Writers and their families tend to be careful about adaptations. When cult novels are adapted for the screen there is an additional pressure of millions of hardcore fans determined to shred the director to pieces at the slightest offense against the original plot. But for the soon-to-be-released new adaptation of the Frank Herbert sci-fi novel Dune, the first issue, at least, seems not to be a problem.
“It’s amazing,” says Herbert’s grandson Byron Merritt, who lives in Marina, of the film. “On the scale of The Lord of the Rings.”
His grandfather first gave him a copy of the book when it was published in 1965. Merritt was 15 years old and gave up 40 pages in, only to rediscover Dune for himself in his mid-20s. He immediately devoured the entire series (the saga has six volumes).
“I spent several summers and many holidays with my grandfather,” Merritt says. “He was a very brilliant man. I remember his massive library in Washington state. He had sci-fi, but also sociology and other topics. He was a voracious reader, a speed reader, too. He would finish a book in three hours.”
The biggest misconception about Dune is that (some readers believe) Herbert, who died in 1986, was trying to create his own religion. “It was the last thing he wanted to do because he thought that religion is a tool to manage the masses,” Merritt says. “He was afraid of religion and charismatic leaders.” That’s why, according to his grandson, Herbert’s least favorite president was John F. Kennedy, the charming and charismatic leader. His favorite was supposedly Richard Nixon, because Nixon taught us that we can’t trust people.
Merritt thinks the mistake originated from concentrating too much on volume one. “Keep reading,” Merritt encourages.
There have been two screen adaptations of Dune to date. In David Lynch’s 1984 production, the setting and costumes by Italian designers were top-notch, Merritt remembers his grandfather observing. The story suffered a bit; Lynch and Herbert agreed many great scenes were left out. In a miniseries by John Harrison (2000-2004) the situation was the opposite. The storytelling was spot on, but the costumes and setting could have used some Italian designers.
Merritt has read Dune 12 times in full and spent a lot of time talking to his grandfather about the tiniest details of the plot. Does he still subscribe to a theory that each read brings a different experience and new insights?
“Absolutely,” he says. “I’m more and more struck by the book’s environmentalism that I did not see at first. It’s so interesting to read it in the context of the politics of oil and the Middle East.”
DUNE opens Thursday, Oct. 21 at Century Marina, Maya Cinemas, Century at Northridge Mall, Cinemark Monterey at Del Monte Center and Lighthouse Cinemas in P.G.