Cult Corner: Doomed adaptations

Just getting movies made might be the real miracle


As I sat in the theater on a recent Saturday night, watching director Denis Villenueve’s “Dune: Part 2” flicker across the screen, one thought passed repeatedly through my mind: “I can’t believe they pulled this off.”

So much is made of “movie magic” — the effects that make the impossible possible and help the audience suspend belief — which is impressive, sure. But the fact that a movie gets made at all is the truly impressive feat.

For all the films that reach the screen, there are hundreds that don’t, and some of those stories have warranted documentaries of their own.

The story of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel “Dune” reaching the big screen is an incredible one. “Dune” has seen two previous adaptations, one as a feature film in 1984 and one as a cable TV miniseries in 2001.

The first attempt at a “Dune” adaptation is a fascinating story unto itself. “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (2013) chronicles the doomed production. Chilean-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky signed on to adapt the novel in 1974. He assembled an incredible team of collaborators for pre-production, several of whom would go on to work together on “Alien” after the collapse of “Dune,” including the likes of illustrator Moebius, painter Chriss Foss and H.R. Giger, known for his airbrushed canvases.

The cast of this “Dune” adaptation was to include everyone from Salvador Dali to Mick Jagger to Jodorowsky’s own son. Pink Floyd was slated to do the score. It’s not surprising that the film eventually collapsed in pre-production, and still photos of the proposed costumes will likel y make viewers glad the film never came to fruition. Nevertheless, Jodorowsky’s passion is always a thing to behold, and the team he assembled would leave their mark on science fiction cinema within a few short years.

Filmmakers outside the studio system trade money and resources for creative freedom. Amateur filmmaker Mark Borchardt is a minor cult figure less for his creative output than for “American Movie,” a 1999 documentary that covers his struggle to write, direct, produce and act in the horror film “Coven,” which, in his thick idwest accent, is pronounced “COE-ven.”

Borchardt believes in himself even when actors are fed up, his own family doesn’t believe in him and others seem to just tolerate him. It’s an incredible story of personal passion about a project whose success is just possible enough to keep pushing forward, but whose director is unmoored enough from reality for the audience to question him. Borchardt’s co-conspirators are colorful enough that the film occasionally feels like it’s been written by comedic mockumentary stalwart Christopher Guest (“This is Spinal Tap,” “Best in Show”).

In 1984, a young David Lynch directed the first completed “Dune” movie adaptation. It was only his third film, having previously cut his teeth on two much smaller, independent productions of a very different nature. The myriad pressures of such a gargantuan project made him turn to much smaller films for the rest of his career.

Not all young directors are so lucky to make it out of their first big budget escapade unscathed. “Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau” (2014) chronicles director Stanley’s hiring and subsequent firing from his first major studio project. Stanley’s vision for the film, while grandiose, seems doable, but bad luck, studio pressure and the crushing egos of actors Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando ultimately did him in. He wouldn’t direct another feature film for more than 20 years.

Thompson, VHS.D, holds a doctorate of cult media in pop culture from University of Maine at Castle Rock. He delivers lectures on movies and other pop culture topics under the moniker Professor VHS. Find him on Instagram as @professorvhs and find more of his work at professorvhs.substack.com.