Alissa Wilkinson for vox.com, | October 22, 2021

Why Dune endures

Denis Villeneuve’s new big-screen adaptation underlines why generations have been fascinated by the story.

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Harkonnens. Messiahs. Deadly, insect-like hunter-seekers. A secretive all-women order of spies, nuns, scientists, and theologians that’s bending history to its will. A spice harvested from an arid desert that enables space travel. ’Thopters. Interstellar war. Giant sand worms.

The world of Dune is a wild one, a tale spun by Frank Herbert in the tumultuous 1960s that mixes fear of authoritarian rule and environmental collapse with fascism, racism, and hallucinatory imagery. The 1965 novel, which eventually garnered widespread acclaim, was followed by a universe of sequels for its rabidly devoted fans. The trappings of its imagined, distant-future world feel wondrous, unfamiliar, and strange.

Or they would, if we hadn’t been steeped in Dune fever for so many years, even prior to the recent arrival of Denis Villeneuve’s extraordinary and resolutely abstruse film adaptation. Even the most Dune-averse person can hardly avoid the long tail of Herbert’s saga, whether they realize it or not.

The story has been referenced by pop stars like Lady Gaga, who made a sly nod to Dune in the “Telephone” music video, and Grimes, whose debut studio album, Geidi Primes, is a concept album based on Dune. Fatboy Slim’s song “Weapon of Choice,” the one with the music video starring Christopher Walken, is one big reference to the book (“Walk without rhythm / It won’t attract the worm”). Video games like Fallout and World of Warcraft contain references to Dune, as do plenty of TV shows from Scooby-Doo to Rick & Morty to SpongeBob SquarePants. There’s a crater on the moon officially named Dune, and some of the features on Saturn’s moon Titan have been named for planets from the series.

A cartoon of a giant worm chasing two smaller cartoon characters.
That’s a Dune reference in SpongeBob SquarePants.
Nickelodeon

Then there’s all the original storytelling Dune has inspired. The most notable example, perhaps, is George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy, which shares so much with Herbert’s series that Herbert and a few colleagues organized the farcical “We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society.” If you’ve watched the Star Wars films, Dune’s reluctant, petulant, fated hero living on a desert planet in the shadow of a looming empire and the battle for the fate of the galaxy will feel a little familiar.

This long line of descendants shows the expansive influence of Dune on a wide swath of pop culture. But it doesn’t really explain why it’s so compelling. What is it about Herbert’s books — especially the first one — that exerts such a magnetic force on everyone from 13-year-old sci-fi readers to megafamous musicians?

There’s no single answer to that question. But as Villeneuve — who’s shown his sci-fi chops as a filmmaker in movies like Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) — takes a crack at the story, new audiences will encounter Paul Atreides, the planet of Arrakis, and the unnaturally blue eyes of the Fremen. So the matter of Dune’s staying power is once again in the air.

As a Dune newbie (a Dune-bie?) this year, I dug into Herbert’s novel, previous attempts to make a good movie out of it, and the way that people interact with the sprawling world it envisions. What I realized is that there’s no one reason Dune’s fans love the world Herbert created. Its enduring significance traces back to its history as a cultural phenomenon, its difficult-to-adapt story, its capacious complexity, and, perhaps more than anything, the room it leaves for the audience to have an experience all their own.

Dune predates Star Wars by more than a decade. The first installment of Herbert’s story was published in 1963 as a serial, then collected into a novel in 1965. (The version I read this summer was 896 pages long, including a lengthy and limpid appendix.) Herbert went on to write five more novels: Dune Messiah (1969), Children of Dune (1976), God Emperor of Dune (1981), Heretics of Dune (1984), and Chapterhouse: Dune (1985), and his son and other science fiction writers have continued building out the narrative for eager fans. That’s a lot of Dune.

Most people just read the first novel, though; fans sometimes note that the quality drops off precipitously afterward. So that’s the one to know about.

Dune is set in the year 10191, which is actually about 20,000 years into our future; the year is roughly calculated from a time in which humanity overthrew and destroyed all human-made intelligent machines, like robots and computers. Now people live an interstellar existence, without any AI to threaten them, and the extinction of human-made intelligence is so far in the past that it doesn’t come up as more than a distant historical fact for Dune’s characters. It’s as if the Roman Empire fell 10,000 years ago, instead of just under 2,000.

