Dune: Book vs. Movie

Is the movie better than the book? I’ve listened to Dune by Frank Herbert, and I’ve now seen Dune, part 1 and Dune, part 2. And, frankly, I’m conflicted. TLDR: The movies are geared to a younger audience than the book and, while they lack the nuance and layers of the book, also minimize some of the problematic elements of the book. I’ll re-watch the movies before I’ll re-read the book.

Dune (Dune Chronicles #1) by Frank Herbert. Ace, 2005 (reprint). 704 pages.

  • Reading Level: Teens, ages 15 and up (it’s worth noting: Dune was not written as a book for teens/kids; it was written for the adult market. We might consider it a crossover title, given the popularity of the movies)
  • Recommended For: Teens, ages 15 and up (note considerations)
cover of Dune

How to sum up a 700+ page book in a paragraph? I can’t. Dune is perhaps the most influential modern sci-fi novel. My generation grew up with the original Star Wars movies and other epic science fiction franchises (such as Star Gate and Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek and …). But Dune predates them all; it was the first major space epic. I heard it described somewhere as a “space soap opera.” It kinda is. Star Wars is essentially Dune in a new guise. (Desert planet with two suns: Arrakis and Tatooine. Check. “Messiah” coming from this planet: Paul Atreides and Luke Skywalker. Check. Desert people: Fremen and Tuscan Raiders. Check. Sandworms: Shai Hulud and Sarlacc. Check. Weird space religions: Bene Gesserit and Jedi/Sith. Etc.)

Dune Summary

Paul Atreides and his family/people are engaged in an epic battle for the galaxy’s most precious commodity: “spice.” Leto, Paul’s father, is the steward for the desert planet Arrakis; Arrakis is the source of spice, which is mined and then transported throughout the galaxy. The Fremen people also live on Arrakis. The entire galaxy is after more spice, and Paul’s family is caught in the firestorm. Spoiler alert: Paul and his mother are the only ones to survive the fighting, and they escape into the desert, the land of the Fremen.

But Paul and his mother aren’t just any old Atreides people. Nor are they merely royal family members. Jessica, Paul’s mother, is a Bene Gesserit, a mystical order of women that has connotations of many different religions. Because of their spiritual training, these women maintain supreme control over their own bodies as well as control over many behind-the-scenes deals and social arrangements. Their control is such that they can even determine when to conceive a child. Jessica was supposed to have a daughter first, but she chose to have a son: Paul. When her husband dies, Jessica is pregnant with the daughter she should have had first. Thus, when Paul and Jessica flee to the desert, away from the Harkonnens who are destroying their home, Jessica must draw on all of her training and strength to survive.

To add an extra layer to the story, Jessica has been training Paul in the ways of the Bene Gesserit since birth (despite the fact that he’s a male, not a female). This gives Paul an enormous advantage, and his distinctive traits and abilities cause those around him to believe he’s the long-prophesied Messiah-figure. Paul begins to live among the Fremen as a Fremen, even taking a Fremen lover (Chani). At first, he doesn’t desire any leadership roles. But, due to the continually fulfilled prophecies, the Fremen begin to gather around him, hoping he will deliver them from Harkonnen oppression.

Dune is weird, but thought-provoking.

I’m not going to lie: Dune is weird. The Bene Gesserit are a strange bunch, pulling far more strings behind the scenes than people realize. A significant portion of the last third of the book, maybe the entire second half, revolves around the importance of bloodlines: the children Paul will have (and with whom), and so forth. Their religious rituals and mystical beliefs are strange. These overtones come across differently in the movies, I think, but are no less weird.

Paul himself is a strange character. For the first half of the book, he’s the classic youthful hero, experiencing a real coming-of-age like so many beloved literary heroes. And then, he begins to turn into an anti-hero as his leadership roles and potential sway him. He’s tremendously conflicted throughout the latter part of the book: is it better to lead the way in a jihad? Or to try to hide away with his lover and ignore all affairs of state? The people won’t really let him decide on his own, so he takes up the “Messiah” mantle and strides forth. In the process, he grows less and less likable as a character. By the end of the book, readers aren’t sure what to think about him. (In this, he is more like Annakin from Star Wars than Luke Skywalker.) And Paul’s relationship with Chani is clearly secondary (politically) to his official state marriage to the Princess Irulan… and yet Chani is very much a part of his life and the mother of his children.

