Artwork from Dune

Dune: From Novel to Film

A quick primer on Dune before you watch the just-released film.

The newest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune was just released today, with a screenplay written by Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, and Eric Roth. The 2021 Dune is far from the first adaptation of the iconic science fiction novel though. So, what is it about Dune that makes people want to adapt it? What iconic elements help make the story seem so relevant 56 years after publication? Let’s find out.

Written by Ari Bachechi

Dune by Frank Herbert book cover
First Edition Cover

For those who have never read the novel, which I highly recommend, let’s start at the beginning with a blurb from the publisher: “Set on the desert planet Arrakis, a world more awesome than any other in literature, DUNE begins the story of the man known as Muad’dib and of a great family’s ambition to bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream…”

Wow. So, setting aside the “world more awesome than any other in literature” argument for another day, this already sounds promising as an epic story. I don’t want to give out too many spoilers yet, but I can tell you a few more details that might be helpful for orientation when you see the movie if you do so before reading the book.

Key Characters

  • Paul Atreides – heir to House Atreides, son of Jessica and Duke Leto
  • Baron Harkonnen – leader of the House Harkonnen, the Atreides rival and former leaders of Arrakis
  • Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck – soldiers in the employ of House Atreides
  • Thufir Hawat – a Mentat and head of assassins for House Atreides
  • Chani – a young woman who is a native of Arrakis

Important Places and Things

  • Arrakis – the main planet where the novel is set, also known as Dune
  • Arrakeen – the first city and seat of government on Arrakis
  • Spice Melange – a spice unique to Arrakis that enhances human cognitive potential, widely considered the most valuable commodity in the galaxy
  • Shai-Hulud / Sandworm – a species of giant worm that lives on Arrakis under the desert sands
Artist rendition of a sandworm, art by Nathan Rosario

Now that we know there are some people on a desert planet that happens to have giant worms and the most expensive mind-altering substance in the galaxy, why exactly do we care? Sure, that sounds fun, but what is it that makes people want to adapt this novel into other formats?

The answer may come from the adaptations themselves and the feedback they’ve received. Here’s a rundown of Dune adaptations to the screen over the years:

Dune film poster from 1984
DUNE, 1984 film poster
  • 1975: Alejandro Jodorowsky, a well-known French filmmaker who later created the famous comic saga The Incal, proposed creating a film adaptation of Dune. The project overspent and under-delivered and was eventually shut down. At the time, Dune was considered too difficult to portray on film.
  • 1984: Dune is released on film, adapted and directed by David Lynch. Many people consider it to be pretty awful, but I think it just ran into some issues. Notably, Paul, our narrator, has some rather intense thoughts in the book and it gets rather tense at times. In the movie, this translated rather poorly into voice overs while he looks either serious or drugged. The movie uses this voiceover for much of the exposition as well, possibly trying too hard to stick to book format when it should have let visuals tell the story.
  • 2000: A Dune three-part mini series was released on the Sci Fi channel. I’ve not seen this one, but it received a lot of praise. The biggest complaint seemed to be that it followed the books so closely that parts which are best suited for reading make for rather boring watching. It is widely regarded as a better adaptation than the 1984 film though. 
  • 2003: A sequel mini series called Children of Dune that follows the next two books in the DUNE Chronicle was released. This series got mixed reviews, probably because it changed the story more significantly. It is hard to tell though if the adaptation is wrong or if the story is just convoluted in the first place, since the main complaint seems to stem from the story not being coherent.
  • 2008-2011: There were long talks about a possible remake of the 1984 film, or a new adaptation attempt altogether, but all fell apart as too difficult, expensive, or overly ambitious.
Jodorowsky's Dune film poster
Jodorowsky’s Dune film poster
  • 2013: Jodorowsky’s Dune is released. This documentary chronicles the 1975 attempt at adaptation by Alejandro Jodorowsky and the ambitious lengths that he went to before the project was eventually scrapped.

These adaptations all have one thing in common: an extreme focus on impressive visuals. Frank Herbert had a true gift for being able to lay a scene and make the mundane feel epic. One possible lure to adapt such a story could be the challenge of representing the stunning visuals we imagine when reading the novel.

I think deep at the heart of why we want to see this story on screen though is simply the enduring messages it presents. As most good science fiction does, Herbert used a faraway place and time to comment on issues that were pressing in 1965. However, he did so on such a grand scale about issues so large that they have continued to loom over our collective culture. Dune is essentially a plea to help the Earth, and to help those who have been oppressed by the people destroying the environment.

In 2021, with climate change officially a public health emergency, and oppression still pushing down on many people, it gives us what we all need: courage.

Dune is out now in theaters and on HBO Max.

One thought on “Dune: From Novel to Film

  1. Dee Ellmann says:

    Thank you for this post on Dune. I’ve been wanting to read Frank Herbert’s novel again before seeing the new film. This gives me some perspective on some of the previous adaptations. Agreed that it’s debatable whether it is the “most awesome world in literature,” but I’m looking forward to reading it again!

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