‘Star Wars for adults?’: The timeless appeal of a masterpiece called Dune

Gautham Shenoy February 3, 2018 9 min

Considered one of the most influential science fiction stories of all time, Dune is widely regarded and often cited as the most sold SF book. Amongst the few books that have won both – the Hugo and the Nebula Awards – there is nary an SF fan who has not heard about it, if not read it. Yet, it remains an ignored classic as far as seeping into the mainstream goes; not having permeated into pop culture or geek parlance with catchphrases and references. It may change soon though.

In a news that heartened many a Dune fan, Denis Villeneuve, the director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, was announced as having been signed on to direct a movie based on the book. And a few weeks ago, he set the cat among the porgs when he remarked that his Dune movie will be ‘Star Wars for adults’.

“Most of the main ideas of Star Wars are coming from Dune so it’s going to be a challenge to this. The ambition is to do the Star Wars movie I never saw. In a way, it’s Star Wars for adults. We’ll see,” Villeneuve said. While it’s true that Dune did influence George Lucas – and thus Star Wars – with its tale of a desert planet, mystical powers, a quasi-religion, an evil intergalactic emperor and other elements, it would be unfair to both these classics to be compared thus. Star Wars was influenced by more than just Dune, from Flash Gordon, Akira Kurosawa and Star Trek, to Celtic folklore, Valerian comics, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and lots more. Dune meanwhile, can stand alone on its own merit, without being a snowclone (‘the Lord of the Rings of sci-fi’) or needing Star Wars to be a comparative yardstick.

Left & Centre: Issues of the science fiction magazine Analog, in which Dune was first serialised. Right: Frank Herbert, creator of the Dune universe.

So, what is Dune all about?

The titular Dune is Arrakis, a desert planet home to the Fremen, a fierce nomadic tribe, and more importantly, to mammoth sandworms the size of starships. A place where water is so precious that to shed a tear is a sacrifice and taboo. But Dune is key to the galaxy, perhaps the most important planet, because it is the sole source of ‘spice’, the mysterious melange created by Dune’s sandworms that bestows upon its user a longer lifespan and the ability to fold time and space, thus being a key to the navigators of the empire. But at its heart, Dune is the coming-of-age tale of a young boy Paul of House Atreides, whose father takes over the stewardship of Arrakis from Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, of House Harkonnen, in a devious ploy played out by Shaddam IV of House Corrino, and Padishah Emperor of the Known Universe. Thus begins a multi-layered tale of adventure, politics, business, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, as factions of the Empire confront each other, including a secretive sisterhood, an organisation that controls all mercantile affairs of the empire and of course the feuding feudal Great Houses. And at the heart of them, all is the journey of a hero, Paul Atreides as he hurtles towards the fulfilment of more than one prophecy.
Come to think of it, Dune has all the necessary ingredients (including punch dialogues) for an epic intrigue-filled, action-packed Bollywood masala movie (pun intended) – but with depth and intelligence – sans item numbers, though there is love, temptation and seduction.

Art by John Schoenherr for the illustrated edition of Dune, of which Frank Herbert said, “I can envision no more perfect visual representation of my Dune world than John Schoenherr’s careful and accurate illustrations.”

It could just as well have been a fantasy epic, if you trade the sandworms and spice, for gold and dragons. Dune is a classic of what is known as ‘soft’ science fiction, and for a sci-fi epic technology is hardly present. There are no robots or computers, even though it is considered a space opera, which puts the focus squarely on people. Years before the novel begins, people have overthrown and destroyed the ‘god of machine-logic’ in an event known as the Butlerian Jihad. They’ve turned instead to spirituality and religion which ultimately come together to create a stage and situation ready for Paul Atreides to prove his worth, and claim his rightful place.

Left: Character sketches and designs by the French artist Jean Giraud aka Moebius for Jodorowsky’s Dune. Right: H.R. Giger with his art and ideas for the vehicles and architecture of Dune.

