Dune Movie Explained: What to Know About the Classic Sci-Fi Novel – IGN
Dune is one of the most beloved and celebrated science fiction novels ever published. It’s also an incredibly dense book, with many rival factions and characters set against the backdrop of a futuristic human civilization. And that’s even before factoring in the many sequels, prequels and spinoffs that have cropped up over the years. Dune movie director Denis Villeneuve definitely has his work cut out for him as he becomes the latest filmmaker to attempt to bring this sprawling saga to life on the big screen. (Read our Dune Part One review.)
If you have a hard time making sense of the Dune franchise and its many heroes and villains, we’re here to help. Here’s everything you need to know about the original book, its follow-up stories and the various attempts at adapting the story to film.
Spoilers follow from the books!
The Dune Universe Explained
Dune and most of its various spinoff novels take place thousands of years in the future, during a time when humanity has spread to other worlds in the galaxy. In this future, power is shared between a monarch known as the Padishah Emperor, the Space Guild (which controls interstellar travel) and a collection of feudal houses known as the Landsraad. Picture a futuristic version of Game of Thrones and you have some idea of how civilization works in the “Duniverse.”
In this era, advanced technology like computers and atomic weapons are strictly forbidden. Instead, most technology relies on human brain power. Specially trained “mentats” have conditioned themselves to operate as living computers.
A substance called melange is a psychotropic spice that can enhance the mind and prolong life, with some users even gaining psychic abilities and the power to access the shared memories of their ancestors.
Much of the Dune saga centers around a desert planet called Arrakis. Though remote and all but inhospitable (thanks to both its extremely dry climate and the presence of massive, roving sand worms), Arrakis is the only major source of spice in the universe. Whichever house controls Arrakis stands to reap great wealth, but also faces constant danger from rival houses. There’s a reason people in the Dune-verse have the saying, “He who controls the spice, controls the universe.”
Dune: The Major Factions
The original Dune novel centers around several major factions and houses jockeying for power.
House Atreides – To draw another comparison to Game of Thrones, House Atreides is basically the House Stark of the Dune franchise. Its leader, Duke Leto Atreides, is one of the few benevolent rulers in a galaxy where wealth and power are everything. As the original book opens, House Atreides has been granted control of Arrakis by the Padishah Emperor, displacing their generations-old rivals, House Harkonnen. Even as Leto struggles to protect his family from harm, his son Paul comes to realize that a grand destiny awaits him on Arrakis.
House Harkonnen – House Harkonnen is one of the wealthiest members of the Landsraad and a bitter rival of House Atreides. This family is ruled by the cruel, sadistic and hedonistic Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. While Baron Harkonnen pretends to be outraged over losing control of Arrakis to his rival, Duke Leto, in reality he hopes to use the situation as an opportunity to destroy his enemy once and for all.
The Bene Gesserit – The Bene Gesserit are an all-female religious order that serves as one of the greatest political forces in the galaxy. Through a combination of mental conditioning and spice consumption, the members of the order have honed their minds and gained superhuman abilities. Their leader, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, is obsessed with using selective breeding to produce an all-powerful Bene Gesserit superhuman called the Kwisatz Haderach. She sent Lady Jessica to be Duke Leto’s concubine and produce a daughter (who would grow up to produce the Kwisatz Haderach), but instead Jessica bore him a son.
The Fremen – These nomadic desert tribes are the native residents of Arrakis. While dismissed by most in the Empire as savages and brutes, in truth the Fremen have a far better understanding of Arrakis and the nature of spice than anyone. They’ve spent thousands of years quietly cultivating the planet, learning how to survive its harsh climate and awaiting for the arrival of their messiah, a figure named Lisan al Gaib (which translates to either “voice from the outer world” or “giver of water”).
The Original Dune Storyline
The original Dune novel made its debut in 1965, with author Frank Herbert publishing it first as a serialized story in Analog magazine before releasing the completed novel. The book quickly met with widespread critical acclaim, winning a Hugo Award in 1966. It’s now widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential science-fiction novels of all time. In particular, its desert planet setting, mystical trappings and emphasis on a young hero embracing his grand destiny could be viewed as direct influences on the Star Wars movies.
As the book opens, Paul Atreides is beginning to come to terms with his growing abilities even as he and his family are preparing to move to Arrakis and assume control of the dangerous but spice-rich planet. The first sign of Paul’s potential is shown when he passes a grueling test administered by the Reverend Mother Mohaim, proving himself to be truly “human” (meaning a person in full control of their will and faculties). Paul is also haunted by dreams of Arrakis and images of a mysterious woman.