The novel begins the epic saga of Paul Atreides, a 15-year-old son of a duke. House Atreides, one of the “great houses” in the Galactic Padishah Empire, has recently been tasked by the Emperor to move from their lush, green home world of Caladan to the desert planet Arrakis. Arrakis is colloquially known as Dune, and most recently overseen by the ruthless House Harkonnen; the Emperor mysteriously ordered Harkonnen to vacate rule of Arrakis, and Atreides is set to take over.

Arrakis is a barren and seemingly barely habitable planet, but it’s important for one big reason: It’s the only place to mine a spice called melange (or just “spice”), which among other things makes accurate interstellar travel possible. A fierce people called the Fremen live in the desert there, wearing “stillsuits” that harvest precious body moisture for drinking. They don’t control the spice, however; until recently it’s been harvested by the cruel Harkonnens.

A young man in a white shirt and dark pants crouches in a wood-panelled room, looking upwards.
Timothée Chalamet plays the young Paul Atreides in the newest big-screen version of Dune.
Warner Bros.

Predictably, sending House Atreides to Arrakis in place of Harkonnen doesn’t exactly endear Atreides to the Harkonnens. But the possibility of violence between those houses is all part of the Emperor’s big plan.

Meanwhile, there’s Paul. His mother, Jessica, is the longtime mistress of Duke Atreides, and they love one another passionately. But there’s a deeper story here, too: Jessica is one of the Bene Gesserit, an ancient sisterhood of women who pull the strings of history. (This part of the story is incredibly cool.) For thousands of years, they’ve been cultivating the conditions necessary for the rise of the Kwisatz Haderach, a male leader who can bridge space and time with his mind, heal the divide between the Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen, and ascend the Emperor’s throne. Most importantly, he would be under Bene Gesserit control.

The Bene Gesserit’s efforts have involved 10,000 years of careful cross-breeding to create a young man whose genetics will permit him to become the Kwisatz Haderach; they’ve also seeded a belief in a future leader, comparable to a messiah or savior figure, within the ancient religion of the Fremen. As part of this long game, Jessica was supposed to bear the duke a daughter, who could then be bred to a Harkonnen man and produce the Kwisatz Haderach, bridging the enmity between the two houses.

The complicating wrinkle is that Jessica loved the duke, who wasn’t aware of the Bene Gesserit’s plan — and he wanted a son. So she bore him a son instead: Paul. (Among the many powers of the Bene Gesserit is the ability to decide these sorts of things.) From his childhood, Paul learned the ways of the Bene Gesserit from his mother, and Jessica has become convinced he is, in fact, fit to be the Kwisatz Haderach.

When House Atreides moves to Arrakis, palace tumult and betrayal ensues. Jessica and Paul find themselves in the desert outside the palace walls, among the Fremen. It seems the way for Paul’s ascent has been laid. But to truly take the reins of power, he’ll need to harness the power of the Fremen, and that path won’t be easy.

It’s all very exciting and sweeping, at least in plot-summary form. Herbert’s writing is another matter, pretentious and ponderous at times — it’s obvious that Dune was originally published as a serial. But the story, and the mystical web it weaves, has been immensely attractive to readers for decades. The novel has sold more than 20 million copies, and it’s often cited as one of the greatest science fiction books ever written.

Despite the popularity of Dune’s world, cinematic adaptations of the novel, to this point, have flopped — and in rather legendary ways. In the mid-1970s, the Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was tapped to direct a version of the story, to be produced by Michel Seydoux (the great-uncle, incidentally, of actress and most recent Bond girl Léa Seydoux). Jodorowsky’s vision for the film was psychedelic and wild and altogether unfilmable in the pre-CGI 1970s, if not also today. As he told an interviewer in 2013, “I wanted to make a film that would give the people who took LSD at that time the hallucinations that you get with that drug, but without hallucinating.”

Jodorowsky hired incredible artists to come up with frame-by-frame storyboards and concept art, and he had wild plans to change the story in multiple ways, from depicting Duke Atreides as having been castrated to filming a totally different ending from the novel. He had incredible casting ideas, too, envisioning Salvador Dalí as the Emperor (Dalí wanted to be paid $100,000 an hour) and Orson Welles (the director of Citizen Kane) as Baron Harkonnen. Jodorowsky’s teenage son was slated to play Paul. He trained for two years in martial arts and other fighting techniques to prepare for the role.