Not quite an immediate bestseller when it was released, Dune has since grown in stature and sales, with different readers enjoying for different reasons. As author and SF historian, Adam Roberts notes in his book, History of Science Fiction, ‘The broad popularity…of Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune is a phenomenon quite unlike the comparatively select popularity SF had enjoyed before. One reason for the commercial success of Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune, and incidentally, Lord of the Rings, is that these titles became campus books, bought and avidly read by hundreds of thousands of students as countercultural accoutrements, or even manifestos. Certainly, the mysticism and the presentation of psychotropic drugs as gateways to transcendental transformation in Dune insinuated it into the affections of mystically-inclined drug-taking youngsters; although there is much more to the novel than that.’ Well, seems like everyone had their own reasons to read and enjoy Dune.
The Denis Villeneuve directed Dune will not be the first Dune movie on the big screen. It’s been attempted before, and one has actually been made. The first – and most famous – attempt was by the avant-garde Chilean-French director, Alejandro Jodorowsky. This planned 10-hour film was to star the surrealist Salvador Dali (as the Emperor), Mick Jagger, and Orson Welles, with music by Pink Floyd. Doomed from the start, it was soon abandoned and Jodorowsky’s Dune remains one of the ‘best films never made’. Readers of New Worlds Weekly will recall this project as being the first time that a scriptwriter named Dan O’Bannon met a quiet young artist called H.R. Giger and which ultimately led to Alien.

Left: The poster for David Lynch’s 1984 movie, Dune. Right (top): Frank Herbert with David Lynch. Right (bottom): A scene from Dune, with the hero Paul Muad’Dib (played by Kyle MacLachlan), engaged in a knife battle with one of the antagonists Feyd-Rautha (played by the musician Sting) as Patrick Stewart (portraying Gurney Halleck) looks on.

In 1984, Dune, a movie directed by a man considered by many to be ‘the Renaissance man of modern American filmmaking’ David Lynch, came out and was promptly panned by critics, laughed at by audiences and finally ending up as a box office bomb. But, for all of its flaws, and campy as it was, David Lynch’s Dune however still remains the best adaptation yet. So it’s not quite a very high bar for Denis Villeneuve to clear, but as past efforts – even on TV – have shown, it’s not an easy task to adapt Dune.

That said, the news of Denis Villeneuve directing a new adaptation of Dune was rightly met with a lot of joy and excitedly discussed amongst Dune fans. But not everyone is convinced. As a writer, SF critic and writing teacher, Damien G Walter told me, “Dune was a high water mark in storytelling that has been rarely matched in science fiction. The depth of the world it plunged the reader into has made it a classic that still blows readers socks off today. I’ve been disappointed by both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, so Villeneuve’s film adaptation isn’t inspiring to me. But I’ll pay attention when Noah Hawley makes it for HBO”.

If you’ve read Dune, maybe it’s time to revisit Arrakis and refresh your memory, because the “the book is always better than the movie. But if you’re amongst those who haven’t read Dune yet, then read it not because Denis Villeneuve is going to make a movie out of it, but because it is one of the greatest sci-fi epics ever written.

Many have hesitated to pick up Dune because the whole epic spans almost 20 novels. Well, that’s what happens when a classic becomes a “franchise”. Frank Herbert wrote only six novels of the saga: Dune, and its five sequels that take the story thousands of years into the future. The rest of the books – assorted sequels, terrible prequels, and clumsy standalones – were written by his son Brian Herbert along with Kevin J. Anderson can safely be ignored. And even if reading six books of an epic sounds like too much, well worry not, you can read the first book, and stop with that. If you can. But the first book – Dune – is an essential read, and very enjoyable once you start immersing yourself into the story. Ask anyone who has read and enjoyed Dune, and they’ll give a dozen reasons why you must too.

The hardbound SF Masterworks edition of Dune. The blurb, by Arthur C. Clarke, reads, “I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings”.

One of the distinctions that Dune also holds is that when the publishers of the SF Masterworks decided to publish hardcover editions, the first book chosen to be printed as a hardbound title was, you guessed it, Dune. So, if you’re thinking you need to get yourself a copy, then we’re going to make it easier for you to get hold of the aforementioned hardbound SF Masterworks edition of Dune – with the New Worlds Weekly giveaway. And because Dune is two good, we’re giving away two copies to 2 lucky winners!

All you have to do is tell us, “Which edition of New Worlds Weekly did NOT meet your expectations, and why?”. Send in your entries, along with the link to the piece in question – by using the comments section below, or tweeting to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD – before the midnight of Friday, 16th February 2018. You can send in a maximum of 2 entries. All entries go into a lucky draw which will be done –and winners announced – next weekend. All the best!

And on that note, I bid you farewell until next weekend, when I hope to meet you here again over another edition of New Worlds Weekly, as we continue our SF journey together. Live Long and Prosper!


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