Since its publication in 1965, Frank Herbert’s seminal novel “Dune” has shaped popular culture, especially the science fiction genre, in ways that most people don’t realize. “Star Wars,” “Babylon 5” and other so-called space operas most likely wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for “Dune” and the genre conventions that it helped create.
Despite how daunting the book can be for first-time readers, “Dune” is often compared to J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” in its scope and its position as the defining work of its genre. Even so, “Dune” occupies a strange place in culture: It is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, yet its fan community sits almost entirely outside the mainstream.
Approaching “Dune” can seem like quite the task. The novel occurs over the span of several years, and readers are forced to use context clues to put together details of crucial events that have occurred hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the events described in the book. The terminology comes fast, with past events and technological jargon thrown at the reader with every turned page.
Although they may seem overwhelming at first, the details mesh together to help paint the vibrant picture that is the world of “Dune.” A complete synopsis would require pages of background information, so here is a somewhat condensed version:
Tens of thousands of years in the future, a feudal society known as the Imperium, comprising many noble houses known as the Landsraad, rules most of the known universe. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, the current ruler of the Imperium and patriarch of House Corrino, grows fearful of the rising popularity and competency of House Atreides, a competing noble house of the Landsraad.
In order to prevent House Atreides from becoming a threat, the emperor requests that it relocate itself to the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Dune is a notoriously volatile planet, both because of its hostile desert environment and its status as the only planet in the universe capable of producing the drug known as the spice, or melange.
The spice greatly increases its users’ lifespans and bestows upon them a degree of clairvoyance, at the cost of a withdrawal that is guaranteed to be fatal. The spice is central to the galactic economy, allowing for interstellar travel without the use of computers.
The emperor conspires with House Harkonnen, longstanding enemies of House Atreides, to destabilize the Atreides’ rule on Arrakis in order to seize control of the planet. In the midst of the conspiracy, Paul Atreides, the son of House Atreides’ patriarch, is forced to embark on an epic quest of spiritual awakening to take revenge on the Harkonnens and embrace his destiny as the long-prophesized Kwisatz Haderach, who has been foretold to be the one to prevent the extinction of every civilization across the cosmos.
Eventually, Paul becomes the leader and messiah of the Fremen, Dune’s native inhabitants, who possess technology and knowledge that makes them uniquely capable fighters and survivalists on the otherwise inhospitable desert planet. He leads them to retake Dune from the Harkonnens and forces the emperor to abdicate.
“Dune” incorporates many religious, ecological and sociological themes that were ahead of its time. It deftly subverts the narrative of the “chosen one” that is common in many fantasy novels, as Paul Atreides realizes that the movement he has created based upon his prescient visions as the Kwisatz Haderach is one that has already gotten out of his control, and his followers will ravage the universe no matter what he tells them to do.
Herbert based “Dune” on the writings of T. E. Lawrence, more popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia, in the sense that “Dune” carries a strong anti-colonialist message as it becomes progressively clearer that the planet Arrakis is suffering ecologically under the rule of non-native inhabitants, regardless of the supposed purity of their intentions.
Like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Dune” defined its genre for decades afterward. Readers may notice parallels between the journey of Paul Atreides and characters such as Luke Skywalker, who both embrace a mystical force to become the hero of a ragtag resistance group opposed by a tyrannical force that greatly outnumbers them. Its simultaneously feudalistic and technologically advanced society is mirrored in such works as “Babylon 5” and “Battlestar Galactica,” and its iconic sandworms have inspired similar creatures in a number of video games, books and films.
So, if “Dune” was so popular and influential, why have there been so few adaptations of the book? That’s chiefly thanks to the saga’s deep lore, complex sociopolitical world and its more fantastical elements, which each influence why adaptations struggle to get off the ground.
Cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to make a film based on his own interpretation of Herbert’s novel in 1974, but in the face of an ever-growing budget due to his insistence on perfection and celebrity casting — including Salvador Dali as the Padishah Emperor — he was forced to stop production.
A few years after Jodorowsky’s endeavor, David Lynch directed a 1984 film adaptation that was faithful to the book to a T yet was greatly cut down by Universal to shorten its runtime, which still came in at almost two and a half hours; the film wasn’t received well by critics, but it has gained a cult following.
Later, Syfy made a TV miniseries adapting three of Herbert’s five “Dune” sequel novels. Called “Children of Dune,” the series debuted to lukewarm critical reception and a minimal audience.
Denis Villenueve, the acclaimed director of “Enemy” and the long-awaited “Blade Runner” sequel “Blade Runner 2049,” is directing the newest adaptation of “Dune,” which is set to premiere later this year; the film will cover the first half of the first novel.
Whether sci-fi fans realize it or not, “Dune” helped and continues to shape the genre as a whole to this day; hopefully, the forthcoming adaptation will renew public interest in the legendary series.