After more than 30 years, Dune is coming back to the theaters. Here’s a look at its storied (and luckless) past in cinema.
With Game of Thrones having ended and Star Wars essentially closing the book on the Skywalker, fans of science fiction and fantasy have been waiting for something new to look forward to. Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic, Dune, could just be up their alley.
Dune has a long and storied past. Ever since the novel was first was published in 1965, it’s been heralded as one of the masterworks of science fiction. The book has been so acclaimed that it won the very first Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966—an annual commendation given out by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
Just to give it a little more perspective, other winners of the Nebula Award for best Novel include Ursula Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick: names that you might be familiar with already because of their books and their subsequent screen adaptations. For Frank Herbert to have won the award with his first novel and on the inaugural year of the Nebula basically makes Dune the grandfather of space epics.
Now, it’s on the big screen, so here’s everything you need to know before that happens. The film is set to be released in a few months, which gives us some time to catch up on the story or go on a refresher course for long-time fans.
The Dune Novels
First let’s start with the source material.
Dune is set in the far future, where noble houses find themselves at each other’s throats, vying for a better position in the interstellar Imperium. The first book follows the young Paul Atreides—the son and heir of Duke Leto Atreides—as his family is assigned the stewardship of the planet Arrakis.
Arrakis is a harsh, desert planet, hardly conducive to human life. But what makes Arrakis so crucial to the Imperium is that it is the only source of the spice called melange. This is a substance that enhances mental awareness and extends the user’s life. It’s also used to navigate through space, where melange can give its users greater acuity and foresight.
Controlling Arrakis means controlling the lifeblood of the entire empire. But that control comes at a very steep price, and with very dangerous enemies. And in Paul Atreides’ case, the most dangerous enemies come from a rival house named Harkonnen, who want Arrakis for themselves.
Paul Atreides must navigate through the new world he’s been thrown into— dealing with the massive, deadly sandworms of the desert and experiencing the culture of the local warrior people called the Fremen—all while dodging Harkonnen plots. And that’s just the first book.
Dune has been noted for its immensely detailed world-building, as well as its complex discussion of politics, the environment, religion, and human potential. More than simply showing what technology could be in the future, it explored the future of humanity.
It took Frank Herbert six years to write the first novel, having been inspired by his research for an article he wrote about the sand dunes of Oregon.
If you’re planning to get ready for the new film, this is where you start. And if you find yourself heading down the Dune rabbithole, you won’t have to worry about running out of content. Frank Herbert may have passed away in 1986, but he managed to write six Dune novels in his lifetime.
Still, the saga doesn’t end there. Ten years after his death, his son, Brian Herbert, picked up where he left off. Collaborating with science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson, Brian used his father’s notes to expand the world, turning it into a massive franchise that spans more than a dozen novels.
And here’s the thing: the two writers are still at it. This year, they’re releasing a novel called the Duke of Caladan, which revolves around Duke Leto Atreides, Paul, and his mother, Jessica. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and while the later books have not received quite as much acclaim as the first six by Frank Herbert, this at least means there’s more Dune to come over the next few years.
Dune in Cinema
Here’s where the Dune universe crosses into popular media. It’s also where the story gets more interesting.
Dune has always been considered complex, and even Frank Herbert’s writing style is a little heavy and can be a difficult read. As you might expect, this doesn’t make for an easy transition to film. For a long time, the popular opinion was that it was too complex to translate to cinema, because so much of the background, the subtleties of each character, and the nuances of future human society relied heavily on Frank Herbert’s exposition (this includes fictional diary entries, quotations, and biography excerpts to flesh out the world).
Still, that hasn’t stopped studios from trying.
The first attempt was supposed to have been directed by artist Alejandro Jodorowsky in the ‘70s. While it was later discontinued, Jodorowsky had a stellar cast lined up: Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Salvador Dali, Orson Wells, and Amanda Lear were set to be part of the Dune universe, and Pink Floyd was on board to create the soundtrack.
Extensive pre-production work had already been done, including 3,000 drawings that
made up the whole film’s storyboard, and a script that Frank Herbert described as being “the size of a phone book.” The resulting movie would have been 14 hours long: Jodorowsky was adamant that Dune needed upwards of 10 hours running time to tell the story properly. The production was later dropped, and the first Dune never saw the screen.
This attempted adaptation later became the subject of a documentary called Jodorowsky’s Dune in 2014, where it was described as the greatest movie never made. The documentary has since won several awards in the film circuit.
In 1984, an adaptation of Dune was finally released, written and directed by David Lynch. The movie starred then-newcomer Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, with a host of familiar American and European faces as the supporting cast, including Sting as Feyd-Rautha (Paul’s nemesis and the heir of rival house Harkonnen).
While Frank Herbert had been satisfied with the results, the film wasn’t very well received. Film critic Roger Ebert gave it one star out of four, describing it as “a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.”
Nonetheless, it has maintained a cult following throughout the years, even as opinions remain divisive.
Thus far, we have a lengthy adaptation that’s been called the greatest movie never made, and a shorter one that’s been called pointless by Rogert Ebert. And maybe the problem lies here: both attempts tried to distill an extremely dense and complex plot into a single sitting. Dune was never meant to be experienced as a single film, or even a single reading. It was meant to be a complicated dive into humanity, one that requires you to peel each layer in your own time. So how exactly do you capture that on film?
So here we are now, with a new adaptation, and director Denis Villeneuve is trying a different approach. The new Dune will present the story across two movies, to better capture the nuances of the world. The Oscar-nominated Villenueve has a few more things going for him as well: modern cinema technology and a cast that’s as stellar as the novel’s setting, including Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, and Jason Momoa.
It’s also being released at a time when cinema-goers are far more receptive to complex plots and worlds, thanks to the major science fiction and fantasy films that have been well-received over the past four decades.
So far, things are looking good, and while Dune has had a luckless past in cinema, this could be the movie that finally brings Frank Herbert’s universe to life. And if you want to fully appreciate how far along Dune has come: hit the books, watch the films, maybe even see the documentary. There are also graphic novels, games, and a couple of television series if you’re into those, but we’re only talking about the novels and the movies right now. It would be far too complicated if we included those, and this has already gone on long enough as it is, so we’re taking the Denis Villeneuve route here.
Anyway, this epic has been a long time coming. From Frank Herbert’s novels, to Brian Herbert’s work with Kevin J. Anderson, and down to the movies and other adaptations: it’s a whole journey into the Dune universe. And it’s one that’s about to start again.