As Princess Irulan notes in one of her many histories of the period chronicled within the pages of Frank Herbert’s Dune, “a beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” Herbert’s 1965 novel is one of the most beloved works of science fiction published in the 20th century and one of the hardest for Hollywood to crack. With that in mind, we hope to present the most accurate information possible about the upcoming film adaptation of Dune by director Denis Villeneuve and a look at some of the attempts to bring it to the screen thus far. As you will see, “delicate care” is one of the most important aspects of adapting Dune, as its lingo, characters, and ideas set it apart from other space movie franchises. [Updated on 4/15/20.]
Originally published as three parts in the pages of Analog magazine, Dune is an epic of political intrigue, impossible feats of human will, and what happens when an entire ruling class gets high on their own supply. Set some 20,000 years in our future, it centers on a human star empire that, while advanced in terms of space travel, physical prowess, and mental abilities, has regressed to a quasi-feudal government with the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV as its ruler.
In the year 10,191 (A.G., or After Guild, about 9,000 years in our future), he reassigns the House of Atreides from its ancestral seat on planet Caladan to Arrakis (also known as “Dune”) – the one world in the known universe where the Spice Melange can be harvested. The Spice is a mystical, mind-altering substance enabling space navigation, prognostication, and a host of other abilities. Consequently, it is the most important commodity in the known universe. The reassignment of House Atreides is a political maneuver to eliminate Duke Leto Atreides before he can garner enough support from the other houses to oppose the Emperor, but Shaddam IV’s seemingly simple decision will unleash several millennia of human strife.
Beyond its gripping political yarn, Herbert devises amazing characters, like the crafty Baron Vladimir Harkonnen — Duke Leto’s principle rival — or the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, the leader of a sisterhood devoted to reaching the deepest recesses of the human psyche, but secretly breeding across the noble bloodlines for generations to create a being capable of going to the depths they cannot. There are supporting characters like Thufir Hawat, the Duke’s master of assassins and primary Mentat – a human conditioned for extreme computational abilities as computers and thinking machines are banned in the Imperium.
Oh, and we almost forgot to mention the Duke’s son, Paul Atreides, the actual main character of Dune, who will go on an incredible odyssey of discovery that will actually fly in the face of the hero’s journey seen in other science fiction film series. Paul’s story, and the worlds and peoples of Dune, set it apart from other science fiction epics in so many ways. It’s complex and fully realized while still delivering a great read. Think of it as a Lord of the Rings in space — although, its rejection of hereditary rulers definitely puts it at odds with J.R.R. Tolkien.
Of course, that complexity makes it extremely difficult to adapt, not that this has stopped people from trying since the 1970s.
As rich as Dune is to read, the story of its cinematic odyssey is equally compelling. The first attempt, by Planet of the Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs, was aborted when the producer passed away on June 27, 1973. As outlined in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, Chilean filmmaker/provocateur Alejandro Jodorowsky and producer Jean-Paul Gibon picked up the rights from Jacobs’ company in 1974. The project was to feature talent like Orson Welles as the Baron Harkonnen and Salvador Dalí as Emperor Shaddam IV. Behind the camera, Alien co-writer Dan O’Bannon was engaged to help with special effects and eventual Alien concept artist H.R. Giger designed the look of the Harkonnen homeworld, Giedi Prime. Pink Floyd was also set to score the film, which would take many liberties with Herbert’s story. To hear Jodorowsky tell it, the film would have expanded consciousness itself, but when he could not secure the needed funds to complete it, he was forced to abandon it; elements of his story ultimately ended up in his Incal and Metabarons comic books.
The next director to attempt folding space was Ridley Scott in 1979. Intended to be his follow-up to Alien – a film that comes up a lot in the history of Dune – he left the project following the sudden death of his older brother Frank, realizing it would take more of him than he was willing to give. He would end up transferring his energies to Blade Runner a few years later.
But as producer Dino De Laurentiis was loathed to let the money spent on developing Dune go to waste, he hired up-and-coming director David Lynch to remount the film. The resulting production, released by Universal in 1984, is staggering, weird, and often compelling – even if Dune fans questions certain liberties taken by Lynch to condense some of its plot, reshuffle some of its characters, and recast Paul in the messiah role he is expressly against in the novel. Nevertheless, we’re fond of the film, which featured early appearances by Kyle MacLachlan as Paul, Patrick Stewart as his loyal instructor Gurney Halleck, and even Alicia Witt (age 8 at the time) as Paul’s preternaturally gifted and deadly sister Alia.
The film was not a hit, though it would find a following by airing on television, where Syfy would later adapt Dune and Children of Dune into two three-hour miniseries in the early 2000s. But any further Dune films would be relegated to a distant possibility for decades. Paramount Pictures picked up the rights in 2008, with directors Peter Berg and Pierre Morel attached at various points, but Paramount walked away from it in 2011. Legendary Entertainment picked up the rights in 2016 and Villeneuve was in talks to direct by the end of that year.