What about the Dune movies?

As works of cinematography, they are amazing, truly. The soundtracks, the visuals, the pacing… these are movies to see on the big screen. I enjoyed the first more than the second, but I’m glad I saw the second. The movies leave out much of the bloodline discussion and downplay Paul and Chani’s relationship (to some extent; it’s clear they are a “couple”). Incidentally, the movie and book end in different places, and Paul’s sister is an actual character in the book. The movie collapses several years’ worth of time; Paul’s sister stays in utero, and viewers see the developing baby at different scenes. It’s pretty amazing to see such a pro-life statement!

The religious elements of the Bene Gesserit are quite prominent in the second film, and Paul’s mother, Jessica, looks downright pagan. (That’s because she is!) Hayley’s husband pointed out that the book is more antagonist towards established religions, set in a future, post-Christian world. The movies combine the religious elements into one primary religion (which, as mentioned, is quite pagan). The effect of the movie, though, on the viewer is more antagonist towards the idea (or validity) of faith.* I think the movies are easier than the book for a younger audience (perhaps ages 13 and up; they are rated PG-13). Much of the conversation you might have with the book can be had with the movies. I thought The Gospel Coalition write-up of the second movie was spot on.

*I mention Hayley’s husband because we at RR are OFTEN talking about what we’re reading/watching behind-the-scenes; even our husbands get in on the discussions. Just a little “peek behind the curtain,” as it were, on our process here!

Dune raises good questions.

I’m not the target audience for this book, I’ll admit. I’ve read my share of science fiction, but I don’t usually choose it first (even though I think it’s an important genre). However, Dune, like most science fiction, will make even a reluctant reader think. I’m not sure it provides many answers; I’m very sure that the answers it does appear to proffer are not the answers I’m looking for. But its questions are good: how do politics and religion play together? How do we interact in multiple spheres (home/family, politics/state, religion, etc.) simultaneously? What does a real leader do? How are leaders developed and raised up?

For Christians, the constant emphasis on fulfilled prophecies and the Messiah-esque leader (the second book is actually called Dune Messiah, so the “Messiah” term is certainly used) should remind us of our own Messiah. There’s a stark contrast between Paul Atreides at the end of Dune and Jesus in the Gospels. In fact, Paul seems more like the kind of leader many in Jesus’s day were actually looking for: a political leader who would lead the Jews in an uprising against Rome. You might imagine Dune is showing us what that alternative could have looked like. I, for one, prefer the real Messiah!


Note: I listened to this (long) book with my family a couple of years ago over the course of several months. I’m afraid I don’t have specifics like I might if I’d read it more carefully. I did see both movies with my teens, and they seem fairly true to their PG-13 ratings.

  • Language: I don’t remember language being much of an issue, but I might be mis-remembering!
  • Sexuality: Although graphic sex scenes are missing, the constant emphasis in the book on bloodlines and Paul and Chani’s relationship gives a distinct sexual overtone to parts of the book (I might have picked up on this more because my teens were listening alongside me!). In the movie, there is one scene of Paul and Chani in the tent that is clearly taking place after a moment of passion, but nothing is actually shown.
  • Violence/Death: Again, not graphically described, but a war and battle scenes occur. Of course, in the movie, these are more prominent because we are viewing them instead of merely reading about them.
  • Worldview: The worldview in Dune begs to be discussed: the religious overtones in the movie appear quite pagan indeed. The Arab setting and words like “jihad” will remind some readers/viewers of Islam, but I think the religion presented in the book is more primitive and syncretistic than Islam. It’s a mix of many mystical and pseudo-religious ideas and practices.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

  • Worldview/Moral Rating: 3.5 out of 5
  • Literary/Artistic Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Read more about our ratings here.

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Betsy Farquhar

Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Southeast.

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