Frank Herbert’s Dune is not what one would call a casual read. It’s dense material that fully transports you to another universe as it unfolds its epic sci-fi story, and part of that means not coddling the reader and instead aiming for full immersion. Case in point: it’s a book that features a full glossary at the back of it so that you can look up invented terms. All of this is part of the reason why it’s long been such a challenge for adaptations to get made, and it will be curious to see how the material gets translated in the upcoming Denis Villeneuve-directed blockbuster starring Timothee Chalamet.
We can assume that the movie version will work hard to clarify things and ensure that audiences can follow along, but it’s a case where knowing more about the world going in will probably be super helpful – and it is in the aim of supporting that idea that we’ve put this feature together. Actually reading Dune in its entirety before the new movie comes out is definitely the best way to learn about the universe, but below you’ll find a rundown about all of the key organizations, places, and things you should have a good grasp on before seeing the adaptation.
In the world of Dune, the “Known Universe” is controlled by the Galactic Padishah Empire, and a subsection of the larger feudal rule is the establishment of family Houses that control different planets. At the center of the first book in Frank Herbert’s series is House Atreides, which is led by Duke Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac in the movie), who is the husband of Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and father of Paul (Timothee Chalamet). At the start of the story, the Padishah Emperor makes the decision to have House Atreides move from the water-lush planet of Caladan to the desert-covered Arrakis – though the change is secretly designed as a trap set in collaboration between the emperor and…
House Harkonnen is the main antagonistic force in Dune, led by the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (who is being played by Stellan Skarsgard). While House Atreides believes in peace and outreach, the Harkonnens are fascistic, power-hungry monsters willing to go to any length to advance their influence and reach. One of the most savage members of the family is Glossu Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista in the movie), who is the nephew of the Baron and notorious in the universe for his vicious sadism. They control Arrakis before House Atreides moves in, though it’s control they plan to only give up temporarily.
When Dune begins, Caladan is the home world of House Atreides, and the birthplace of both Duke Leto and his son. Though they hold dominion over the ocean-covered world for 10,000 years, that changes when the Padishah Emperor declares that they must relocate. Leto is actually fully aware that he is being led into a trap, but believes that his anticipation of the setup will allow him to flip the situation and come out on top.
From a distance, Arrakis doesn’t seem like much. As you would expect from a desert planet, it’s hot and dry, and if you’re not properly equipped to deal with the atmosphere it can be lethal. That being said, it is one of the most important, if not the most important, places in the Dune universe (the name of the series comes from the world’s nickname). It’s the source of the universe’s most valuable resource (more on that in a second), and thus control over it is very important. That being said, the weather conditions aren’t the only threat that exist, as there is always the lingering threat of massive sandworms which tunnel below the ground and regularly breach the surface to consume all manners of people, places, and things.
The Spice Melange
To put it bluntly, the Spice Melange a.k.a. The Spice is basically the most important resource in the universe. It’s not only a potent, mind-expanding drug, but ultimately proves vital for intergalactic travel through warp space. When the story of Dune begins, the only place in the entire universe where it is available is on Arrakis, and as such mining is a massive industry (though an exceptionally dangerous one due to the threat of the sandworms). Spice can be purposefully consumed, but it is also a part of the atmosphere on the planet.
While Dune is set in an incredibly distant future, it’s not one that features spectacularly advanced technology as part of the expansive history is a revolt against computers. In the wake of this period, humanity evolved to live without them, and that led to the creation of the Mentat order. Mentats are individuals who have essentially spent their entire lives training in absorbing information and complex thinking. Only very few have the natural capacity to actually be a member of the order, though many enhance their abilities with the use of an addictive supplement called sapho juice (which leads to the users having stained lips). Denis Villeneuve’s Dune will feature two key Mentats in the plot, namely Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) of House Atreides, and Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian) of House Harkonnen.
The Mentat order wasn’t the only group that was formed in the aftermath of the revolt against “thinking machines,” as the Bene Geserit is another organization that came together around that time. The Bene Geserit is exclusively made up of women who orchestrate machinations around the universe as a means of seeing the ascension of the Kwisatz Haderach (more on that in a moment). Lady Jessica Atreides is a member, and as part of a breeding program she is meant to give birth to a daughter who is in turn meant to give birth to the messiah, but those wishes are betrayed when Jessica consciously makes the decision to have a son. The Reverend Mothers are elite members of the Bene Geserit, with Gaius Helen Mohiam (played by Charlotte Rampling) specifically set to have a prominent role in the new movie.
As alluded to, the Kwisatz Haderach is essentially a prophesized individual who possesses advanced powers of the Bene Geserit – and specifically is meant to rise as the first male member of the order. Part of the groups’ prescient powers come from their ability to access genetic memories (with aid from the Spice Melange), but because they have XX chromosomes they can only access the female side of their lineage; meanwhile, a man with XY chromosomes can access both. Saying too much more would get into spoiler territory for Dune, so I won’t!
Because Arrakis is solid desert, residents have to do everything in their power to retain as much moisture as possible while outside – and that means recycling bodily fluids. The way in which this is done is by people wearing Stillsuits, which take sweat, urine, feces and all other liquid secretions and sanitizes them so that the individual can re-consume the water. It’s not something that a person ever wants to think about wearing one, but the technology clearly works.
While the Atreides go to Arrakis in hopes of establishing a new home, the planet is already home to a group of people, and those people are known as the Fremen. They tend to have dark skin as a result of sun exposure on the desert planet, but more significantly they stand out because of their bright blue eyes – a side effect from their ingestion of Spice Melange in the atmosphere. Upon arriving on the world, Duke Leto attempts to forge a peace with the Fremen, with one significant figure emerging being Stilgar, a tribe leader who will be played by Javier Bardem in the new Dune adaptation. Chani, portrayed by Zendaya, is his niece.
Obviously that’s a lot of information to absorb, but the more you know about the details the easier it will be to absorb the grand spectrum of the Dune world when the film arrives in theaters in the fall. It’s also definitely not too late to see what we know so far about Dune the movie, or to read the book before the blockbuster’s premiere, so pick up a copy and dive in, and continue to count down the days until October 1 with us here on CinemaBlend.