Author Frank Herbert penned six novels set in his sprawling Dune universe from 1965-1985. Starting in 1999, his son Brian Herbert and author Kevin J. Anderson published several prequel and sequel novels. The Duniverse now encompasses 21 books (with more to come), a series of video games, and a number of on-screen adaptations. The tapestry of this fictional world stretches back nearly six decades and the content is an intricately woven tale of intergalactic politics, theology, and social hierarchies. So you’d be forgiven if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed and unprepared for Warner Bros.’ blockbuster Dune movie, starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, set to debut in the United States in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22. Director Denis Villeneuve’s movie only deals with the first half of the first book, which gives you a sense of how much there is to learn.
Given the density of the layered source material and the millions of potential new fans who may not be familiar with the books, we’ve turned to Dune expert Scott Brick, the acclaimed audiobook narrator for the Dune series for the last 20 years, to relay everything we need to know before leaping into this fantastical world.
What are the key details fans who haven’t read the books need to know before they see Dune?
They key thing to realize is that the book’s scope is almost Shakespearean. There’s drama, there’s tragedy, there’s life, there’s death, as in most stories. And yet in Shakespeare, there is court drama with machinations and plotting against one another. Dune is set in the distant future, but in many ways it’s a return to the past because life has returned to this feudal system with royalty, royal house, and nobility. There’s nobility and and then you have the peons and peasants, the people who actually do the living and dying and the working and suffering. It’s the kind of story that shows us that the more things change, the more things stay the same. How socioeconomic divides and separation can lead to revolutions, if not these completely divergent cycles of life for different peoples.
Who are the major players we need to know?
Paul Atreides [Chalamet], heir to House Atreides ruled by his father Duke Leto [Oscar Isaac], is the main character. They are a noble house and while most noble houses are obsessed with preserving the monarchy and enriching themselves, he comes from a noble family that doesn’t care about those things. His father, Duke Leto, is more concerned with what is right than what is good for the House. He cares more about the people under his stewardship. Lady Jessica [Rebecca Ferguson] is his concubine and much is made of the fact that he never married her. She is Paul’s mother.
Then there’s House Harkonnen. They were previously the best of friends with House Atreides, bonded Kinsman, until about 10,000 years ago when a rift began. Vladimir Harkonnen [Stellan Skarsgård] leads the House now and is a main antagonist. Dune embraces the concept of love and hatred that grows over generations. These ancient political alignments play a key role.
The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV of House Corrino [who is not yet cast but will certainly appear in part 2, if it gets made] is the ruler of the universe, or the Imperium. He runs the show and he’s rather capricious. He supposedly does what is best for the Imperium, but is more focused primarily on what is best for his House. He’s the one who assigns Duke Leto of House Atreides to serve as the ruler of the desert planet Arrakis, which was previously under the rule of House Harkonnen. Is he doing this for a good reason or a bad reason?
Arrakis is the only source of melange, or “spice,” in the universe. This is the all important commodity that makes the Imperium run and it’s only found on Arrakis, a harsh desert planet colonized 10,000 years ago, perhaps even earlier, by Arab descendants. Arrakis is home to the native Fremen, who mine the spice that is tied to the giant sandworms of the planet and are treated like slaves.
Why is the spice so important?
It’s a life preservative in many ways. It enhances mental clarity and extends your lifespan. People put spice in their coffee, in their wine, everything and become essentially addicted to spice. As such, people are willing to pay almost any price and it only comes from one planet. So whoever rules Arrakis essentially rules the universe and ultimately, the story comes down to who will rule?
What are the major themes audiences can expect from Dune?
One is the ascension to manhood. How does one go from being a child to an adult? How does one take on the mantle of power when it’s thrust upon them? Are they ready for that challenge? Without getting into too many details, one of the relationships in the book gets broken and I find it very similar to when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet after his son had died. So how do you become the best version of yourself when you’re grieving?
Frank Herbert also wanted people to be aware of the danger of an all-powerful leader. Even if they are a good leader, and Paul is, Frank wanted people to be aware that giving someone absolute power, even if they have the best of intentions and are good people, is not good for humanity.
Given all the detailed texture of Dune, how do you translate the size of the book to the limited running time of a movie?
I think the producers got the first step right—you break it up into two films. Look at The Godfather. The Godfather and its sequel were both taken from the same book. But they realized that one two hour, even two and a half or three hour film, isn’t going to be enough to do the entire book. So they made it two. They did the same thing back in the 1970s with the Three Musketeers.
First of all, you give it time. This series is about time. It is a multi-generational fan. So you give it the time that it deserves and then you hire a brilliant director like Denis Villeneuve. This is a guy who understands epic and scope. That’s a really great start.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.