Paul is sorely tested after arriving on Arrakis, as his family is betrayed by House Harkonnen and Paul and his mother are marooned in the harsh desert. However, they’re taken in by the nomadic Fremen, who see in Paul the potential savior their people have been waiting for for thousands of years. Paul assumes the Fremen name Muad’Dib and takes as his concubine a woman named Chani, the same woman who haunted his dreams before coming to Arrakis. Lady Jessica, meanwhile, undergoes the dangerous ritual to become a Reverend Mother, inadvertently bestowing incredible psychic powers upon her unborn daughter, Alia.
Two years later, Paul leads the Fremen in a massive uprising against the Empire. He sees them as a powerful force for freeing Arrakis from tyranny, even as he recognizes their potential to destabilize the entire galaxy if left unchecked. After undergoing the same mind-enhancing ritual as his mother, Paul emerges from a weeks-long coma with the ability to see across time and space.
Paul is able to lead his people in a successful revolt, defeating Baron Harkonnen’s nephew Feyd-Rautha in ritualistic combat and even forcing the Padishah Emperor to abdicate his throne by threatening to destroy Arrakis’ supply of spice. As the novel closes, Paul has become the new emperor, but he fears the devastation his now fanatical Fremen followers will cause as their jihad extends across the galaxy.
The Dune Sequels
Dune was just the first chapter in a much larger saga, one which currently comprises 19 novels and various short stories. Herbert himself wrote five sequels to Dune, beginning with 1969’s Dune Messiah and ending with 1985’s Chapterhouse: Dune.
These sequels explore the aftermath of Paul’s ascension to the imperial throne and the impact of the Fremen uprising on the wider galaxy. Dune Messiah begins 12 years after the events of the original novel. Though distraught over the billions of deaths his fanatical followers have caused, Paul’s superhuman mind reveals to him that there are worse potential futures awaiting humanity. He sets out to guide civilization to the best possible outcome, even as Reverend Mother Mohaim and others conspire to overthrow him.
Herbert’s other sequels continue that saga, with the focus of later books shifting from Paul to his children. His son, Leto II, eventually succeeds him as emperor and becomes a grotesque hybrid of human and sandworm, sparking a 3500-year reign of tyranny. As much as the original Dune ends on a fairly happy note for Paul and House Atreides, the Dune saga tends to take a more tragic tone after that.
Herbert died in 1986, without ever realizing his plans for a seventh Dune novel. Instead, his son Brian Herbert and sci-fi writer Kevin J. Anderson (famous for penning the Star Wars: Jedi Academy trilogy) began collaborating on a series of prequel novels that flesh out the history and defining conflicts of the Duniverse. The two co-wrote a trilogy of books called Prelude to Dune set a few years before the events of the original series, followed by another called Legends of Dune set in the distant past.
Brian Herbert eventually discovered his father’s outline and notes for the proposed seventh Dune book. Using those notes as a starting point, he and Anderson wrapped up the core Dune saga with 2006’s Hunters of Dune and 2007’s Sandworms of Dune. Those books were later followed up by two more spinoff series, Heroes of Dune and Great Schools of Dune.
Dune’s Movie Adaptations
Attempts to adapt Dune to film began as early as 1971, though none of those early projects came to fruition. The most famous of these was to have been directed by Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky envisioned a 10-hour adaptation that would feature stars like Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin and even surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. The film would have featured a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and art designs by Moebius and HR Giger. A real cinematic super-group if ever there was one. Sadly, that project fell apart, but the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune offers a glimpse of what might have been.
Instead, Dune finally made its way to theaters in 1984. David Lynch turned down an offer to direct Return of the Jedi in favor of writing and directing Dune, despite reportedly not having read the book beforehand. The film stars Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica, Sean Young as Chani, Kenneth McMillan as Baron Karkonnen and Sting as Feyd-Rautha. The film received middling reviews (with many complaining that it either condensed the source material too much or was incomprehensible to newcomers) but grew to become a quotable cult classic.
Dune was later adapted in 2000 as Frank Herbert’s Dune, a three-part TV miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel. The cast includes Alec Newman as Paul Atreides, William Hurt as Duke Leto and Saskia Reeves as Lady Jessica. The miniseries was generally praised for offering a more faithful take on the original novel. It was followed by a 2003 miniseries called Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, which adapts the second and third books in the series.
And now Dune returns to the big screen in the form of a new adaptation from Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve and A Star Is Born writer Eric Roth. The cast includes Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, Dave Bautista as The Beast Rabban, Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Mohiam, Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto, Zendaya as Chani and Javier Bardem as Stilgar. The first film tells roughly the first half of the original novel. A second film has not been greenlit yet, though Villeneuve will return to direct if it does.
There will also reportely be a spinoff series called Sisterhood of Dune, which adapts the series of novels focused on the history of the Bene Gesserit order. Sisterhood of Dune is among the many new series exclusive to the HBO Max streaming platform, though there has been no word yet on when this series might actually debut. Its current status is presumably hinging on how Dune Part One does at the box office.
October 21, 2021: This story has been updated with the latest information about Dune Part One.