Period. More than Star Wars? Yes, more than Star Wars. In fact, it’s unlikely that all those amazing adventures set in “A Galaxy Far, Far Away” would have ever been written, without Frank Herbert’s 1965 groundbreaking precursor and all-time sci-fi classic.
2020 will be a very special year for all Dune fans, with the new Denis Villeneuve movie coming out in December, so I thought to celebrate it with an article on all things you need to know about this masterpiece and its massive cultural influence. Plus, “Dune” is really my favorite novel ever (and that’s to say something!), so it was about time I wrote about it. This post is an act of love.
- “Dune” was published as a novel in 1965 by Frank Herbert, after almost 10 years in the making. Herbert got the first inspiration in 1957 when, working as a journalist in Oregon, he was writing an article about sand dunes which “could swallow whole cities, lakes, rivers, highways”. It’s the first of a saga of six novels, spanning thousands of years of history in the fictional universe. Don’t let yourselves be intimidated and start with the first one. Like, really, start NOW. The series gets slower and then picks up again from the 4th book on. This stuff – its memorable characters, iconic locations and quotes, the themes and messages that the story carries – will stay with you for the rest of your life, guaranteed. The last novel published by Frank Herbert is “Chapterhouse: Dune” (1985).
- The story is set thousands of years in the future, when humankind has colonized space. Like, a lot of space. The resulting universe is described in meticulous detail, including political, religious, social and technological aspects, so to appear at the same time familiar and completely alien. The universe all spins around the tiny, desert planet Arrakis (also known as Dune), which is the only place where the all-powerful Spice Melange can be found. And the spice must flow.
It’s a massive world-building masterpiece that commands respect. It can appear overwhelming at first, but don’t worry: each book comes with an extensive glossary at the end, and readers enjoy spending as much time flipping through it, as with the story itself.
- Brian Herbert, Frank’s son and official biographer, expanded the franchise with some 17 other novels between prequels, sequels, spin-offs, and other short stories, made in part using original notes from his father. Brian Herbert is currently working on a graphic novel based on the franchise, which will be illustrated by Raúl Allén and Patricia Martín (with covers by Bill Sienkiewicz). The official comic books were published by Marvel in 1985, and were an adaptation of the film – not the book. It kinda matters (read below).
- The book started slowly, but it gained a cult following as it was not only appreciated by sci-fi fans, but also adopted by colleges and universities for its
references to psychedelic drugsvisionary and political themes. In 1966 it won both the newly established Nebula award AND the Hugo award (tied with R. Zelazny’s This Immortal). The novel was exceptionally well received, with Arthur C. Clarke (the legendary “2001” author) defining it “unique, comparable maybe only to The Lord of the Rings“. “Dune” sold an estimated 22 million copies to this day.
- Herbert had a very interesting life story, and a background as an investigative reporter and later, political speechwriter. These formative years taught him “curiosity and politics”. He later developed a keen interest in ecology.
- The plot revolves around Paul, the young heir of the noble house of Atreides, who gets involved in a political scheme of galactic scope, moves with his family to the desert planet Arrakis (also known as Dune) and faces decisions about the future of his life and well, the entire universe. It may seem like your standard Hero’s Journey, but it will surprise you. Paul starts off as a classic hero figure, but as he learns about the intricate webs of politics, society and ecology all around him, his journey gets a lot deeper. Plus, the Dune universe is so rich and detailed that you will always want more. In such a distant future, civilization had to get rid of sentient machines after a bloody galactic civil war, and humans started to specialize to reach the peak of professions without advanced computers. Soldiers, thinkers, diplomats, assassins, navigators: every discipline becomes a lifestyle choice and people who choose those paths have to devote all their energies to hone their skills to ultra-human levels. And it’s all kept together by the Spice, which grants longevity and incredible mental powers. The Spice only grows on one planet, Arrakis (also known as Dune). No spoilers here, but you can check a very good story summary of the first book here.