It all came to naught, unsurprisingly. Big studios were not going to make such an expensive, unwieldy, hugely risky film. All that remains of Jodorowsky’s grand plans are several enormous copies of the book of art and storyboards. But in 2013, the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune told the story of the movie that never was, with Jodorowsky’s full participation, and it weaves a mystical tale all its own. The film is well worth watching, if only to spend some time with a man who went on a Don Quixote-like mission and is still full of passion for his quest decades later.

Also unsurprisingly, Hollywood’s desire to capitalize on Dune’s literary popularity didn’t abate. Through some typical industry twists and turns, the film rights landed in the hands of producer Dino de Laurentiis, who tried to figure out what to do with it. Initially he hired Herbert himself to write the screenplay, but the result was far too long. Then Ridley Scott signed on, but he ended up deciding, instead, to make Blade Runner in 1982.

A white young man in a black armor outfit stands against the white sands of a desert, with a line of people in black suits behind him in the desert.
Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides in David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune. Lynch hates the movie.
Universal Pictures

Eventually, David Lynch got a call about the project, and though he had offers to direct other movies — including Return of the Jedi (just imagine!) — Lynch agreed. At the time, Lynch was a young director with a knack for the surreal and bizarre, and he’d made two films: Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980). (Jodorowsky says in the 2013 documentary that he was surprised and even delighted by the hiring news, since Lynch seemed like a good fit for the material.) So Lynch got to work.

Dune, the Lynch version, came out in 1984, and starred fresh new face Kyle MacLachlan as Paul. (McLachlan would go on to frequently collaborate with Lynch, most notably on Lynch’s seminal TV show Twin Peaks.) It also stars Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Virginia Madsen, Linda Hunt, Max von Sydow, and Sting, among others, with music by Toto.

The movie is ... bad. It’s cumbersome, overloaded with explanation, and not particularly well-acted in many spots. Now a cult classic, it does have certain charms, and isn’t quite as bad as Lynch seems to think it is; he disowned the film upon release, even removing his name from some versions, and hates talking about it. It bombed at the box office and became a bit of a punchline. And other than a workmanlike but forgettable 2000 miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel, Dune would not be adapted again.

Until now. Denis Villeneuve is an ideal match for the material, and the movie he’s made — which covers only a little over half of the first novel — is, on the whole, excellent. It’s like the novel in many ways, chiefly in that it shrouds much of its terminology and mythology in mystery. This Dune is not interested in explaining itself to the audience. You have to pay attention and accept that some of what’s happening onscreen isn’t going to make a ton of sense, at least not at first, especially if you’ve never read the book. (Reading it before you watch isn’t necessary, but knowing some of the plot does help.)

It’s also one of those pure cinematic experiences that remind you why you go to the movies. Expertly cast — Oscar Isaac as the Duke Atreides, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, and especially Timothée Chalamet as Paul and Zendaya as Chani, the daughter of a Fremen leader — the film feels like the book come to life, but without some of Herbert’s more ornate and purple prose. Instead of following Lynch’s lead and using voiceover to let us in on his characters’ inner monologues — an important part of the novel — he allows the actors to clue us in via facial expressions and body language.

And the imagery is, frankly, quite stunning. With Herbert’s bloated flourishes stripped away, the breathtaking imagination of Dune’s world can come to life. No matter that the characters, with the possible exception of Jessica, are essentially cogs in a machine without much of a rich inner life. Villeneuve knows how to shape that kind of story and fill it with wonder and awe. The film moves slowly at times, and that’s entirely on purpose. Cinema is primarily a visual medium, and Dune provides a terrific opportunity to lean in and experience what that really means.

The long, long, long and storied history of bringing Dune to the screen has, in a sense, been exactly what the film adaptation needed to put some wind in its sails. People have been talking about adapting Dune for so long, or trying and failing, that its legend has grown. Even if you’ve never read Dune, or have no real grasp of what it’s about, you may have considered reading it at some point. The buildup is part of the appeal. And that’s a big part of why some people are so invested in the new film.

Four people in grey-black stillsuits stand against rocks in a desert.
Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, and Timothée Chalamet in Dune.
Chia Bella James/Warner Bros.

But there’s still more to Dune’s allure than just all the pent-up anticipation for a good film. Dune looks like a story about a chosen one, a hero, who will save the world. That’s a common trope in science fiction and fantasy.

Of course, as with many stories, it’s a little more complicated than that. Paul, for instance, is not the de facto Kwisatz Haderach; throughout the novel, there’s the distinct feeling that he could turn out to be a dud, and the Bene Gesserit make it clear that they have other candidates in waiting elsewhere. They’ve been hedging their bets. After all, Paul is not a chosen messiah of the universe, at least not by some transcendent deity; he’s the product of a program of eugenics.

