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Your Brief Guide to ‘Dune’: Understanding the Fictional Universe Before the Movie Release

Whether you know the story or not, there is one thing for sure: the new book-to-movie adaptation for Frank Herbert’s Dune has been generating a lot of buzz over the past few months. With prominent names like Timothée Chalamet (Paul Atreides), Zendaya (Chani), Oscar Isaac (Leto Atreides), and Jason Momoa (Duncan Idaho), this has become one of the most highly anticipated films of the year. Plenty of excited readers and movie-goers alike have picked up the book in anticipation of the movie release later this month, and I too read the nearly 700 page novel over the summer. I eventually grasped the intricacies of Dune, but I found many others struggling to understand Herbert’s detailed universe. With all its fictional terms, cultures, and intense political dialogue, I completely understand why it may be confusing. So, whether you’re attempting to read this colossus of a book or simply want some background knowledge before diving into the film, here are the basics of what you need to know.

We’ll start simply.

In this universe, there are several powers at play, each with its own political agenda. I’ll take you through the main ones. They are: 

  • The Great Houses
  • The Bene Gesserit
  • The Fremen.

Alright, let’s break these down. 

First, we’ll look at the Great Houses.

For our purposes, you only need to focus on two: House Atreides and House Harkonnen.

  1. House Atreides (the House our story is centered on). The House Atreides consists of:
  • The Duke Leto Atreides
  • His concubine, the Lady Jessica
  • Their son and our protagonist, Paul
  1. House Harkonnen (this House is the long-term enemy of House Atreides). It consists of: 
  • The Baron Vladimir Harkonnen 
  • His two nephews, Rabban and Feyd-Rautha

Then, we have the Bene Gesserit. 

Remember when I mentioned Lady Jessica? She is part of the Bene Gesserit, an all-female school designed to train girls physically and mentally for the greater purpose of finding their Chosen One (Kwisatz Haderach). The Bene Gesserit are often referred to as “witches” by others because these women possess almost superhuman abilities of observation, combat, and manipulation. Lady Jessica then taught her son, Paul, the ways of the Bene Gesserit, despite him being male.

Lastly, I’ll discuss the Fremen, but first, let’s establish the planet where the majority of our story takes place. 

Arrakis

Arrakis is the harsh desert planet home to the extremely valuable spice called “melange.” Almost every major political power wants a piece of the spice trade for themselves because “he who controls the spice, controls the universe.” From its description, this spice has a similar smell and taste to cinnamon and contains special properties that, for the right person, can unlock unique abilities. This arid land is devoid of almost all water and plant life, and in the open desert, it is impossible to survive without the necessary skill set. This is where the Fremen come in. 

The Fremen

The Fremen are the people indigenous to Arrakis. They know how to move through the desert without attracting predators, like the enormous Sandworms, and they know how to survive in the open desert through the use of their tools and stillsuits (a garment worn to reclaim a body’s moisture such as sweat — and you guessed it — urine). As I said, water is rare on Arrakis, and for the Fremen, it is of the utmost value. You can spot a Fremen by their iconic blue-within-blue eyes, induced by the spice in their diet. They, like the Bene Gesserit, are also waiting for their Chosen One (Lisan Al-Gaib). 

Now that you know what’s what, let’s add some context. 

The story begins with House Atreides in the process of moving from their home planet, Caladan, to Arrakis. There has been an exchange of power. House Harkonnen’s ruling position on Arrakis has been turned over to House Atreides by order of the Imperial Emperor. Meanwhile, Paul is struggling with premonitory dreams and a feeling of “terrible purpose” because his mother and another high-ranking Bene Gesserit suspect he may be the Kwisatz Haderach (the Chosen One). Once on Arrakis, careful measures will have to be taken as the Atreides navigate a new life on the most dangerous planet in their universe and the even more dangerous plot to take the Atreides down. 

And that’s it! Whew. You’re on your way to understanding the universe of Dune! Now when you go to watch the movie, you won’t be sitting there thinking, huh? All you have to do is wait for its release on Oct. 22, available to watch in theaters or on HBO Max with a subscription.  

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Isabelle Gross

U Mass Amherst '23

Isabelle is a junior at UMass Amherst and a New Yorker through and through. She majors in French Studies with a minor in Linguistics. Her interests include (but are not limited to) reading, writing, and traveling. She hopes to help create a world of acceptance and kindness through storytelling.
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