- A very extensive series of videos, detailing the plot of every book and giving commentary on many other aspects of the cultural influence, can be found here. Check out Quinn’s Ideas of Ice and Fire, it’s really worth the time! He is also a big fan of Game of Thrones (hence the name of the channel).
- The saga is sometimes misrepresented as a classical rise of a charismatic leader. On the contrary, Herbert studied Jungian psychology very well and was aware of archetypes and the role they play on the collective unconscious. He was extremely wary of “heroes” and political power, and in fact his characters fall victim to their own ambitions. On politics, he wrote:
“All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted” – Chapterhouse: Dune).
- His heroes rise and fall, or are anti-heroes (how else would you describe a guy who spontaneously turns into a worm to become a god-like creature and rule the universe? That’s Kafka on LSD!) Herbert often warned about the inherent dangers of power. “These charismatic leaders ought to have a sign on them: ‘Warning! May Be Dangerous to Your Health” (source). He often said that his favorite president was Richard Nixon, because he showed everybody that people shouldn’t trust their leaders to always be right.
He also said “I have a passionate concern for posterity. Unfortunately, posterity doesn’t vote“. The guy was a great mind. Get to know him better by checking the full interview below.
- Other central themes of “Dune” are ecology and environmentalism. The novel described the entire planet of Arrakis as a single, tightly interconnected, ecosystem. In “Dune”, one character carries the title of “Imperial Planetologist”, and it has been said that Herbert identified with that point of view. The spice melange, the most important resource in the universe that could give immense powers and could only be found in a desert (planet), can represent oil (and also, psychedelic drugs. After all, it was written in the 60s and Herbert lived in the US west coast). The power dynamics around such a delicate and limited resource are central to the plot and are described in careful detail.
- Carl Sagan (the man behind the SETI Project and the original Cosmos tv show) mentioned “Dune” as an important personal influence. “The insights into terrestrial ecology that are provided by hypothetical extraterrestrial ecologies, – he wrote in “Growing Up with Science Fiction” on the New York Times – perform, I think, an important social service”. Herbert’s vision was truly ahead of his time. About energy, he said in 1977: “We have to take the steps to move from fossil fuels to renewable energies, and we need to take them now […] “I refuse to be put in the position of having to tell my grandchildren I am sorry, there is no more world for you, we used it all up“. In Ninety. Seventy. Seven!
You can check the full video here.
- The youtube channel Extra Credits has a series of four short educational videos dedicated to the series. They detail Herbert’s background, the origins of the story, its themes, and the characters. They are really cool, as everything Extra Credits does. You can find the first video here:
- “Dune” had a massive impact on science fiction and on popular culture in general. Perhaps the saga that it has influenced the most was Star Wars. George Lucas acknowledged “some influences” but really, especially in earlier versions of the script, the list goes well beyond “inspirations” and includes: the desert planet on which the action takes place; a very valuable resource called “spice” that can be mined (a central plot point in Solo); the Sarlacc (a giant desert worm); the Jedi powers (called Jedi-Bendu in earlier versions of Star Wars, as opposed to the Prana-Bindu martial art followed by the Bene Gesserit in the book); the trade federation; the Galactic Senate and Emperor – and more. Sure, some may be far-fetched (this page has a quite comprehensive summary), but it’s a big list of “coincidences”.
Herbert himself said “I am going to try very hard not to sue”. You can see the original article here. In the end, he didn’t, and together with other authors (allegedly) ripped off by Star Wars, he founded a mock society called “We are too big to sue George Lucas”. That’s class in my book.
- A very ambitious initiative to transform “Dune” in a movie began in 1974, with the Chilean artist Alejandro Jodorowsky meant to be directing it. The project was monumental: the script planned a 14-hours film, featuring cast names like Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, Alain Delon and Mick Jagger (among others). The soundtrack was going to be provided by none other than the Pink Floyd. 2 million dollars were spent only on pre-production, and then… the money run out. When it became clear that the effort was too massive to ever see the light, the project got shelved.
Not all the good work was lost, however: some of the preliminary concepts and drawings would later be used for Star Wars and especially Alien (the Swiss visual artist H. R. Giger and special effect’s supervisor Dan O’Bannon were involved in both projects). A documentary was released in 2013 to tell the story of the movie that never happened. You should watch it!
