David Lynch’s 1984 sci-fi epic Dune is—in many ways—a misbegotten botch job. Still, as with more than a few ineffectively ambitious films before it, the artistic flourishes Lynch grafted onto Frank Herbert’s sprawling Machiavellian narrative of warring space dynasties have earned it true cult classic status. Today, fans of the film, which earned a paltry $30 million at the box office and truly bruising reviews upon its release, still wonder what Lynch would have done if given the opportunity to adapt the next two novels in Herbert’s cycle: Dune Messiah and Children of Dune.
Franchising was the plan before the first film crashed and burned, with Lynch and star Kyle MacLachlan (playing Paul Atreides) set to shoot both Dune sequels back-to-back in 1986. Miniature spaceship models, costumes, and props from the first film were placed in storage by producer Dino De Laurentiis for use on these follow-ups, while the director hammered away on a Dune II script. “I wrote half a script for the second Dune. I really got into it because it wasn’t a big story,” he says in Lynch on Lynch, “more like a neighborhood story. It had some really cool things in it.”
During the two years I spent putting together my book A Masterpiece in Disarray: David Lynch’s Dune—An Oral History, I had no luck uncovering Lynch’s script for Dune II, despite Frank Herbert telling Prevue magazine in December 1984 that he possessed a copy and was advising Lynch on it. “Now that we speak the same ‘language,’ it’s much easier for both of us to make progress, especially with the screenplays,” Herbert told the publication. Then, in July 2023, within the Frank Herbert archives at California State University, Fullerton, I came across a slim folder with a sticky note declaring “Dune Messiah script revisions,” addressed to the second floor of VFX man Barry Nolan’s office in Burbank where Lynch supervised the final effects shoots and editing on Dune.
Inside the folder lay the stuff of fans’ dreams, never made public until now: 56 pages dated “January 2nd-through-9th, 1984,” matching Lynch’s “half a script” statement. Complete with penned annotations by Herbert, the Dune II script shows Lynch was still enthusiastic about the material, lending new significance to minor details in the ’84 film. He also cracked a way to tell the complex story of Herbert’s 1969 novel Dune Messiah, easily the least cinematic book in the series due to its emphasis on palace intrigue over action, along with the inner turmoil of a reluctant dictator (Paul Atreides) in place of a traditional hero’s journey. It may ring of sacrilege to some, but Lynch’s Dune II would have bested Herbert’s book—and been one hell of a movie.
While writing this piece I reached out to Lynch for comment, since his Dune II script had never been discussed in detail publicly. He stated, through an assistant, that he “sort of remembers writing something but doesn’t recall ever finishing it.” As Dune is “a failure in his eyes and not a particular time that he likes to think of or talk about,” he politely declined to speak to me.
The Lynch Touch
“I’m writing the script for Dune II. Dune II is totally Dune Messiah, with variations on the theme. … Dune Messiah is a very short book, and a lot of people don’t like it, but in there are some really nifty ideas. I’m real excited about that, and I think it could make a really good film. It starts 12 years later, and this creates a whole new set of problems. … It should have a different mood. … It should be 12 strange years later.” —David Lynch, Starburst #78 (January 1985)
Of the many differences between Dune Messiah in novel form and David Lynch’s script, the biggest lay in the opening pages, which detail what happens in the aftermath of the scene in the first Dune movie when the Harkonnens bombed the Atreides’ fortress in Arrakeen, the capitol of the desert planet Arrakis. In the hallway where Duncan Idaho (Richard Jordan) was shot in the head, his shielded dead body still floats on the floor, humming and sparking.
From out of the shadows emerges a familiar face: the Baron’s Doctor (Leonardo Cimino). Thought to be the only speaking part created specifically for Dune by Lynch, we learn this Doctor was actually Scytale, a shape-shifting “face dancer” crucial to the plot of Herbert’s second book. Going back to Dune ’84, you may not have noticed Cimino’s Doctor accompanied Baron Harkonnen during the Arrakeen attack. The Doc is absent after that, even as the Baron yells creepily, “Where’s my doctor?” That’s because Doc/Scytale absconded with Duncan’s body. This Easter egg is Lynchian world-building at its best.
Scytale’s 12-year odyssey reanimating “dead Duncan Idaho” into the ghola named Hayt on the nightmarish Bene Tleilax world (mentioned by Paul in Dune) constitutes the entire opening 10 minutes of the script. Lynch calls the planet Tleilax “a dark metal world with canals of steaming chemicals and acids.” Those canals, Lynch writes, are lined with “dead pink small test tube animals.” Initiating Dune II with a focus on Scytale foregrounds him to primary antagonist, unlike Herbert’s book where myriad conspirators work against Paul.
“Lynch’s favorite set during production of Dune was Giedi Prime, with machinery and flesh alterations fitting his artistic sensibilities,” says Mark Bennett, founder of the DuneInfo website, after reading the unearthed script. “For Messiah, Lynch decided that Bene Tleilax could be co-opted for his style, since it isn’t described in the novel.”