Amid universally positive reviews, and with the movie already doing well in those territories where it has been released, hopes are high for Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
The film certainly has a lot riding on it. It is packed with stars, including Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya. There is an eye-watering $165 million budget. And, after the implosion of Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, the director’s reputation as a mass-market entertainer arguably hinges on its success or failure.
But why push so hard to bring Herbert’s 1965 novel to the screen in the first place? Wasn’t Villeneuve put off by the failure of David Lynch’s 1984 Dune? And how to explain the enormous anticipation around a franchise that has nowhere near the name recognition of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire? Read on to learn more.
Frank Herbert, a regional journalist and former political speech-writer, had a hard time convincing publishers to take a chance on Dune. In the 1960s, short stories were considered the natural medium for science fiction. At 215,000 words, Dune was perceived as far too sprawling (it had initially appeared as two serialised novellas in the sci-fi magazine Analog).
Just one publisher –the obscure Philadelphia-based Chilton – took a chance. They were rewarded beyond their wildest expectations as the book won the first ever Nebula Award, the judges hailing it “a stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics”. Dune has gone on to sell 20 million copies and is today regarded as one of the greatest science fiction novels ever.
One problem with Lynch’s Dune was that it was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the universe Herbert had sketched out in his novel. The story is set in a far future in which rival noble houses compete for the favour of a Galactic Emperor.
The most morally upstanding is House Atreides, rulers of the ocean world of Caladan. The baddies are the degenerate House Harkonnen, plotting from storm-swept Giedi Prime. And then there is Arrakis, the desert planet also known as Dune and source of the most important substance in the universe, the spice ‘Melange”.
The spice must flow. Melange is a psychotropic drug essential for interstellar travel. It is used by the navigators of the Spacing Guild to “fold space” and steer their ships across huge voids between worlds.
Harvesting spice is, however, treacherous due to the presence, out in the open desert, of huge sandworms and of the Fremen, a society of warriors indigenous to Dune. Then there is the Bene Gesserit, a Jedi-like order of nuns who control others through psychological manipulation and have mapped out the future history of humankind across generations.
“A number of things make Dune important to the genre,” says Jo Zebedee, a sci-fi writer based in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland.
“One is the breadth and depth of world-building. Herbert has created an entire universe, not just a single planet, and has married politics with geography, with societal forces, and blended in some unforgettable characters. That makes it really immersive to read, because a believable world is one we can be transported to. Combined with that, you have the scope. I mean, why have an everyday sandworm when you can have a giant one? I think everyone watching the trailer was waiting for the worm to appear!
If courtly intrigue, dark conspiracies and violent betrayals tick your boxes you’ll love Dune. As the story begins, the Emperor has just expelled House Harkonnen from Arrakis and ordered House Atreides to assume control of its spice-mining operations. The wicked Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård in the film ) is not pleased– and noble Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) knows only too well that the Harkonnens are planning their revenge.
But what if the Emperor is in cahoots with the Baron and the changeover is, in fact, a cunning ploy to sideline, or even eliminate, the Atreides? If that sounds like the Red Wedding with rocket-boosters, then that is precisely what Herbert has given us. The parallels between well-intentioned yet naive House Atreides in Dune and House Stark in Game of Thrones is especially obvious.
Inspired by Lawrence of Arabia, Herbert carved Arrakis out of a fantastical vision of the Middle East. He clearly had the Arab world in mind in creating the inhabitants of Dune, the Fremen. They are a ruthless warrior caste, able to surviving the punishment of the desert and convinced a saviour figure will one day lead them to galactic greatness.
The question Dune asks is whether this future Messiah – the Kwisatz Haderach– is Paul Atreides, teenage son of the Duke and of his Bene Gesserit concubine the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) – and a child seemingly been born with superhuman abilities.
In one of the most memorable scenes in Dune, elite imperial soldiers called the Sardaukar join the conspiracy against the Atreides. They are troopers in ceremonial armour who storm the noble house’s desert fortress – “storm troopers”, if you will The Star Wars parallels are obvious. And were even more pronounced in George Lucas’ initial script for the original Star Wars, which featured feuding intergalactic houses. Lucas jettisoned that idea but kept the desert planet – named Tatooine rather than Arrakis – and the cast of intergalactic mystics (the Jedi instead of the Bene Gesserit).
Herbert certainly saw the parallels. He joked about joining forces with other sci-fi authors to form the “We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas” society.
The author’s home state had a serious problem through the 1950s with fast-moving sand dunes, which threatened the seaside city of Florence. “Sand dunes pushed by steady winds build up in waves analogous to ocean waves except that they may move twenty feet a year instead of twenty feet a second,”
Herbert wrote in a letter. “These waves can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wave in property damage.” He planned to write a non-fiction piece about the phenomenon, to be called They Stopped Moving the Sands. When that didn’t pan out, he decided to turn the idea into a sci-fi saga instead.
One of the messages of Dune is that humans cannot exist apart from their environment. Dune is a deadly planet and anyone who fails to treat it with respect will suffer a swift demise. Herbert was writing about the fictional Arrakis – but also, after a fashion, about Earth.
“Herbert partially intended the novel to raise readers' awareness of environmental issues,” says Jack Fennell, editor of A Brilliant Void, an anthology of early Irish science fiction. “Alongside all of that, though, there's an unstated mixture of the familiar and the new. There are analogues for various players in Middle Eastern politics – notably OPEC and Western oil companies – and the setting is obviously a sci-fi transposition of the Middle East, and the story sort-of follows the pattern of the 'hero's journey'.
Much of the action in the novel takes place inside the heads of its characters (Herbert is a master of the internal monologue). For that reason – and also because of the vastness of the world building – Dune has long been thought impossible to bring to the screen. In the Seventies, Chilean-French surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to adapt the novel – though he wanted to do so by jettisoning much of the plot and chasing his own fantastical vision (with Pink Floyd supplying the score).
Lynch’s 1984 film was more successful in that it actually made it to cinemas. Panned on its release, today it stands up surprisingly well. Yes, it jumps around the place and is difficult to follow if you haven’t read the book.
But Kyle MacLachlan is the perfect Paul Atreides. And it features Sting, as Harkonnen princeling Feyd Rautha, with bright red hair fighting to the death in a cod-piece. And who could disapprove of that? A low-budget Sci-Fi Channel series from the early 2000s likewise did justice to the novel – provided you could look past the wobbly sets and bin-bag costumes.
Herbert seemed caught unawares by the success of Dune and spent the Seventies and Eighties publishing sequels that lacked the magic of the original. They were lugubrious and silly – full of dreary dialogue and low on drama (and with Arrakis itself eventually destroyed). By the final novel, 1985’s Chapterhouse: Dune, all but the most hardcore readers had given up.
Villeneuve has delivered an action-packed blockbuster full of jaw-dropping sequences but which also captures the atmosphere of the book (or the first half of the book – Dune Part II has yet to be greenlit). Chalamet, in particular, is ideally cast as Paul, a wide-eyed young man with the potential to become death, destroyer of worlds.
- Dune opens in cinemas on Thursday, October 21