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

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune

Denis Villeneuve, famed director of science fiction movies Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, has a new adaptation of Dune about to come out. Sprawling and epic, the latest attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s intergalactic war for control of the space drug Spice to the big screen in one of the year’s most highly anticipated blockbusters.

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 with middling results, while another failed effort is one of Hollywood’s great “what if…?” scenarios. There have been strategy games, tabletop games, some lesser-known TV series, featuring early work from current A-listers, 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 comprehensive bridge notes on 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.

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.

Dune

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?

One of the main attractions to Herbert’s storytelling over the years has been his dedication to worldbuilding. The entire Dune series is dense in lore and mythology, its timelines and character arcs full of weighty historical context. No one person is the be all and end all of any given story, and when someone dies, another perspective comes in and we continue onward. Everything is part of something greater, allowing one to really sink into the world.

This makes for wonderful reading, but it’s problematic for anyone looking to transfer to another medium. Numerous filmmakers and creatives have expressed interest or attempted to adapt Dune, only a few have succeeded, and what they managed to achieve hasn’t quite lived up to the scope of Herbert’s prose.

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The first 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 to lead what was planned to be one of the biggest, most expensive, and ridiculous pictures of all time. The cast 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. Giger was already designing the environments. Around ten million dollars was given to the production budget, and a chunk of that was spent before cameras were even close to rolling. 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. Famously, Lynch turned down working on Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi for Dune, a choice we all benefited from.

David Lynch's Dune

Lynch’s ’80s movie made it to screen – a campy, downbeat sci-fi drama starring Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides. Lots of exposition and limited resources make it a curious, slightly awkward thing to watch. You can feel the grandeur, but you can’t really see it, and Sting’s there, half-naked.

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. The nearly two decades it took for this to happen made many believe the book was just kind of unfilmable – full of knotted subplots and impossible sounding architecture and interstellar highways made possible by space cocaine. That freighter-sized worms are just one of many question marks around the overall feasibility spoke some volumes.

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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. They show their age a little now, but that second series is notable for having pre-X-Men James McAvoy as Leto II Atreides, the eventual son of Paul Atreides.

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On the back of those productions, Jon Berg, director of Dwayne Johnson movie The Rundown, and Hancock, and Taken director Pierre Morel were attached to another feature that didn’t go anywhere. This all leads us to now, where Denis Villenueve has actually co-written, directed, and gotten a 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 is ready to start filming on Dune: Part Two as soon as he gets the greenlight. Warner Bros seems confident in the property, with a spin-off being developed for HBO Max. But nothing is confirmed, and the best thing you can do to help make it happen is see the film when it’s available.

Where can I watch all of these?

You can find most of them on Amazon Prime. Through the streaming service, you can access Jodorowsky’s Dune, David Lynch’s Dune, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune. If you’d like a free trial for Amazon Prime, you can sign up through our affiliate link.

You can also find all of Frank Herbert’s books, allowing you to become a certified expert in sandworms, Spice, and everything nice. Actual interplanetary travel not included – for now, anyway.

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Anthony McGlynn

Staff writer

Updated: Oct 18, 2021


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