How Dune Shaped the Star Wars Saga

Without Frank Herbert's Dune, there probably wouldn't be George Lucas' Star Wars.

Dune Star Wars Influence
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures, Lucasfilm

This article contains spoilers for Dune and Star Wars.

When Frank Herbert published “Dune World,” the first part of what would become the novel Dune in Analog Science Fiction and Fact in 1963, it was a moment that would reverberate through modern science fiction for decades to come, especially on the big screen, where the story’s influence can still be felt to this day. In fact, you can easily track how Herbert’s creation led to some of the biggest blockbuster franchises of all time.

If you’ve watched the excellent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, you know how the story goes. Alejandro Jodorowsky, the avant-garde filmmaker behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain, tried to adapt Herbert’s book in the ’70s, and while that movie never got made, many of its ideas and designs would later make their way into other sci-fi films thanks to the legendary storyboard the filmmaker sent to Hollywood studios while pitching his movie. H.R. Giger’s grotesque work on Jodorowsky’s Dune, especially his nightmarish vision for Baron Harkonnen’s castle, would become the basis for the Xenomorph and the alien space ship in Ridley Scott’s Alien. The storyboard drawings of Moebius, and the artist’s later comic book collaborations with Jodorowsky, would heavily inform Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element.

But there’s perhaps no bigger student of Herbert, Jodorowsky, and Dune than George Lucas, who clearly looked to Paul Atreides’ adventures on Arrakis when crafting Luke Skywalker’s own quest in the galaxy far, far away. There are so many similarities between Dune and Star Wars that if you squint a little you could even call the 1977 blockbuster the first successful Herbert adaptation…from a certain point of view.

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The massive success of Lucas’ Dune-inspired franchise was actually something director Denis Villeneuve had to contend with while making part one of his planned Dune trilogy of films. Star Wars wrote the book when it comes to science fiction epics on the big screen, so it’s only natural that audience members will draw comparisons between Villeneuve’s movie and Lucas’ saga that don’t necessarily consider a book published in 1965. It’s part of the challenge of making a Dune movie for a 2021 audience shaped by Star Wars.

“It was a very long process to find this identity in a world with the giant elephant of Star Wars in the room,” Villeneueve told Empire (via Syfy Wire). “George Lucas was inspired by Dune when he created Star Wars. Then as we were making a movie about Dune, we had to negotiate the influence of Star Wars. It’s full circle.”

Nevertheless, the fact remains that before there was Star Wars there was Dune. Here are some of the biggest ways Herbert’s work shaped Lucas’ magnum opus…

The Opening Shot

In 1977, theater audiences were left breathless by the opening shot of A New Hope, one of the many visual effects shots that would come to define Lucas’ cinematic achievement. Even if you’ve never watched the first Star Wars, you’ve likely seen the opening shot 1,000 times: the silence of space soon gives way to chaos. A rebel cruiser zooms past the camera, firing back at an unseen pursuer, as the tension in John Williams’ opening number builds to a crescendo. Then the massive Star Destroyer reveals itself, overtaking the screen and eclipsing what we quickly learn is a tiny, helpless little ship in comparison. It’s clear here we’re watching a hungry predator about to snatch up its prey. It’s a shot that quickly establishes just how outmatched our beloved underdog heroes are against the evil Empire. It’ll make the destruction of the Death Star that much sweeter at the end of the film.

Almost every Star Wars film since the first has followed A New Hope‘s lead, an opening crawl of text that leads into a wide shot of the starry cosmos just before the story begins. But Lucas wasn’t the first filmmaker to imagine such a grandiose opening shot.

