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Learn from the Past to Create a Better Dune Adaptation

Learn from the Past to Create a Better Dune Adaptation

Dune may be the most beloved sci-fi novel of all time, yet it has repeatedly failed to be adapted into a good movie or TV show. A film maker must understand what makes Dune a classic, and avoid the mistakes previous productions have made in order to make a great adaptation.

What is Dune?

If you don’t know what Dune is, now is the time to find out. Legendary Pictures acquired the film rights, so it’s just a matter of time until Dune is huge.

Dune is a sci-fi novel written by Frank Herbert and published in 1965. It is widely considered the greatest science fiction novel of all time. In the novel, humanity has spread to the stars, but the necessary ingredient for space travel, the spice melange, can only be found on the planet Arrakis, otherwise known as Dune. The noble House Atreides takes control of the planet from their vicious rivals, the Harkonnens. The Harkonnens then attack, taking back Arrakis and killing all the Atreides.

Except one.

The duke’s son, Paul, escapes to the desert wastes where he is embraced as a messiah by the warrior tribes that live there. Paul develops superhuman abilities, and then takes back the planet from the Harkonnens, getting revenge in the process. Virginia Madsen, who is much prettier than me, summarizes the plot at the beginning of David Lynch’s beloved 1984 dumpster fire of an adaptation below:

What Makes Dune a Classic?

Understanding what makes Dune one of the best sci-fi books of all time is crucial to understanding the flaws that have detracted from previous Dune adaptations, and how to make this upcoming film as good as it can be.


One of the reasons people still read Dune is the depth of its setting. It is so detailed that it has a lexicon at the back for explaining all the difficult vocabulary introduced in the novel. Herbert sets the book 10,000 years in the future, after a war against machines and the human settlement of the galaxy. He creates a neo-feudal political structure, new religions, and entire new institutions, such as the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild. Oh, and Arrakis is plagued with man-eating sandworms. Also, guns don’t work for future science reasons, and people (once again?) kill each other with knives. It is a rich, deep, and fascinating universe.

This presents difficulties for adaptation to visual media, because the filmmaker has a huge burden of exposition if she wishes to give Frank Herbert’s world it’s due, and we all know that exposition in movies is boring.

Therefore, the setting is a temptation which the film-maker must resist. The urge to explain this entire cool-beans universe to the audience is an artistically vile one which must be defied. Explanation and exposition are fascinating in novels, but boring in movies because anytime something is being explained, the plot is idling, and the human buttocks can only sit for so long.

To make a Dune movie or show work, most of Herbert’s history and religion should be left out, but the politics should be left in.

Game of Thrones has shown people do enjoy politics in their fictions, and cutting out those other elements will help the plot as we will see below.

Modern Myth

Dune is a modern myth, and that is not an exaggeration.

On the surface, it is about giant worms and knife fights and betrayal. But beneath, it is all about oil. The spice in Dune is found on a sandy world inhabited by fiercely independent people dedicated to their religion, oh, and the spice is required for transportation (space travel in this case). The spice is obviously oil, and in many ways, the history of the world since 1989 has been about acquiring enough oil reliably from the sandy parts of our own world. Dune, now more than ever, is a myth explaining our own present to us.

Problems and mistakes

The Plot

The main plot of Dune could easily be summarized thusly: Paul Atreides becomes Muad’dib, the Kwisatz Haderach.

Are you confused by that sentence?

That is the problem that every adapter of Dune has struggled with. The plot of Dune requires a lot of background knowledge to understand. Previous adapters attempted to solve this problem by changing large swathes of the plot as well as adding new plots of their own, which are mistakes. Adding new plot to a confusing plot does not a good plot make.

A confusing plot needs to be made simpler, and there is a simpler story lurking in the heart of Dune. All that Kwisatz Haderach Muad-dib mumbo jumbo is mostly about religion and the limits of humanity, and it’s absolutely fascinating in the novel.

It needs to be cut for a movie. What happens to a summary of Dune if it’s cut? The summary would look something like this:

A young man takes revenge on the people that killed his father.

That, is a classic tale which everyone can understand. It’s Hamlet for the love of all!

The Characters

The main characters in Dune are weak.

Essentially, they are all loyal, intelligent, and good at knife-fighting. One can sing and write poems, another has even more smarts than most, and one can do Jedi mind tricks. The blandness and rectitude of these characters has been painfully obvious in earlier adaptations.

What’s a filmmaker to do?

A path can be found in the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies. In the novels, JRR Tolkien’s characters are also bland as milk toast, with the barest of sketches for each. Jackson took those sketches and amplified them, giving us a noble Aragorn, dumb as rocks Pippin, and Boromir meant for Sean Bean.

All the characters in Dune need to have their volume turned up and become people the audience actually cares about for a new adaptation to work.

There are other pitfalls to be avoided. For example, Herbert tells the readers what his characters are thinking, and other filmmakers have incorporated them into their films using voice overs. This robs the actors of the need to tell the audience their thoughts through actual acting. Early in the book, the bad guys lay out their dastardly plan, and then in the next 150 pages, the plan goes off exactly as they said. That scene, which is included in other adaptations, needs to be nixed, as it ruins any and all suspense for an audience. Lastly, a lot of action in the book takes place off-screen. It should be moved on-screen for a film adaptation.

The prospect of a Dune adaptation makes all true born nerds salivate. But getting a good Dune adaptation will require hard-work and dedication on the part of a filmmaker.

How do you think Dune can become a good movie? Let us know below!

Feature image courtesy Universal Pictures.

Ben Riggs speaks five languages, and has lived in four countries on three continents, but still manages to lose his keys in the bathroom. A friend to man, animal, and werewolf alike, you can discover more of Ben’s thoughts on game, the universe, and everything on Twitter, or on the Plot Points Podcast, available on iTunes or Libsyn. Email him at 

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