Dune Is an Epic Love Letter to Classic Science Fiction
For Hollywood, it is a golden age of intellectual property, which is to say it is a golden age of adaptation. Seemingly every beloved genre story from the last century has been optioned and auctioned, put into development, and often produced with lavish budgets and production in hopes that this old favorite will become the next Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, or, if one is really dreaming big—and who in Hollywood isn’t?—Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hollywood’s hit-makers have dug deep into the post-war canon of beloved adolescent fantasies: If someone in America was ever obsessed with a story as a 12-year-old, it’s probably being made into a movie or TV show right now.
If there is something missing from this bounty of adaptable IP, it’s classic science fiction. Although there have been scattered attempts to adapt the Golden Age masters—Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Frederick Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke—and their many literary successors in the half century since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, few of these efforts have made much impact. (Remember Will Smith’s I, Robot? That’s what I thought.)
This has been a disappointment to me, personally. For as much as I love Batman and Han Solo and black-and-white zombie comics and am genuinely thrilled to finally see Iron Man cross paths with Spider-Man on the big screen, I grew up reading classic and contemporary science fiction—which meant I grew up imagining worlds and stories that have largely been absent from the movies.
Part of the problem is that these sci-fi stories tend to be challenging to adapt: They operate at a level of scale and socio-scientific complexity that is difficult to fit into the demands of a mainstream feature-film format, or even a prestige TV series. Classic sci-fi is thinky, intricate, idiosyncratic, and sprawling in a way that so far has largely resisted successful big-screen treatment. The best of it is almost too big for the big screen.
Case in point: Frank Herbert’s Dune. The 1965 novel was a trippy, anti-colonialist, Middle Eastern-philic, 188,000-word saga of economics, politics, and pre-contemprary environmentalism, in which extended sequences revolved around board-room like discussions of supply chain logistics, industrial production, and obscure imperial rivalries between corporation-like families with long fictional histories. Also, there were psychics, witches, skyscraper-sized sandworms with Sarlaac-like orifices, and
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