Discussing the Main Themes of Frank Herbert’s “Dune”

brown dessert

In 2021, Denis Villeneuve finally released his film adaptation of “Dune.” The movie is based on the series of sci-fi epics written by Frank Herbert. The movie provide to be a massive success, raking in hundreds of millions in the box-office and getting greenlit for a sequel. The movie featured sweeping desert vistas, awesome music by Hans Zimmer and expressive performances from its star-studded cast.

Although “Dune” at the surface is a story about the rivalry between two noble families, readers of the novels and those critically examining the movie can see deeper messages embedded in it.

But what is the core of the story?

Examine the themes Frank Herbert explored in his novels and adapted by Denis Villeneuve.


man holding a gun
Themes of colonization and exploitation are easily apparent in “Dune”

One of the central conflicts of “Dune” is control and exploitation of the planet Arrakis, a barren desert world that would have been completely unimportant if it didn’t contain the vital substance mélange. Early on in the film and the novels, it is established that the imperial forces represented by both the villainous House Harkonnen and the ostensibly heroic House Atreides are colonizers. They have essentially overrun Arrakis and driven its native population, the fierce Fremen, to the depths of the deserts.

The film even opens on how Chani, played by Zendaya, has only ever known the brutality of the invaders as they exploit the planet for its resources. In Herbert’s novels, the Fremen actually oppose all interlopers into their territory and are horrified by how the empire treats mélange, a sacred substance in their culture, as a commodity. There are also discussions of how the presence of the invaders are pushing the Fremen’s culture and corrupting it, both hallmark of colonization.

False Saviors

Another huge aspect of the books explores the concept of a constructed messiah. Paul Atreides, the main protagonist of the first “Dune” novel, is the result of a breeding program thousands of years in the making. Using deception and eugenics, Paul is a manufactured savior as opposed to authentic chosen ones in other fiction. There isn’t even a great prophecy to support his rule, at least not a real one. Instead, Paul’s rise to power among the Fremen is the result of lies and deceit.

The Bene Gesserit sisterhood, an organization of psychic political advisors, implanted superstitions and beliefs into the native Fremen of Arrakis to allow one of their own to seize power. Paul is well aware that he is not an authentic savior. One of his earliest realizations is how destructive the fanaticism his ascendancy would become. The dichotomy between his role as a false messiah who deceived his way into power and the actual savior his own descendant would become is highlighted in the sequel novels.

The Power of Oil

industrial machine
The dependency on oil and fossil fuel had a huge impact on “Dune”.

Frank Herbert incorporated many of the social and economic problems of the 60s into the first “Dune” novel. One of the most glaring issues at the time was the oil monopoly established by OPEC, or the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. At the time, research was already revealing how dependent the world was becoming on oil and how control over this scarce resource could dictate the balance of power among nations. Herbert incorporated this political and economic situation into his novels.

The main driving force of “Dune”, aside from rivalries between nobles, is the control over mélange, a spice that, much like oil, can only be derived in a desert region. Melange is also the most important substance in the universe because it allows interstellar travel. Without mélange, the empire’s planets would be unable to reach one another. The parallels between mélange and oil are abundantly clear and control over it remains at the forefront of every novel afterward.

Political Fallout

Finally, “Dune” is essentially a political drama set to a backdrop of space travel. One of the core conceits of the series is how much the petty squabbles of a few powerful people affect the lives of countless citizens. The feud between House Harkonnen and House Atreides leads to the death of thousands.

In the 2021 movie, House Harknonnen even unleashes a destructive barrage on a nearby city just to cow the population into submission. Much like in real life, the foibles of a few powerful people have a direct impact on the livelihood and well-being of many.

“Dune” is considered a masterpiece because it tackles so many different themes with cleverness and nuance. The recent film adaptation manages to convey these themes without being overbearing and while using astounding visuals. Here’s to hoping that Villeneuve manages to complete his retelling of this sci-fi epic.

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