DUNE the book is to "Dune" the movie what the Sahara is to the sandbox. David Lynch's disastrous film adaptation of Fank Herbert's science-fiction classic turns epic to myopic.

Herbert's was a complex vision of a feudalistic future peopled with desert fanatics called Fremen, Space Guildsmen stoned on a drug called melange, Bene Gesserit witches who plotted supremacy through their breeding program, and giant marauding sandworms.

Lynch touches on as many plot elements as possible to please the millions of Doonies and so sacrifices the book's essence -- the intrigue, the ecology, the mysticism, even the romance that went into the making of a messiah. What remain are lots of characters, lots of cameos, lots of costumes, lots of sandworms, and, of course, lots of sand.

Kyle MacLachlan stars as Paul Atreides, the ducal heir who becomes leader of the Fremen of Dune and later the Kwisatz Haderach, a sort of teen-age ayatollah. MacLachlan, dressed in what looks like a band uniform, serves up a Haderach who's part Liberace, part Lone Ranger. Francesca Annis costars as Paul's mother, the Lady Jessica, who aids her son in his plan to avenge his father and the Fremen against their common enemy, the Harkonnen.

The performances are not bad as biblical- type epics go, but the actors really don't get much of a chance to act. "Dune" is largely about visions stimulated by imbibing the planet's fabled melange. We can't see inside heads, so we get big shots of Paul on screen thinking. Acting becomes a matter of keeping a knowing look on your face during voice- overs.

The exception is the chatty Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen), a narrator who cuts in from time to time with plot updates like "two years pass." Then Lynch gets back to the worms, which look like elephant trunks with flower petal lips that they use to suck up trucks. Despite all the hoopla, they're less interesting than the grotesque Guild Navigators, also created by Carlo Rambaldi.

Grotesqueries are David "Eraserhead" Lynch's hallmark. The Harkonnen -- Sting as Feyd Rautha, Paul Smith as the Beast Rabban, Kenneth McMillan as the Baron Vladimir -- are actually more figments of his than Herbert's imagination. The latter created a ruthless, brilliant family to be feared rather than loathed. Lynch's villains are repulsive psychopaths who drain pustules, eat live cows, torment cats and disembowel young men for sexual pleasure.

It's often as difficult to watch as it is to follow the plot of "Dune," even if you've read the book four times (as this reviewer has). If you must go, at least do so before dinner. DUNE -- At area theaters.