- However, after Star Wars became a smash-hit success, the interest for “Dune – the movie” got bigger than ever. The Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis acquired the rights and in 1983, with a colossal budget (for the time) of $40 million, the filming began.
Ridley Scott was initially offered the directing chair, but considered the project too time consuming and left to work on Blade Runner (not a bad idea, all considered). David Lynch was finally chosen and he accepted – after turning down many other proposals, including (ironically) another story set on a desert planet: Return of the Jedi from George Lucas. The production of Dune was huge, requiring a crew of 1700 people, 80 sets and over 20 thousand extras.
That was movie-making before CGI! It required a lot of people.
A star-studded cast included Kyle MacLachlan, Virginia Madsen, the Italian legend actress Silvana Mangano, Patrick Stewart, Sean Young, and Sting, weirder than usual in his role. Cinematography, make-up and costumes were top of the line. Special effects, not so much, but the giant sandworms looked terrific: they were realized by Carlo Rambaldi, the mechanical effects wizard already famous for Alien and E. T., among other things. The soundtrack was composed by Toto, with the fantastic guitar theme performed by Brian Eno. Ta-da-da-daaaaaa! Epic. Check it out for a trippy and inspiring experience, maybe when you are traveling, let your mind wander as if you were using the Spice. I warn you: some bits are weird. But it works for me. The spice must flow.
- The 1984 movie was undoubtedly beautiful, but a beautiful mess. Lynch was initially aiming for a three-hours long release, but the studios demanded a much shorter version to maximize theater screenings. As a result, many scenes were simplified and voice-overs added to deliver exposition. Given the complexity of the source material, this didn’t help. Theaters produced 2-pages booklets to make viewers’ lives easier. Herbert himself liked it enough, although the script took several liberties from his original work – particularly in the ending, and some of the deeper themes from the book were watered a lot down.
Critics destroyed it (The influential Roger Ebert defined it “a real mess, incomprehensible, ugly, pointless” and “the worst movie of the year”) and after a great opening weekend, the box office plummeted. Lynch didn’t like the theatrical cut, but he completely hated the TV version released sometime later. In fact, he demanded his name to be removed from screen credits, and only appeared as scriptwriter under the pseudonym of Judas Booth (a double reference to the traitor of Jesus and the killer of the US president Lincoln) because he felt betrayed and thought his film had been killed. Lynch considers this movie the only real failure of his career. To this day, he refused every offer to work on a Director’s Cut.
I think it’s still worth watching – it’s imperfect, but as an audiovisual experience, it’s awe-inspiring, the acting in the major roles is really inspired, and it’s Dune. Some parts are dark, some are just strange, but in general it’s a sci-fi classic that shouldn’t be missed.
- Dune‘s cultural influence is massive, across multiple media. Numerous songs (including “Litanie contre la peur” included in 2019’s album Fear Inoculum by Tool), albums and even bands are named after Herbert’s work. Iron Maiden wrote a song in 1983 dedicated to the planet Arrakis, titled “To Tame a Land”. They wanted to call it “Dune”, but Herbert’s agents denied permission saying “Frank Herbert doesn’t like rock bands, particularly heavy rock bands, and especially bands like Iron Maiden”. Ouch, that hurts, Frank!
- In 2000 the tv channel Sci Fi released a mini-series of three episodes with the title “Frank Herbert’s Dune” (just to be clear). It featured William Hurt, Alec Newman, and Saskia Reeves. The value is very high for a tv production, and its almost 300 minutes of runtime make a better service to the book and its original spirit. What somehow lacks in epic bombastic flair, it compensates with depth and character development. Director John Harrison liked to work on the story not as a science fiction classic, but as a “reflection the human condition and its moral dilemmas”. It shows. In 2003 the sequel came out, “Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune”, combining books 2 and 3 of the series. A relatively unknown (back then) James McAvoy starred as Leto II. The two series won a bunch of Emmies at the time, and they are still a pretty good watch, especially if you really loved the books and their atmospheres.
