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Dune - a beginner’s guide to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi universe

Check out our comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about the world of Dune, created by Frank Herbert and now a major franchise.

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune

A beginners guide to Dune. Denis Villeneuve, acclaimed director of Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, is the latest to take on Dune and bring the story to the big screen.

Villeneuve’s action movie is but the latest production based on Herbert’s work, and comfortably the biggest and most spectacular. Previous to this, one other cult adventure movie made it to the silver screen and another failed effort is one of Hollywood’s great “what if…?” scenarios. There have been strategy games, tabletop games, some lesser-known TV series, and more that chronicle the battle between House Harkonnen and House Atreides.

All of which is to say, transferring Dune from book to celluloid is something many have tried, and few have managed. Given this new attempt, we’re providing a comprehensive beginners guide to Dune and its history, so you have all the context you need to get the most out of the movie and its sandworms.

What is Dune?

Frank Herbert’s Dune is a sci-fi novel first published in 1965, about several planetary houses vying for a monopoly on Melange, a chemical that heightens cognitive function to incredible degrees. The characters of the universe have dubbed it ‘Spice‘, and abilities gleaned from intake range from interstellar travel to clairvoyance. It’s a metaphor for oil and drugs rolled into one, justifying the surrounding political tension.

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Everyone wants Spice because having it gives you power and wealth. In the base story, House Atreides is given control of desert planet Arrakis, the sole known source of Melange, by the Padishah Emperor, sovereign leader of the universe. The climate of Arrakis makes the mining process difficult as is, but then there are the gigantic, carnivorous sandworms that are attracted to any noise or landmass disturbance.

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House Harkonnen, embittered enemies to Atreides and previous Arrakis custodians, launch an assault mid-transition of supplies and people, in order to wipe out the rival clan. Paul Atreides, heir to House Atreides via father Duke Leto Atreides, survives the early sneak attack. His mother is part of the Bene Gesserit, a group of women who wield psychic abilities, and has trained him to be as strong cognitively as he is physically making him an unprecedented threat within the established hierarchy.


Together with the Atreides survivors, and Arrakis natives the Fremen, Paul seeks revenge on House Harkonnen. Without giving too much away, his path eventually leads him to Shaddam IV, the current emperor, in a sequence of events that shakes Herbert’s canon to its foundations.

One of the best-selling science fiction books of all time, Herbert turned Dune into a full on saga by penning six more sequels. Its influence can be felt across the spectrum of pop culture, especially in the likes of Star Wars – George Lucas was a mite shameless with his repeated use of the term “Emperor” – and it holds up as a pillar of modern genre storytelling.

What are the previous Dune movies and TV series?

The first attempt at a Dune movie was in the early ’70s, when Planet of the Apes producer Arthur P Jacobs bought the rights for a full motion picture. Several names were attached to write and direct, but nothing was formalised, and it all died on the vine after Jacobs’s passing in 1973. It wasn’t long before another, far more ambitious attempt started gaining steam.

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In 1974, surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky came on board. The cast to his movie was to include Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, and The Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, and prog legends Pink Floyd were going to do the soundtrack.

Jodorowsky’s treatments ranged from ten hours to 14 hours in length, and a pre-Alien H. R. Ultimately it all fizzled out due to over-ambition, but you can see it all chronicled in 2013’s Jodorowsky’s Dune, a fascinating documentary that highlights the mystique of Dune, and why sometimes a little oversight is crucial.

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Horror movie producer Dino De Laurentiis had a go next during the late ’70s, bringing in Ridley Scott to direct. Scott became frustrated by how slow it was, and left to make Blade Runner in the early ’80s. David Lynch, then an upstart making a name for himself thanks to Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, was drafted in to take over.

David Lynch's Dune

Lynch’s ’80s movie made it to screen – a campy, downbeat sci-fi drama starring Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides. David Lynch’s Dune has its fans, and for good reason: he captured the esotericism of Herbert’s prose, if not quite the majesty and opulence.

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All the while, the fervent fanbase wire living out their Melange-fueled dreams by playing Dune videogames and tabletop RPGs. In fact, 1992’s Dune 2, from Westwood Studios, created the blueprint for real-time strategy games as we know them now. Herbert has shaped modern, high-concept genre storytelling in ways that continue to heavily reverberate.

James McAvoy in Frank Herbert's Children of Dune

Some years later, the Sci-Fi Channel commissioned a sci-fi series from Day of the Dead composer and Tales from the Darkside director John Harrison. Frank Herbert’s Dune tackles the book in six-episodes, focusing more on character and the general socio-political landscape than the effects or action.

One of the most highly-rated broadcasts in the network’s history, the followup. Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, brought together the proceeding literary sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune.

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This all leads us to now, where Denis Villenueve has actually co-written, directed, and gotten an incredible version of Dune to open in theatres. That alone is something worthy of praise.

Is there more Dune coming?

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That is the plan. Dune is only one half of the novel, and Villeneuve has wrapped filming on Dune: Part 2, which is set to hit theatres in late 2023.

A spin-off TV series is also in the works, titled Dune: The Sisterhood. It will follow the formation of the Bene Gesserit order and explore the backstory to the Atreides and the Harkonnens. No release date is confirmed but the sci-fi series is expected to debut in 2024.

That’s it on Dune for now, as we wait for the Dune 2 release date and the Dune The Sisterhood release date. In the meantime, check out our guide to every major new movie in 2023 as well as our picks for the best movies of all time.