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Dune – House Atreides and House Harkonnen explained

The new science fiction movie franchise Dune is all about House Atreides and House Harkonnen battling for Spice - who are they, and why do they hate each other?

Dune: House Atreides and House Harkonnen explained

Who are House Harkonnen and House Atreides in Dune? The warring families form the central conflict of Frank Herbert’s novel, now made into a science fiction movie blockbuster by Denis Villeneuve. Two opposing sides who wish to be the sole arbiters of Spice throughout the universe, their bitterness spans generations, and the events of Dune do little to quell anyone’s feelings.

The lore and shared history within Herbert’s Dune books are such that there’s a lot to dive into if you want to know everything about every character. Layers of nepotism, political manoeuvring, and plain old colonialism hoist up just about every character and their situation at the point Dune starts.

There’s not a lot of explanation either, at least, not in Villenueve’s interpretation, which wisely glosses over some of Herbert’s more verbose explanations. It’d be a stretch to call our work genre-defining – insofar as “know things about pop culture” is a genre – but we have a penchant for taking something complicated, and giving you the simplest explanation. So that’s what we’re doing for House Atreides and House Harkonnen at the core of Dune.

Who is House Atreides?

Our protagonists, the Atredies family rule over planet Caladan, a beautiful homeworld not unlike Earth with its greenery and large bodies of water. In the science fiction movie Dune, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is the patriarch of Caladan, and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) of the Bene Gesserit is his partner. They have a son, Paul Atreides, who is due to inherit the Atreides kingdom in whatever shape it’s in.

Insofar as it can be when under any monarchy, life on Caladan is relatively carefree. Leto favours using the land for resources, and resists trying to enforce strict laws for his people. As a result, the population is considered satisfied, or at least, more satisfied than those on other planets. You can get a sense of this in the green cliffs Leto and Paul talk on while on Caladan, and the way Leto speaks about protecting his family, and harnessing new energies. They’re forward-thinking and humane.

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Within the Spice paradigm, House Atreides is one of two major forces which exist in close proximity to the Padishah Emperor, who oversees the entire universe. The other is House Harkonnen, who are told to stop mining on Arrakis and leave, so House Atreides can take over.

Dune: House Atreides Atreides and House Harkonnen explained

Essentially, when it comes to the proliferation of Spice and other resources, House Atreides and House Harkonnen are the two parties vying for control as a means of expanding their power and reach. House Atreides wants to do so through working with the Fremen, the people of Arrakis, and exploring how that world can be bettered through cooperation and trade, whereas House Harkonnen does not.

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Who is House Harkonnen?

A brutal and unflinching empire, House Harkonnen is basically the opposite of House Atreides. Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) is all about industrialisation, generating wealth, and making people afraid of him. His planet, Giedi Prime, is essentially a dystopian wasteland of buildings, factories, and cheap housing for the population to live in squalor.

Conscription is common to maintain ranks within the military, and since that’s basically the only means of transitioning out of poverty, many volunteer anyway. Destroying other people and worlds becomes a way of venting all that inner resentment from having the Harkonnen brutalise everyone and everything.

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You can sense this in the way Josh Brolin’s Gurney Halleck talks about the Harkonnen forces. They’re remorseless, and when they attack in Dune, it’s a bloodbath because of how efficient they are at killing and maiming. Chani’s opening monologue makes mention of the Harkonnen torture as well.

Dave Bautista’s Glossu Rabban is a stand-in for Harkonnen bullishness: an intense, sociopathic warrior who will clearly do damage to anyone who stands in his way. His conversations with Vladimir, his uncle, are always happening in some gigantic, grey structure made out of cold metal. Vladimir is often taking some form of bath, enjoying all the spoils of being king without doing much of anything to inspire confidence from anyone.

Dune: House Atreides and House Harkonnen explained

Why do House Atreides and House Harkonnen hate each other?

House Harkonnen are cold-hearted capitalists, whereas House Atreides, though still eager to mine Spice, doesn’t want it to be completely at the cost of anyone’s humanity. They have a blood feud that mostly runs on pure bitterness – House Harkonnen has a monopoly on Spice production, forcing House Atreides to answer to them, while House Atreides has developed a lot of clout without necessarily tearing apart all their enemies, which House Harkonnen resents.

That last part is something House Harkonnen and the current Emperor have in common because House Atreides is growing in stature and likeability. This is why when Glossu turns to Vladimir, he plays coy but makes it all sound like it’s part of a bigger plan. Spoilers: it is, and House Atreides getting crippled in the second act of Dune is that plan coming to fruition.

The thing nobody quite bargained for, however, is Paul. The all-female band of clairvoyants, the Bene Gesserit, have only had women for generations. An heir to one of the most powerful political bodies in the universe having inherited psychic powers is just the thing that may tip the scales on this dispute once and for all. But that’s a story for Dune 2 to tell.

If you are after more Spicey fun, read our Dune review, or check out our beginner’s guide to understand Dune. Or, for more quality picks, here are our guides to the best movies of all time, and all the new movies heading our way this year.