More importantly, though, Paul succeeding as Kwisatz Haderach will in no way guarantee a rosy future for the universe — a fact of which he is well aware. He can see the future, or the possible future, and talks of seeing people waging a bloody “jihad” (the novel’s terminology) in his name. (Villeneuve’s version opts to call it “holy war.”) Future books chronicle the fallout from his ascent to power, revealing the staggering fact that the “holy war” will take the lives of 61 billion people. Planets are pillaged and sterilized. Whole religions and groups are wiped out, all in service to Paul’s vision for the future of mankind.

That’s all very complicated, and has led some to argue that now is, at minimum, an awfully weird time to be adapting a novel with this kind of hero. Add to that Herbert’s characterization of the Fremen — typical of the period, but no less uncomfortable to contemporary ears — in distinctly Orientalist terms, as well as the possibility of interpreting Paul as a “white savior.” Many contemporary fascists and figures of the alt-right (including the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer) are avowed fans of the book, perhaps seeing it through a distorted lens as a triumphant story about a leader who violently overturns a depraved empire and creates an ethnostate. Meanwhile, plenty of folks on the left love it as well, for entirely different reasons, and sometimes in spite of itself.

Herbert’s personal politics were complex and often reactionary, which probably accounts for the various messages people have taken from it. A distant relative of Joseph McCarthy, Herbert opposed the Vietnam War but supported Richard Nixon; he helped anti-labor efforts, was openly homophobic (which is clear in the novel) and racist, and espoused, above all, a rugged individualism. Dune has been held up as supporting a range of ideologies, from anti-authoritarian conservatism to fascism to neoliberalism, and everyone’s kind of right. Herbert, for his part, explained that his books were meant to critique authoritarianism, declaring that “superheroes are disastrous for mankind.”

“Even if we find a real hero (whatever or whoever that may be),” he wrote, “eventually fallible mortals take over the power structure that always comes into being around such a leader.”

That all means there are a lot of different ways to think about the book. You can read it as a warning tale about fascism or, if you want, a story about the inevitability of the triumph of fascist ideology in any world. You can read Dune as a screed about the uselessness of religion, or an argument about the incredible usefulness of it. It’s a book about the cost of fixing environmental disasters, and about individual destiny taking precedence over the collective.

So much malleability undoubtedly adds to Dune’s appeal. Science fiction aims to give us ways to confront our own world from another angle; Dune provides that in spades. The idiosyncrasies of its author and its politics leave a lot of room to swim around in. So Dune is still relevant, if you’re willing to slog through some narrative mush.

A young man in all-black clothing walks on a beach, gray skies and flying ships in the air above him.
Timothée Chalamet in Dune, on Paul Atreides’s home world of Caladan.
Warner Bros.

The keenest reason that Dune endures may simply be baked into its structure. The chapters of the novel are introduced with quotations from texts about the history of the world, written by a character to whom we haven’t yet been introduced — and we slowly realize that she, whoever she may be, may be playing an angle of her own. The novels are among the pantheon of science fiction and fantasy novels with a capacious historical imagination, extending way into the future and the past.

And in the world of Dune, the readers (and viewers) themselves kind of exist. Our oft-imagined future — in which the machines take over and we have to fight them — is in the very distant past of Dune’s characters. They give us a way to project ourselves into the future, as a species, and think about what might happen.

That’s a common storytelling technique in fantasy and science fiction. Think of how The Lord of the Rings universe hangs on J.R.R. Tolkien’s exquisitely detailed histories of a world that far predates our own. Or how Star Wars takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Or how my personal favorite (and another classic work of the genre), Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, mixes past and future in its explosive, apocalyptic tale. (Someone needs to adapt that one into a movie!)

Dune, and stories like it, spins a legend that extends far before and after the events of the book, and that makes the reader feel like they’re part of something. In that way, these types of stories are not unlike the sacred texts and oral mythologies that form the basis of religions. Perhaps that explains why they’ve given rise to such rabidly invested fans. Dune is, in some ways, about the dangers and powers of religion, and how it can be manipulated to accomplish dubious ends. But it’s also, in a sense, its own religious text. Who wouldn’t be excited to see that come to life?

Dune opened in theaters on October 21 and is streaming on HBO Max.