Dune was born in Florence, Oregon, where the temperate sand dunes meet the sea. Author Frank Herbert traveled to Florence in 1957 on a reporting assignment. He was to write on the use of grass to slow the dunes’ movement, their spread. He returned to his home in Washington with the seed of something bigger: images of dunes taking over entire ecosystems, countries, planets. He never published the article on the Oregonian sands, but over the next several years Herbert wrote of another wind-carved world, Arrakis, where the dunes are all that is—and where there is no grass or coast to stop them. In fact, there is no water anywhere to be found.
Dune met critical acclaim upon release in 1965. Since then, it has become one of the most influential pieces of post-war American fiction, and a staple of several literary genres including fantasy and science-fiction. On many editions, its jacket wears the praise of legendary sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke: “I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings.”
The novel traverses almost every conceivable epic theme, including family, power, ecology, and religion, all couched in a mythological coming-of-age: a hero’s journey.
Because of this scope and its narrational form—the novel leans on a sweeping third person omniscient, which accesses each character’s thoughts simultaneously while in both action and dialogue—Dune has been notoriously difficult to adapt on screen. It has seen several failed attempts, some killed while in production, others, like David Lynch’s 1984 behemoth, lambasted by critics.
Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 version—which will reportedly be split into two parts—will try its hand at adapting the first half of the very first Herbert novel.
(For a guide on how to read the entire series, check out our breakdown here.)
Until then, here’s what to know about the book that launched a thousand rave reviews, and an equal number of crappy adaptations.
We will avoid all major spoilers.
What is Dune about?
At the level of plot, Dune is a galactic power struggle between feudal families. The primary players are members of House Atreides (to risk reductionism: the protagonists), House Harkonnen (the antagonists), the collection of families that form House Landstraad (the political swingers), and a mystical religious group called the Bene Gesserit (the kingmakers).
The story’s principal figure is Paul Atreides, the son of family head Duke Leto, who at the story’s onset is asked by the emperor to serve as ruler of the planet Arrakis, home to one of the galaxy’s most coveted resources, the spice melange. Arrakis is also home to tribes of people called Fremen, who work the spice trade and are generally exploited by the planet’s ruling families.
After House Atreides’ arrival, Arrakis quickly becomes the playground for several political power moves between House Atreides and House Harkonnen. Paul, caught in the middle of the struggle, must seek resolution to the fighting as well as knowledge of his role in the coming wars. His journey begins across the desert.
Yeah, but what is Dune really about?
Like its own description of “ecology,” Dune is a study of consequences—of power, of faith, of resource exploitation. In this study, the novel accomplishes something unique among the epic literature which proceeded it.
Without revealing too much, Dune is a kind of trojan horse: it leads with traditional mythological motifs—prophecy, prophet, a journey through the unknown—but its mission is betrayal; your heroes are not whom you expect, their ruin comes not from where you assume.
Structurally and thematically, Dune thwarts expectations.
In contrast to traditional romantic unions and linear grail quests, Dune is a companion voyage whose core relationship entails a mother and son—where the masculine boon of theft or destruction is replaced by preservation, by the earth and the elements.
In contrast to the science-fiction which introduces emergent technology, where the story uses otherworldly mechanisms to drive narrative, Dune uses paucity, the absence of instruments and the value instead of the elemental—here, water.
In contrast to doomsday literature that preaches weariness of technology, Dune preaches weariness of prophets, of people, of heroes.
Our greatest threat is not people who give computers the minds of humans, but rather humans who turn populations into mindless computers.
To faithfully adapt Herbert’s structure and thematics requires also a movement away from traditional epic cinematic conventions. Can Villeneuve pull it off?
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What Is ‘Dune’ About? Everything To Know From The ‘Dune’ Book