For as long as I can remember, Science Fiction has been one of my favourite genres as a filmmaker and storyteller. Consistent rewatches of films like Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner have never failed to transport me to galactic worlds and alien stars I couldn’t imagine on my own.
So I’ll admit, before the announcement that Denis Villeneuve would direct a film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 Sci-Fi Epic, Dune, I had no prior knowledge of the source material or legacy that the Dune saga had paved through pop culture during its history.
However, after viewing Villeneuve’s film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic, I found myself tumbling down the Dune rabbit hole.
Upon researching and studying every book, short story, and journal penned by the late author, it became clear to me that the lasting legacy of the Dune saga has greatly influenced the modern genre of Science Fiction as we know it today, both through page and screen. Leaving behind an eternal legacy that transcends culture, language, and influence.
In this retrospective and analytical article, I wish to unpack what truly makes Dune so influential for both storytellers and audiences alike. By reviewing and scrutinising the written work of Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga, as well as the film adaptation directed by Denis Villeneuve (2021, 2023), only then can the full franchise’s impact be fully realized.
By the end of this paper, my goal is to truly showcase just how important and influential the Dune franchise has had on both filmmakers and storytellers alike.
Hopefully, this article will inspire others to delve deep into the Dune mythology itself and learn more about this universe before Villeneuve’s Dune Part 2 is released later this year.
Editor’s Note: I am only taking Dune books penned by Frank Herbert into consideration when discussing the cultural impact of the Dune Series. Any Dune books penned after Frank’s death, (1986), will not be taken into consideration.
Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”Paul Atreides
Before Dune’s first publication in 1965, Science Fiction literature was often depicted in short, self-contained, single-print narratives. Novels akin to George Orwell’s 1984 (1948), and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) were seen as the pinnacle of Science Fiction literature. However, there had been little to no attempt in novel writing to create a wide-spreading Sci-Fi universe with its own living ecosystem, society and, politics which evolves and adapts with its characters over time and with each subsequent novel.
However, with the publication of Frank Herbert’s Dune in 1965, this apparent gap in the sci-fi market had seemingly become filled. The original Dune novel is an extremely dense and rich, space soap opera, filled to the brim with warring houses, self-fulfilling prophecies, prophets, space witchcraft and, giant alien sand worms, all set on the desert planet of Arrakis, the most important planet in the Dune universe.
Pulling influence from both Middle-Eastern and Islamic settings, culture and ideology, the Dune saga primarily follows the journey of hero, Paul Arteides who gallantly defends the ownership of the desert planet, Arrakis against the archenemy Baron Harkonnen.
Dune (1965), follows Paul as he grows from a young man bestowed with great potential. Along his journey of self-discovery, Paul will learn what he was truly born to be, why his destiny lies in the Arrakis sands and, how to finally defeat the Baron Harkonnen.
Along Paul’s heroic journey, he will also be prophesied by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood (Future Seeing Space Witches) to become The Kwisatz Haderach (The Chosen One). Paul is unknowingly sent down a path that will alter and change the course of the Dune universe for centuries.
Dune tells a story about what it truly means to become a messiah and why it’s so hard to be a leader.
Widely considered to be the book that propelled the Sci-Fi genre into the mainstream, the original Dune publication along with its subsequent sequels, (Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune and, Chapterhouse Dune), were all revered by both critics and audiences alike, providing a successful blueprint on how to create a compelling and fascinating Sci-Fi story.
Frank Herbet’s writing influence can also be seen in many books and films that subsequently came out after the Dune saga conclude, films such as Star Wars (George Lucas), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick) and, Contact (Robert Zemeckis) all share similar elements that call back to Frank Herbert’s original work.
However, despite the Dune saga’s ability to captivate its audience and its capability to provide the groundwork on how to craft a compelling Sci-Fi story for the next generation of filmmakers and storytellers. Dune itself wasn’t as lucky when it came to the transition from book to film.
Dennis Villeneuve’s 2021 Dune:
“The willow submits to the wind and prospers until one day it is many willows—a wall against the wind. This is the willow’s purpose.”Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim
Prior to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation, there had been several attempts within Hollywood to convert Brian Herbert’s magnum opus to the silver screen, all of which produced less than stellar results.
Films like David Lynch’s Dune (1984), John Harrison’s Dune miniseries (2000) and, Alejandro Jodorowsky cancelled Dune project all failed to properly adapt and live up to the ingenuity of the original Dune book saga. This consistent inability to adapt Dune to the big screen caused many within the film industry to believe that Dune was unfilmable and too difficult to adapt.
