It’s the best-selling and most influential sci-fi novel of all time. Frank Herbert’s 1965 book, Dune, has influenced Star Wars, Star Trek, fantasy heroes, fictitious universes and countless stories. And yet, no one seems to know much about it, despite a film in 1984 and a TV series in 2000. Another attempt at the big screen comes out in December. You’d best be prepared.
Dune? Sounds dusty
It is. Herbert’s story (spanning five sequels) is set in the future, in a feudal universe where everyone’s fighting for power, resources and political gain. You see it all unfold through our hero, Paul Atreides, whose family manages the barren (okay, dusty) planet Arrakis, nicknamed Dune, the universe’s only source of The Spice.
Not quite. The Spice Melange is an underground gas that extends life, alters time and enhances mental abilities so you can zip across space. It’s hard to find, violently sought, dangerous to collect and highly addictive (watch out for blue eyes). It’s so precious, director David Lynch devoted the entire opening sequence to explaining it in his 1984 adaptation.
There’s kind of a girl gang too
The Bene Gesserit is an exclusive cabal of women who’ve trained their minds to develop seemingly magical powers and are valuable allies in power-broking (when they’re not covertly infiltrating powerful homes and planets themselves).
But this isn’t an Indiana Jones quest
Herbert started out as a journalist. He’d seen environmental writing blossom with Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring, published in 1962. The film Lawrence of Arabia, released in the same year, featured a hero who mobilises desert-dwelllers against an advancing empire.
Dune weaves in religion, ecology, technology, politics, moral dilemmas and relationships. It incorporates elements from Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and more. It’s sci-fi that doesn’t care about fantasy tech; it focuses on power systems and flawed leadership instead.
Twenty publishers rejected Dune. It was finally picked up by a firm that published car-repair manuals. But Dune won the inaugural Nebula award for best American sci-fi novel in 1965. It won the Hugo award the following year.
The first film attempt was an epic fail
In 1975, director Alejandro Jodorowsky planned a movie version, 10 hours long, with his son in the lead and a cast that included Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, Geraldine Chaplin and Mick Jagger. Pink Floyd was to do part of the soundtrack. Dali wanted $100,000 per hour and the director agreed; he planned to film Dali’s key scenes in 60 minutes and deploy a dummy for the rest. Alas, funding ran out before filming had even begun.
Other adaptations have fared better
Lynch turned down Return of the Jedi (1983) so he could focus on his adaptation, which was released in 1984. Fans said it wasn’t faithful enough (Sting played an assassin, prancing around in a leather bikini most of the time; and Patrick Stewart had a Patrick Stewartesque role). Moviegoers were hopelessly confused. It was only as geekhood went mainstream, from the 1990s onward, that the film gained cult status.
The TV show Frank Herbert’s Dune, which debuted on America’s Sci-Fi Channel in 2000, and the 2003 sequel, Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, are among the channel’s highest-rated series. There’s also a board game, and computer games. The best part: Dune fans aren’t rabid trolls and the Duniverse hasn’t been milked for merchandise. Yet.
And now, for the movie
Denis Villeneuve, director of the sci-fi thriller Arrival (2016) is making a fresh adaptation , which will now come out next year. It’s a co-production involving production houses from the US, UK, Canada and Hungary, and will be the first of two planned standalone films.
The cast is young: Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya will star alongside Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Jason Momoa and Javier Bardem.
For the trailer, music director Hans Zimmer trained 32 choir members to FaceTime from their homes in lockdown, and remotely recorded a cover of Pink Floyd’s Eclipse.
There’s a spin-off already.
An HBO prequel series Dune: The Sisterhood, with Denis Villeneuve directing the pilot, will be out soon too.