It’s a great time for “Dune” fans. Provided there are no more setbacks due to the pandemic, the new “Dune” movie is set to be released on Oct. 1, 2021. The trailer is out, and it looks promising. This 60-year-old book, having won the Hugo Award for Best Novel and the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966, has been notoriously difficult to adapt to film. Those who have read the book tend to believe it’s either one of the best science fiction novels ever published or that the number of made-up names, languages and traditions are too dense to understand.
What is “Dune” about?
This depends entirely on how it is read. Like many other works of genre fiction, there isn’t always a clear divide between pulp and literature. “Dune” has multiple ways in which it could, and has been, interpreted.
To summarize, “Dune” follows the path of a 15-year-old boy named Paul, who happens to be the son of the duke of the house of Atreides, and Jessica, a member of a group of space witches called the Bene Gesserit. When Paul hears that his father is losing his rule, the family must move to the planet Arrakis, more commonly known as “Dune,” in order to secure his father’s position.
Dune is a dangerous desert planet, where the water dries up as soon as the wells have been dug and where people must wear water conservation suits to survive. Native to this planet are the Fremen people, whose cultural practices and even religion are based around water conservation.
This planet is also rich in the deadly, addictive drug known as “spice,” which is portrayed as having the ability to grant special powers as well as fuel spaceships. In this universe, spice is everything, and much of the story focuses on the political battle surrounding the forces that wish to control the planet and gain access to this precious resource. Moreover, spice is difficult to acquire on account of the giant sandworms that are attracted to it and swallow the mining equipment whole.
“Dune” majorly influenced how modern science fiction developed, and part of this was due to the work’s multiple layers of interpretation and worldbuilding. As Hari Kunzru eloquently wrote in his article for The Guardian, “Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war and ‘Game of Thrones,’ with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then ‘Dune’ is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius. Its concerns — environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness and the developing countries’ revolution against imperialism — are blended together into an era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation.”
Despite its influence on modern science fiction, many longstanding “Dune” fans consider the book underappreciated. This has unfortunately been the case from the beginning, as Herbert has faced many challenges in promoting his “Duniverse.”
One reason why “Dune” has been labeled as inaccessible to the common reader is that the worldbuilding was way ahead of its time and there tends to be a learning curve upon picking up the book. “Dune” was published for the first time in 1965. At this time, many readers also had a difficult time reading a book with such dense worldbuilding, as “Dune” was one of the first science fiction books to come out with a language and include appendices to explain the cultures and religions. In fact, many publishers of the time refused to publish it for this reason. In his article for Barnes & Noble’s Sci-Fi & Fantasy blog, John Bardinelli wrote that after many publishers rejected his novel: “Herbert persisted and was finally contacted by Sterling Lanier, editor at Chilton Books, a well-established publisher known for its business-to-business magazines and automotive manuals.”
That’s right. One of the most popular books in the science fiction genre was first published by a car repair manual printing company due to the appendices needed to explain the worldbuilding.
Past Movie Adaptations
To many readers, the idea of a young protagonist with the gift of foresight, living on a desert planet, with smugglers and a drug called “spice,” is very familiar. There is a big reason for this, but it’s necessary to backtrack to the first attempt at a “Dune” movie.
Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowski endeavored to create a “Dune” movie (1971-1976) that spanned over the length of 14 hours. His dream was to illustrate the full extent of the novel’s worldbuilding as thoroughly as Herbert had created it. In his article titled “What happened to Jodorowski’s Dune? The movie that was never made,” Bruno Cooke described what happened to this massive project. After two and a half years of pre-production, scriptwriting and over 3,000 drawings to depict the film, Jodorowski ran out of money. Though he made the request for more, the lack of funding, among other factors, forced him to close down production.
A year later, in 1977, another project was released — this one with greater success. Bardinelli wrote, “The great ‘Dune’ film did get made. Its name is ‘Star Wars.’ In early drafts, this story of a desert planet, an evil emperor, and a boy with a galactic destiny also included warring noble houses and a princess guarding a shipment of something called ‘aura spice.’ All manner of borrowings from ‘Dune’ litter the ‘Star Wars’ universe, from the Bene Gesserit-like mental powers of the Jedi to the mining and ‘moisture farming’ on Tattooine.”
“Star Wars” majorly took over the series’s fame after Jodorowski failed, and Herbert wasn’t happy about it. In an article titled “Everything Star Wars Borrowed from Dune,” Lindsey Romain describes in greater detail the similarities between the two universes, and she links in this Oregon newspaper clipping from Herbert regarding the issue of suing over the copied material. Despite Herbert’s protests, “Star Wars” went on to become a commercial success while “Dune” struggled to create its first movie.
Again in 1984, another “Dune” movie came out, but it received a lot of criticism and the graphics haven’t aged well. The “Dune” 1984 trailer is available on YouTube, as is the full movie for those willing to splurge the $4 rental fee. This movie, likely due to its mediocrity, has been widely forgotten in mainstream media.
40 years later, the 2021 remake of “Dune” has sparked excitement from fans who never received the great movie they had hoped for. The remake is one more attempt, aided with modern technology, to not only illustrate “Dune,” but to do so in a way that does justice to Herbert’s world and allows a new audience to enter into a fanbase with so much history.