Enter Denis Villeneuve, coming off the critically acclaimed Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Denis Villeneuve proved he could handle large Sci-Fi projects that rely heavily on subtext and layered storytelling. Plus with Villeneuve eager to adapt Dune himself, it made perfect sense for Warner Brothers to put Denis Villeneuve at the helm.
Thus, after entering production in 2018 and having its release date pushed back several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dune: Part 1 was released to the public on October 22nd, 2021 to widespread acclaim. Renowned for Villeneuve’s direction, its cinematography/visuals and its adaption of Frank Herbert’s original vision for the Dune universe.
To ensure that this adaptation of Dune’s narrative flowed smoother than previous attempts, Denis Villeneuve and co-writers, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, opted to split the book’s story into two parts, allowing for the 155-minute story to breathe and delve deeper into the political and messiah themes that form the story backbone of Dune’s narrative.
This film covers the first half of Paul’s story, showcasing his struggles with the concept of leadership, his fears about becoming the Kwitsatz Haderach and the transition from a boy to a leader. This setup of Paul’s character, however, feels natural and fluent thanks to Timothée Chalamet’s stellar performance and Villenuve’s direction.
Dune: Part 1 also marks Denis Villeneuve’s first collaboration with Australian Cinematographer, Greig Fraser. Notable for his work on both The Batman (2022) and Rogue One (2016), Greig Fraser’s expertise with a camera is on full display in this feature. Each frame of Dune: Part 1 feels like a painted portrait, with character, composition and craftsmanship oozing from each shot.
From the harsh yellows and oranges that radiate off the Arrakis sand dunes, to the calm blues and greens of planet Caladan. Both colour and set design play vital roles in Fraser’s cinematography, these elements are used to properly cement the audience into the Dune universe and establish just how different this world is from our own.
Greg Fraser would go on to win Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards for his work on Dune. Dune would also sweep the Oscars in the technical department, winning Best Visual Effects, Production Design, Costume Design and, Makeup / Hairstyling—a true testament to Dune’s production team.
Overall, Dune: Part 1 serves as the beginning of something special. Not only does it stand as a technical masterpiece that balances both Denis Villeneuve’s dense storytelling and Greg Fraser’s gorgeous cinematography. Dune: Part 1 also finally breaks the long-standing notion that Frank Herbert’s work is impossible to transition from page to screen successfully.
Dune: Part 1 firmly pulls Frank Herbert’s classic Sci-Fi story into the 21st century and finally gives filmatic justice to what many consider to be the original Sci-Fi Epic.
Dune’s Legacy on Storytelling and Filmmaking:
“Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake”Duncan Idaho
Ever since Dune’s first publication in 1965, Frank Herbert’s work has seemingly influenced many stories that subsequently released after the Dune saga had concluded.
Sci-Fi films such as George Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’ (1977), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) & Blade Runner (1982) and, the Wachowski’s Matrix (1999), all seemingly take inspiration and elements from the Dune universe and rework them to become each director own.
Luke Skywalker and Paul Atreides share similar Sci-Fi heroic journeys, being destined to bring stability to a galaxy needing saving from an evil dictator (Star Wars’ Empire and Dune’s House Harkonnen).
Heroes like Neo from ‘The Matrix’ and Case from the ‘Neuromancer’ series also follow this Sci-Fi heroes journey that was popularised by Frank Herbert’s Dune publication in 1965. Characters that are pulled out of their normal lives to explore their world and better the universe they live in.
“Before The Matrix, before Star Wars, before Ender’s Game and Neuromancer, there was Dune – the great science fiction novel ever written.”First Paragraph of Dune’s 50th anniversary blurb.
Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga has done so much to popularise and solidify Science Fiction as a staple in the cultural zeitgeist. Dune proved to both creatives and critics that Sci-Fi stories can be compelling and engaging while also having stakes that are bigger and more complex than ever thought before 1965.
And while Dune for the longest time failed to receive the recognition it deserved for its major influence on modern Sci-Fi. Dune’s recent film resurgence and success, led by Denis Villeneuve, has helped revitalise the series and helped Frank Herbert’s original work finally receive the praise it has long deserved.
Dune is Science Fiction’s original epic and still stands as one of the genre’s best even 50 years after its inception.
Written and Curated by Michael Qualischefski.