Scaling the Mt. Everest of Creativity: Dune and The Power & Mythos of the Unfilmable Novel


One of the more interesting stories of the past week was, once again, that Dune has been optioned for film & television once again. Legendary bought the rights from the Frank Herbert Estate. While Bad Santa 2 flopped, and Doctor Strange might be the peak of comic book films, Dune getting tackled one more time is insanely fascinating.

A novel series, “Dune” was written by Frank Herbert and is the first of a series of six novels. It’s a landmark of science fiction novels and has been already attempted to get made, twice, with similar results. The first attempt was in the 1980s and turned out be a substantial failure both creatively and commercially. SciFi tried again in the early 2000s, as well, but it didn’t wind up catching on like they thought it would. Now, after a respite, someone is at it again because Dune is still the holy grail by which we judge the notion of the “unfilmable novel” by.

There’s a reason why people still want to try and turn an epic novel into either a film or a television series. Think of it like the Mount Everest of Creativity. Everyone wants to be able to create something amazing out of such a profound, and influential, work but being actually able to do so is insanely difficult. Tackling “Dune” is akin to tackling the rest of the great unfilmable novels still out there like “A Confederacy of Dunces,” “Brave New World” or any other of the massive listicles that develop when another of the great (but insanely difficult to film) novels actually does get made.

It last occurred when World War Z turned from a series of perspectives above the zombie apocalypse into a generic Brad Pitt actioneer about zombies, and it’ll occur again when another of these novels gets made. It’s a built-in listicle that allows you to flaunt your knowledge of novels, mainly, from a film writer perspective. I always think if Travis Leamons wrote one it’d be interesting, because he’s a voracious reader, but they’re also easy because they’re a listicle as well.

You just have to find 10 novels released in the past 10-20 years that would require either a significant budget, or a significant trimming, to make into a proper film. I’d only add in “Kiln People” by David Brin into something I’d throw on there, mainly because it’s most likely an R-rated $200 million feature if done properly. I read it for a Philosophy course many moons ago, and wrote a wildly uninteresting paper focusing on it, thus it would be on my list. It’s a tremendous novel but not one that would be an easy adaptation, either.


Everyone with any sort of intellectual curiosity has one book they’ve read that hasn’t been made into a film, and would be difficult to do so, that would qualify. And its why efforts will always be made to try. It’s a genuine challenge in an industry that doesn’t provide many.

Dune is such a massive undertaking that pulling it off, and pulling it off well, is cinematic immortality. It’s why these books are such foreboding tasks that people will always want to go after as cinematic properties. Zack Snyder tried with Watchmen and gave us about as good a film as one could make in under three hours. Brad Pitt’s film … not so much. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was one of the year’s finest in 2011. Cloud Atlas … not so much.

Adapting the Herbert Novel again, for a third time, feels like it’ll start off as a film and wind up as a Netflix series after a long time in development. And no matter what the end product it won’t be as good as some people think it could be, either. But trying to tackle “Dune” into a film or television property is going to an area of the highest level of risk/reward. Fail and you’ll be among the rest who dropped a lackluster product, or none at all. Succeed … and cinematic immortality is in sight.

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Scott Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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