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'Doctor Strange' could have learned some lessons from 'Dune'

Posted November 11

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Doctor Stephen Strange in Marvel's new movie. (Deseret Photo)

The 1986 cinematic adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel “Dune” is largely considered one of the worst movies of all time, although I think that reputation is undeserved. If you’ve read the book upon which it is based, then you know that there’s no possible way to condense that amount of material into a two-hour viewing experience.

Reading “Dune” is challenging enough, as it requires you to repeatedly consult the lengthy glossary in the back of the book to make sense of all the science-fiction jargon that is heaped on you beginning on the first page. You keep asking yourself things like, “What’s a gom jabbar? Or a Bene Gesserit? What on earth is a Kwisatz Haderach? And is that anything like a Frumious Bandersnatch?”

Eventually, you wade through all of that and discover a rich and satisfying story, but a two-hour movie doesn’t have the same luxury of time in which to allow the viewer to become accustomed to the weirdness. For my part, I first watched the movie after having just reread the book, and I quite enjoyed it, but that’s not to say it’s a good movie. It isn’t. But it’s not really a movie, per se. It’s more like an illustrated storybook, with moving pictures accompanying the written text.

Characters stand still as chunks of the novel are voiced over to explain their thoughts. The entire movie is nothing but exposition, and I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t read the book being anything but baffled by it.

I thought about “Dune” as I watched “Doctor Strange,” the latest installment in the long line of Marvel comic book movies. It, too, is a literary adaptation of sorts, although the source material is a 50-year history of serialized comics far too voluminous to represent adequately in even a dozen movies. At the same time, the Doctor Strange story lends itself to episodic installments, so a movie only has to provide the first chapter, and the movie version does so more than adequately.

I don’t make the comparison between “Dune” and “Doctor Strange” to suggest that they are equally bad films. “Doctor Strange” is a lot of fun, although it’s not as good as some of the other entries in the Marvel canon. It’s biggest problem is that, like “Dune,” it tries to cover way too much ground in too short a time. It’s more successful in doing so than “Dune” was, but it was still a problem.

Let’s step back and look at everything we had to learn in order to appropriately digest this story. We meet Stephen Strange when he’s a brilliant-albeit-arrogant neurosurgeon. Within about five minutes, he suffers a devastating injury that robs him of the use of his hands, and about five minutes later, he’s on the front porch of an ancient mystic in Kathmandu who is teaching him how to be a sorcerer. We’ve barely had enough time to be introduced to this guy, and suddenly we’re being yanked along with him all over time and space into trippy worlds where each finger has its own hand. Those 10 minutes would have made for a satisfying full-length feature all on their own, but here, they’re just exposition laid down to make way for the weird mystical threat to the whole universe that also has to be introduced.

It’s too much, too soon.

Maybe it’s just that Marvel has spoiled me with its long-form superhero storytelling in its Netflix shows. “Doctor Strange” was a solid film, but it would have been better suited to a miniseries instead of a movie, whether or not he has his own gom jabbar.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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