Before there was Game of Thrones or Star Wars, there was Dune.
War and the power struggles of those who wage it have been central plot devices for millennia. War is as primal as sex and love. Now, take a world with a cosmic power struggle and add man-eating sandworms, a hostile desert planet, and an addictive magical substance, and you’ve got the epic war story baked into the science-fiction universe that is Dune.
Dune is the story of Paul Atreides, a noble-born 15-year-old caught in the crossfire of a bitter fight between two of the great houses of the Dune universe. When Paul is left for dead on the desert planet Arrakis, he emerges as the messiah of both the native people and the universe. And what, you might ask, is all this fighting on Arrakis about in the first place? Power, sure, but what the houses are really fighting over is the planet’s precious, unique natural resource and commodity: the spice melange. Whoever controls Arrakis controls the spice.
Frank Herbert published Dune in 1965 with Chilton Books, a publisher best known at the time for automotive handbooks and manuals. Setting aside the cost of printing Herbert’s giant manuscript, which broke the mold for the science fiction genre at the time, the publishers were hesitant because of the length and complexity of the novel.
But Dune quickly gained recognition as a major literary achievement, earning Nebula and Hugo awards. Many book sequels followed, along with one movie adaptation and one attempted movie adaptation. The first adaptation attempt failed because filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision was so grand that executing the film became spectacularly untenable. Remarkably, there’s a documentary about the making of Jodorowsky’s Dune called Jodorowsky’s Dune. One more time: There’s a documentary about a movie that almost happened but never did.
David Lynch’s Dune hit theaters in 1984 and was savaged by critics. Iconic film critics Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert called it a physically ugly film. David Foster Wallace called Dune the worst film of Lynch’s career, saying that a film of such narrative complexity called for a combination of technician and administrator in its director. Denis Villeneuve, director of Blade Runner 2049 and Sicario, is helming a new two-part Dune adaptation. The first film hits theaters in October. Filming for the sequel has been delayed, and there is no release date yet.
For years, Dune has stumped Hollywood studios wanting to draw money from and expand upon the Frank Herbert fan base. The proven success of franchises such as Game of Thrones and Star Wars offers one possible reason why studios feel encouraged to take another stab. At first glance, Dune seems to fit in with these sweeping, fantastical universes, but they are all quite different, aesthetically and thematically.
Herbert places particular emphasis on technology and the physical properties of the Dune universe. Dune also has clear religious themes that map more directly with Christian or Islamic faiths than the religious metaphors found in Game of Thrones, for example.
The quote “He who controls the spice controls the universe” articulates the central conflict in Dune, but the book’s intricate subplots and complex characters make it the classic it is. Paul’s story draws parallels to that of Lawrence of Arabia. Like Lawrence (and the United States), Paul deploys to a hostile, faraway place to mine natural resources. It’s the classic hero’s journey formula mixed with a unique style and storytelling aesthetic that has made Dune last. It’s the exotic vocabulary, such as Paul as the “Muad’Dib,” and the elaborate hierarchy of Mentats and Bene Gesserit, and the rest. It’s the way the Dune universe takes itself seriously in a Shakespeare-in-the-park kind of way, unflinching and bordering on cheesy, yet managing to stay palatable, plausible, and consistent.
The Manual of Muad’Dib, one of many of the books within books quoted in Dune, offers this example: “To attempt an understanding of Muad’Dib without understanding his mortal enemies, the Harkonnens, is to attempt seeing Truth without knowing Falsehood. It is the attempt to see the Light without knowing Darkness. It cannot be.”
There are also its iconic scenes, such as when Paul places his hand in a box that causes immense pain in a test of bravery and self-discipline, and then there’s the curious way nearly all the characters think out loud. It is because of its depth and eccentricities that Dune sticks in people’s minds and lends itself to pop culture references and Easter-egg-type fandom. It’s a science fiction war novel with the pomp and theater of Hamlet, the political machinations of House of Cards, and the depth and breadth of Lord of the Rings, and those characteristics have helped it endure for more than 50 years.