The history of Dune on film should give you some idea of just how anticipated this adaptation is for fans of the novel, its sequels, and the resulting franchise.
Villeneuve inspired confidence early on with a succession of incredible casting announcements. Starting with House Atreides, Oscar Issac will play Duke Leto while Rebecca Ferguson plays his concubine, Lady Jessica, a character who is much more than her title. Their son, Paul, will be played by Timothee Chalamet. Josh Brolin will play Gurney Halleck and Stephen McKinley Henderson takes the role of Thufir Hawat. Jason Momoa will also appear as Duncan Idaho, another of Paul’s teachers whose seemingly insignificant presence here will turn into something quite epic should Dune spawn a successful film series.
Though assigned to House Atreides, Dr. Wellington Yueh (Chen Chang) is a physician of the Suk School conditioned to make him safe and incorruptible while attending to the health of nobleborns. His loyalty is, theoretically, to the principles of medicine.
Over on Giedi Prime, Stellan Skarsgard is a Baron Harkonnen for the 21st Century, and Dave Bautista plays his sadistic nephew, Glossu Rabban. A second nephew, Feyd-Rautha, will appear in the film, but it’s unclear who will play him. The Baron also has his own Mentat, Piter De Vries, played by David Dastmalchian.
Once on Arrakis, Paul and Leto will meet members of its (seemingly) indigenous population, the Fremen, which includes Javier Bardem as Stilgar and Zendaya as Chani. There are other Fremen who will matter to the story, like the Shadout Mapes and the Reverend Mother Ramallo, but it is currently unknown who might be playing them. Babs Olusanmokun, meanwhile, will play the Fremen fighter Jamis – a character with key ties to Paul – and Gloria Obianyo will play his wife, Harah. The Atreides will also meet Dr. Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), the imperial ecologist and “judge of the change” in regards to the noble house’s control of Arrakis. She also, presumably, carries the same important secrets her book counterpart held, though portraying Dr. Kynes as female is a departure from the novel and the various attempts at adapting it on film.
Other parts include Shaddam IV, his daughter Irulan, Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) and – if time permits – Count Hasimir Fenrig and his wife Lady Margot, both of whom were deleted entirely from David Lynch’s Dune. And while it makes total sense to cut them (and a few other people) for a two-hour-and-thirty-five minute film, we presume Villeneuve will have the time for almost everyone mentioned by Herbert in Dune, because…
Unlike every other attempt to adapt Dune, Villeneuve’s production is actually two films. Considering the way the novel is structured, there is a natural place for the film to end, complete with a rousing action scene, should Villeneuve be so inclined.
Granted, part of what makes Dune so tough to adapt is its tendency to avoid certain storytelling tropes. Much of the book is set in quiet rooms where people discuss action occurring between chapters while drinking Spice Coffee and trying to ascertain what the other person is hiding by analyzing minute changes in facial expressions. Big battles happen, to be sure, but Herbert was more interested in what they meant for his world than focusing on the action itself. Of course, Villeneuve has proven with films like Sicario and Blade Runner 2049 that he can make compelling cinema out of two people talking or trying to kill each other. That Dune offers him scenes in which both are happening simultaneously – and sometimes surreptitiously – may be part of the appeal for him.
Other members of the crew include co-writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, director of photography Greig Fraser, production designer Patrice Vermette, editor Joe Walker, and producers Mary Parent, Cale Boyter, Joe Caracciolo, and Villeneuve. Composing the film’s score will be Hans Zimmer, who is said to have a special love of the original Dune novel.
In an era of long-term film franchises, getting Dune to work on screen would give Warner Bros. access to five additional novels written by Herbert and a raft of spin-off material written by his son Brian and sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson. Indeed, Herbert’s longer Dune cycle spans thousands of years and eventually shifts its focus from Paul to his son Leto II and eventually to… Well, let’s just say someone we mentioned in the cast list above could find themselves appearing in Dune films for decades.
As it happens, Legendary is already convinced Dune will work this time and are developing a spinoff television show, Dune: The Sisterhood, for HBO Max. Spaihts wrote the pilot with Dana Calvo stepping in as showrunner. Villeneuve is expected to direct the first episode and serve as an executive producer alongside Spaihts, Brian Herbert, Byron Merrill, and Kim Herbert. Centering on the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, it will find more ways to illustrate the political intrigues of Dune’s Imperium and, potentially, their dealings with Paul after the events of Dune.
Of course, those who have read Children of Dune or God Emperor of Dune may wonder how Legendary and Warner Bros. can pave a golden path of franchise wealth from the Golden Path that Leto II sets for humanity in the Dune sequels. The philosophical elements of Herbert’s world amp up even as more traditional dramatic narratives recede. And the conclusion of the story realized by Brian Herbert and Anderson takes an unexpected and almost pulpy direction; it’s not exactly Marvel, Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars by any stretch of the imagination.
Then again, it wouldn’t be Dune if it didn’t prove difficult for Hollywood to crack.
Dune is currently set for release on December 18, 2020. It is unclear when the second part will materialize.