumbledore to Paul, at least at the start of the novel, though the way he's used is far different. So different, that I don't mind him being played by, well, Dumbledore. Seriously, I think Michael Gambon fits this part quite well.

While we're on the subject of actors from Harry Potter, I'm sorry, but I just can't help but picture Alan Rickman in the role of Potter cast in this movie. Most of my choices aren't Potter related. But read the book and tell me he wouldn't be great.
Alan Rickman
Dr. Yueh. I can't put a finger on why. He just seems right in the role. And no, this isn't a case of just wanting all the

The final Atreides retainer is swordmaster Duncan Idaho. Idaho is not a large role, but he's a fan
Benedict Cumberbatch
Michael Fassbender
favorite and considered the breakout character of the book, so he should be played by someone memorable. At the moment I'm torn between Michael Fassbender and burgeoning geek god Benedict Cumberbatch. At the moment, I still lean toward Fassbender, but something tells me that fans will "sqee" at the idea of Cumberbatch in the part. Perhaps I should put up a poll on the subject.

Douglas Booth
I know that up until now, everyone reading this has been asking "What about Sting's part!? Where's Sting's character?" Well, the funny thing is, the character Sting played in the original film is, well, not that large a role. It's not a tiny one, certainly, but he's a second tier villain; Feyd-Rautha, the nephew and heir apparent to Baron Harkonnen. A lot of people seem to remember him the most from the original film, possibly due to who played him. Personally, I don't think a big star is necessary here. A charismatic actor, sure, but not a major name. Feyd-Rautha is young (around 16 in the book), brash, sneers a lot, and is a little, well, fey. I think Douglas Booth comes closest to how the book describes him, but then, his Romeo & Juliet costar Ed Westwick also seems to have the attitude necessary for Feyd. I think I'm gonna stick with Booth, for now, though. He's more fey.

While we're casting the second-tier villains, let's look at the other half of the anti-Atreides conspiracy, the Paddishah Emperor Shaddam IV. The character doesn't actually appear on-page much in the novel, but is nonetheless a pretty central role who needs to be featured. He's described as looking much younger than his eighty-plus years, with red hair. I was watching Doctor Who when I saw the perfect Emperor; Scottish ginger-haired middle-aged character actor Tony Curran.
Tony Curran
Imogene Poots
I know some think a major name should be used here, but honestly, why waste the budget on walk-on roles for huge-name actors? Curran will do just fine. Might as well cast his daughter, Irulan, while we're here. Not a villainous role, indeed not a large role in the novel at all, but an important one (man, this book's full of them!), but tall, willowy Imogene
Poots seems a good fit for the role.

Moving on, we have creepy Mentat Piter DeVries, creepier eunuch Count Hasomir Fenring, and hulking brute (and Feyd-Rautha's half-brother) Count Glossu Rabban. These are sorta the henchmen roles. Piter is the Baron's personal Mentat, and is described as having a "killer's smile". Basically, whoever plays Piter is gonna have to be one creepy dude, one you would never trust to turn your back on. Few do creepy so well as James Frain.

James Frain
Speaking of creepy, the aforementioned Fenring is creepy, but in a much less hostile way. You're less afraid that he'll knife you in the back and more afraid that he'll...erm..."knife" you in the back...end. I struggled over this one. He's not really a well-described character. But I eventually decided that creepy character actor would be the way to go. I'm against Brad Dourif being in this because he played Piter in the original, but Jeffrey Combs, who is great at
Jeffrey Combs
playing camp creepy characters, would rock this part.

 The last role I consider necessary to choose an actor for is the semi-villainous Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim. Yes, there are other major characters, but I'm gonna let them remain uncast because they could end up either cut or minimized to walk-on roles. The Reverend Mother's role cannot be done that way, however; pretty critical character, here. Really, any older actress with gravitas could play this character, but after seeing the most recent Robin Hood movie, I'm choosing Eileen Atkins, who looks amazing for her age and is a terrific actress.
Eileen Atkins

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