A Brief Guide to Dune (and the Upcoming Movies)

Two years ago in November, my father died. He had suffered from a chronic illness for years until, finally, succumbing to it just before I’d planned to move out. I was given a choice: delay the move until after my dad’s funeral or see it through and mourn him when the time came. I saw it through and moved to Brighton two days later, with my aunt’s help. On the way down, I read a book about a young man who had also lost his father. He too was starting a new life, but everything else about him – his background, the cause of his father’s death, and his new home – couldn’t have been more different. His name was Paul Atreides. And the book was Dune.

Published in 1965, Dune is the first in a series of bestselling sci-fi novels by Frank Herbert. It follows Paul, heir of the Great House Atreides, as he moves with his family to the planet Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune). It’s a desert world branded the most barren place in the universe, yet it’s the only source of the most treasured drug in the universe: the “spice” melange. The drug prolongs life, enhances mental abilities, and makes space travel possible. Whoever controls the spice controls the universe – and that makes Arrakis a prize to kill for. At the order of Galactic Emperor Shaddam IV, House Atreides move to Arrakis to take control from their hated rivals, the Harkonnens. However, the Baron Vladimir – head of the Harkonnen family – plans to wipe out the Atreides and take Arrakis back. With a traitor’s help, Paul’s father is killed, and his forces are scattered. Only Paul and his mother, the concubine Jessica, escape into the planet’s southern regions. The Harkonnens leave them for dead, but Paul and Jessica find help from an unexpected source: the Fremen; a community of desert people who suffered under the Harkonnens. The Fremen have a prophecy that a messiah, Muad’dib, will come from off-planet to free them and turn Arrakis from a desert planet into a lush, green paradise. Paul and Jessica exploit the prophecy, presenting himself as Muad’dib to win the Fremen over. With their help, they plan to take revenge on the Harkonnens – but there’s a price to pay for the Fremen’s allegiance… and more to their enemy’s plans than the Atreides expect.

It’s hard to describe Dune in just a few words. Arthur C. Clarke called it the sci-fi equivalent of The Lord of the Rings, while Denis Villeneuve thinks of it as Star Wars for adults. However, neither description is spot-on. Dune’s universe is just as intricate as Middle-earth, but it’s not your typical story of good vs. evil; and although it has a lot in common with Star Wars, it was published twelve years before the world met Luke Skywalker. Some of you may be surprised to hear that it shares elements with another popular series: royal houses at war with each other; organisations plotting behind their backs; clashes between politics and religion; and a seat of power everyone and their brother wants. If you pictured Game of Thrones in space, you're on the right track. The violence, language and sex are milder, but that’s forgivable since Herbert wrote Dune long before George R. R. Martin wrote A Game of Thrones. And Herbert left quite the legacy – in 1966 Dune won the first Hugo & Nebula book awards, and today it’s the bestselling sci-fi novel of all time! Five sequels followed it, and after Herbert died in 1986, his son Brian took charge of the franchise. Brian wrote another two sequels from his father’s notes, and eleven prequels with acclaimed writer Kevin J. Anderson. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s now an executive producer of an upcoming film adaptation of Dune (we’ll come back to it later).

Dune has many themes and stories to tell, but at its heart it’s about a boy fighting to make a name for himself in a new, harsh world. In his journey, Paul Atreides learns from many people – and his two most important teachers are the Bene Gesserit and the Fremen. The Bene Gesserit (BG for short) are a sisterhood that aims to control human breeding and create a superbeing with their unique skills and more. Paul’s mum Jessica was a BG Lady, but she defied their orders by giving birth to him and teaching him in the BG way. A BG student can control every muscle and nerve in their body, allowing them to think and act faster than the average person. They can resist poisons, suppress their instincts, and deduce a person’s character from the very smallest clues. By taking spice, they can see the future – and a select few can even tap into ancestral memories through large doses. The BG’s skills have limits, of course, but they remain vital to Paul’s survival on Arrakis. Later in the book, he finds new teachers in the Fremen; the blue-eyed natives of his new home. To survive in the deserts, the Fremen conserve all the water they can. They wear stillsuits to reclaim body moisture, distil water from the dead, and even use water as money among their tribes. They train themselves to fight from infancy, and even their women are fearsome! The Fremen have to be tough because they face death wherever they go – from the heat, the Harkonnens… and enormous sandworms. Sandworms are the top predators of Arrakis, armed with crystalline teeth and tempers that would make the Graboids from Tremors squirm! However, instead of hunting them, the Fremen have learned to live with them. How they do it is a lesson both Paul and you will learn in reading the book – and it’s just the beginning.

If you’d rather watch a screen adaptation, I have some good news and bad news. First, the bad: there are only two right now and they both have their flaws. The first is David Lynch’s 1984 film starring Kyle MacLachlan. It has an all-star cast, unique visuals, and a rocking soundtrack… but little else to justify its cult classic status. Lynch wrote and directed the film, but sadly, he hadn't read the book nor was he interested in sci-fi. The result was a two-hour film that suffered from horrible pacing, incessant voiceovers, and characters radically different from Herbert's creations. It was a commercial and critical failure, and Lynch disavowed the film upon its release. His producers made an extended cut without his permission and, incredibly, it turned out worse than Lynch’s version. We wouldn’t get a decent adaptation until sixteen years later. In 2000 the Sci-fi Channel (known today as SyFy) produced its own version of Dune, written and directed by John Harrison. Frank Herbert’s Dune was made to be truer to the novel than Lynch’s film and, to that end, it was made into three feature-length episodes. The series was held back by a low budget and some clunky, expository dialogue… but it fared better than Lynch’s film and remains the most successful adaptation of Dune to date. It won two Emmy awards for its special effects and cinematography, and its success led to a superior follow-up, Children of Dune, starring James McAvoy. Both series were released on DVD, but sadly, they’re both out of print. If you find copies of them in good condition, I suggest you get them immediately. For now, they’re the best way to experience Dune if you don’t have the time to read the books.

Now, for the good news… three years ago, Legendary Pictures bought the film and TV rights to the Dune franchise – and they just started work on a new film! Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) is directing the film, and he’s called together a cast including Timothee Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Zendaya, and Stellan Skarsgard to name a few. They started filming in March in Hungary, and video diaries by Chalamet and Brolin have revealed they’ll be filming in Jordan too. There’ll also be talent from Game of Thrones involved – Jason Momoa has joined the cast, and Dothraki linguist David J. Peterson is creating languages for the new film. We don’t know yet how long it’s going to be, but Villeneuve plans to make the film in two parts; a smart choice given the sheer length of the novel. The two-film approach has worked well for Harry Potter, It, and the Avengers, so this writer hopes it will do just as well for Dune. The first part will be released by Warner Bros. on November 20th 2020, so keep an eye out for further features and a review nearer the time. Until then, keep you knife arms free – and your shields at full charge!

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