Dune is a book legend. Next to Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dune is the most influential sci-fi book ever written. Social media discourse has repeatedly compared Dune to Star Wars or Game of Thrones, but the truth is that if it were not for the existence of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, we never would have seen those films. The themes and issues handled by Frank Herbert in his books could be talked about at length, but for now, let’s focus on the debut of the 2021 film adaptation, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The buzz surrounding the movie provides a good opportunity to talk about Frank Herbert‘s Dune and why the upcoming Denis Villeneuve adaption is worth the wait.
Dune is a coming-of-age story of a young man named Paul Atreides who is frightened of leaving Caladan – his home planet full of water and a variety of life. House Atreides is supposed to go Arrakis, also known as Dune, which is a desert planet with a rough ecosystem. However, Dune is full of spice called melange, a psychoactive chemical that is the main natural resource in the entire Empire. Melange enables interstellar travels and without it, the economy of the empire would collapse. As soon as Paul enters the Arrakis’ environment imbued with spice, his powers awaken.
This contrast between Caladan and Dune is very relatable and easy for the audience to identify with. Most of us live in an inhabitable environment. We don’t have to wear special stillsuits to keep us moisturized, and gigantic sandworms aren’t our daily window view. The chaotic environment of Arrakis led Villeneuve to draw some parallels to Earth’s own changing climate:
No matter what you believe, Earth is changing, and we will have to adapt,” he says. That’s why I think that Dune, this book, was written in the 20th century. It was a distant portrait of the reality of oil, capitalism, and exploitation, or even overexploitation, of Earth. Today, things are worse. It’s a coming-of-age story, but also a call for action for the youth.Behold Dune: An Exclusive Look at Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, and More, May 2020
Dune is a story about self-adapting to the new environment with a metaphysical journey into deep human self-consciousness. It is also a story about teaching society to love the planet and that nature is true power and even a god to humans who must live in symbiosis with it. The next few years in Hollywood will see an increase of films tackling environmental issues and climate changes. Nowadays, we don’t see many tentpole movies addressing these issues and fears of our planet warning us.
Frank Herbert predicted many modern problems such as overexploitation of Earth, the short-termism of capitalism, monopoly, religion interfering in politics, and of course —environmental threats. Dune teaches us how to love our planet and that even the roughest environment has some wonders. Shai-Hulud (the Fremen term for a Sandworm) is the synonym of God, showing that nature is a true god to people, and we can’t interfere with the ecosystem. Naturally, melange is a great analogy to oil, which is the most important resource in our world. Herbert doesn’t hide his anti-colonial statements in his book and shows House Harkonnens as brutal colonizers who murder indigenous peoples for power and resources.
In Herbert’s books, we don’t also see computers or androids because of an event called Butlerian Jihad, a war between humans and thinking machines. Herbert’s main goal was to show how humans can develop their minds and consciousness over the next 20,000 years into the future. In the Dune universe, human computers named Mentants, serve as war strategists and the rulers’ left-hand. The right-hand is usually occupied by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood which is the pseudo-religious organization of all-women. Even if Dune presents a patriarchal society, Bene Gesserit is a great example of a feminist view of Herbert. Despite the fact that their idea was always to serve, the truth is they controlled and manipulated the empire over the centuries.
Their goal was to create Kwisatz Haderach – a male Bene Gesserit, who would be able to see the future. They also used religion as a form of defense, seeding their Missionaria Protectiva to a more primitive culture so that the Sisterhood could take advantage of them when those seeds grew to full-fledged legends.
Although no aliens appeared in Dune (they were only hinted at in the encyclopedia), the books feature strange society groups. Such societies include the guild navigators, who resemble human beings in no way, as the large daily portion of melange has turned them into strange, “fish-like” creations. Another such group is, of course, the Bene Tleilaxians, who looked more like vampires than humans.
Their society has isolated itself from the Landsraad and closed itself off from their culture, practicing genetic modifications, which are not necessarily ethical. Then, of course, we have Leto II, who at the end of his life also did not resemble a human being. That, however, is a story for another time. It’s both fascinating but also a little scary that for so many thousands of years humanity never encountered alien civilizations, though they had a plan for a potential form of defense against them). Humanity has evolved to the point where at some point there is no longer any definition of a human being besides passing the Gom Jabbar test.
Moreover, Herbert tackles the problem a criticism of authority and blindly following messianic figures. For the most part, Paul’s journey is very Cambellian but as the storyline progresses, Herbert deconstructs that narrative at the end of the book. Dune is not a white savior story about the chosen one. Herbert’s criticism of messianic figures is addressed to people and society who create their religious myths and legends about their leader.
In the 1960s, there was a group that practiced drug orgies (and more) to unite around the ideology of their “chosen one.” The group even killed in his name: the Manson family. Admittedly, Dune was written before the murder of Sharon Tate on Cielo Drive, but you can see how Herbert foresaw and the attitudes he criticized in his work – not to follow individuals, imposing their religion, ideology on you as the only right and unquestionable one. It just so happened that in 1969, which is when the tragic event in Polanski’s home occurred, Herbert releases Messiah of Dune, which takes on jihad (i.e. religious warfare) and the deaths of billions of people in the universe that resulted from Paul’s actions as the messiah of the Fremen.
The QAnon phenomenon is also connected with the themes of Dune (there’s quite a good docuseries on HBO MAX about that which I recommend). Although QAnon and Paul Atreides don’t have much in common, the cult and religion that surround them do. It points out how dangerous a religious and almost sacred perspective on authorities can be, especially when it’s paired with politics. Even if the Dune: Part One isn’t adapting the whole book but two-thirds, we may see some seeds and of that theme.
Dune is probably one of the last chances for a new and ambitious sci-fi series in Hollywood. Blade Runner 2049 was a box office fiasco and many people have already doomed Dune to the same kind of failure. The pandemic and simultaneous distribution don’t help the overall situation, but Dune being a financial disaster is the last thing I’d like to see. It’s an amazing universe with a great potential for sequels, spin-offs, and prequels. The entire franchise has the opportunity to become something fresh in the mainstream, knowing that Dune isn’t a typical sci-fi story. Seeing all the praise coming from Venice, the only thing I can do is encourage you to go to the cinema or legally stream Dune which will surely be the defining blockbuster of this decade.
Dune will theaters and HBO Max on October 22nd.