- As predictable for one of the most beloved series by geeks worldwide, Dune left a deep track also in the games industry. Plus, it actually made videogames history. In 1997 a Magic The Gathering – style collectible card game was published, followed by an unlucky role-playing game (“Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium”, 2000) of which only a limited edition exists. And no, sadly I don’t have it.
- Boardgames: two (three) versions exist. In 1984, cashing on the movie’s (expected) success, Parkers Brothers published an easy and fast game that relies on the movie’s characters and images. If you were looking for a deeper experience, you needed to look for the original one, published by Avalon Hill in 1979 and based much more on the books, which did an excellent job at recreating the intrigue, machinations, backstabbing and the head-spinning complexity of the saga. It was complicated but incredibly rewarding, for more demanding gamers. Good news if you want to try it: a newer version of the classic has been published in 2019 by Gale Force Nine and yes, I have it!
Check the review here, and – by the way – just follow the channel Sit down and Play if you love board games. Their reviews are always very detailed and entertaining.
- And oh boy, the videogames! The first, epic one was Dune (what else), published in 1992. It reproduced really well the themes and events from the movie (mostly the movie) and it combined elements of adventure, resource management, and strategy.
- The real breakthrough happened with Dune II from Westwood (also released in 1992, and still somehow a sequel, don’t ask me), which basically set up the characteristics of the real-time strategy genre. The game was based on harvesting spice on the planet Arrakis (also known as Dune). Players could take control of one out of three families (the valiant Atreides, the deceiving Harkonnen or the rich traders Ordos) and each faction had some unique units, buildings and abilities.
Sounds familiar? I bet it does. Blizzard capitalized on this experience with “Warcraft: Orcs & Humans” in 1994: it was basically Dune II with a new skin based on a generic fantasy setting.
- Westwood went on to develop the “Command and Conquer” series, while Warcraft eventually evolved into the giant MMORPG “World of Warcraft” that we know today, so basically without “Dune“, we wouldn’t have WoW. Believe it or not. There are three more videogames inspired by the franchise, Dune 2000 (1998), essentially a remake of Dune II; the 3D Emperor: Battle for Dune (2001) and Frank Herbert’s Dune (2001) based on the miniseries. None of them has had the same success as the first two.
- The God-Emperor of Mankind in the Warhammer 40k universe is a clear reference to the “God-Emperor of Dune” (the fourth book of the series). It’s now widely used for meme material and in reference to a famous and controversial US president, the God-Emperor of Trolls. I wonder if all those reddit users know that Herbert warned strongly against autocratic (and darkly charismatic) leaders, and considered them dangerous for humankind.
- A small crater on the moon is named “Dune”, because astronauts David Scott and James Irwin of the Apollo 15 were, well, big fans of the book. That’s the picture above.
Saturn’s moon Titan is known to have dunes, and since 2009 its plains (planitiae) have official Dune-inspired names, like “Arrakis” or “Caladan”. The mountains of Titan have Lord of the Rings inspired names, instead. Because deep inside all astronomers are super geeks.
- 2020 will be a BIG YEAR for every “Dune” fan, and that includes you from now. A new movie has been announced and will be released on December 18th, 2020. It will be directed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049), and that’s very good news. If there is one man in 2020 who can take on the challenge to deliver Dune into our millennium, it’s Villeneuve. Greig Fraser (Rogue One) will take care of the cinematography, and that also sounds fantastic. Other good news is that the film will feature names like Jason Momoa, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Dave Bautista, Stellan Skarsgård (as baron Harkonnen), Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Hans Zimmer was announced at the soundtrack. Oscar Isaac defined it “a brutalist nightmare”. Not sure what he meant by that, but I love the idea. I literally cannot wait, this is gonna be planetary–massive. So big that, actually, the movie will be released in two parts. Also an HBO series has been announced, with the title “Dune: The Sisterhood“, but that’s all we know about it for now.
And that’s (almost) ALL you need to know about Dune to start 2020 in the best possible way!
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