Jodorowsky’s Dune would have opened with one of the most ambitious shots ever attempted in a sci-fi film. As the filmmaker describes in the documentary, the first scene of the movie would have been one continuous shot that started at the farthest reaches of space and slowly zoomed in, revealing the scale of the setting and story:

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A spiral galaxy gives way to a cluster of stars which reveals a system of planets and moons above which space battles are being fought, pirates ships attacking mining vessels full of precious spice. The camera keeps zooming in towards a city and then a transport flying through that city and on the transport are the bodies of smugglers lying dead on mounds of spice. It’s a scene meant to evoke not only the disparity between those who have and those who don’t, a major theme in the novel, but also the volatile nature of the spice trade itself, which drives much of the central conflict.

We’ll never know whether Jodorowsky and his team would have been able to pull off such an ambitious opening shot, especially before the days of Industrial Light & Magic and THX, with just the practical effects at his disposal in the early ’70s. But fortunately Lucas gave us a version of Jodorowsky’s idea that wowed audiences in 1977…

Arrakis and Tatooine

Much of A New Hope‘s first act takes place on Tatooine, a desert planet floating in a desolate part of space our hero Luke Skywalker longs to escape from. It’s on that sandy rock where Luke takes his very first steps towards becoming a Jedi and defeating evil.

There are some surface level similarities between Luke’s miserable home world and Dune‘s Arrakis, of course. They’re both covered in sand that’s coarse and rough and irritating and gets everywhere, as Anakin Skywalker would undoubtedly point out. And while Tatooine has twin suns, Arrakis’ sky is adorned by two moons. Both planets are located in the farthest reaches of their respective galaxies.

But nothing so precious as Dune‘s Spice Melange can be found on Tatooine’s surface. Star Wars‘ premier desert planet is instead the hub for the smugglers who transport the galaxy far, far away’s own version of spice. Yet, despite its relative irrelevance to the galaxy at large, Tatooine proves to be the very center of the Skywalker saga, the place where Anakin and Luke begin to understand their destinies, just as Paul will embrace his own on Arrakis.

The Spice

We quickly learn in Frank Herbert’s Dune that the Spice Melange is the most valuable resource in the Imperium. Control the mining and distribution of this LSD-like narcotic and you basically control the entire galaxy, which is why the ruling houses at the forefront of the book — Atreides, Harkonnen, and Corrino — all work against each other for control of Arrakis, the sole planet where the Spice can be found.

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The Spice is Herbert’s version of a psychedelic drug that, on top of altering the user’s mind and their physical features, could grant them visions of the future. In fact, the latter is key to unlocking both Paul and Lady Jessica’s destinies in the story.

The galaxy far, far away’s version of spice serves as more of a background detail in Star Wars, the contraband Han Solo was smuggling and then had to jettison when the Empire boarded the Millennium Falcon before the events of A New Hope. It’s the loss of this spice that leads to Jabba the Hutt putting a 50,000 credit price on Han’s head, a bounty Boba Fett later collects in The Empire Strikes Back.

C-3PO also mentions the Spice Mines of Kessel in A New Hope, a dreaded place where prisoners are forced to mine for the precious spice under perilous conditions. Like Spice Melange, the spice mined and smuggled around the Star Wars galaxy is for narcotic use, although we never actually see anyone getting high in Lucas’ universe.

Paul Atreides, Luke Skywalker, and the Chose One

Lucas looked at many different sources when creating his saga. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces was a major resource, as were Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials and the films of Akira Kurosawa, but when it comes to Luke, no influence is quite as obvious as Dune‘s Paul Atreides, who becomes a messiah-like figure in the same way young Skywalker embraces his path as the Chosen One.

Both heroes are driven by destiny. Like Paul, Luke’s hero journey begins in an uncertain place, and it’s only through painful defeats and the death of loved ones that he’s able to learn the lessons he needs to take on the great evil at the end of the story. And like Muad’Dib, Luke’s path had been laid out for him before he was born, thanks to Jedi prophecy that his line would be the one to finally defeat the Sith and bring balance to the Force. In Dune, the Bene Gesserit’s shadowy Missionaria Protectiva had already planted the seeds for Paul’s messianic rise with the Fremen years before the boy even arrived on Arrakis.

Interestingly enough, both heroes end up walking their paths to disastrous ends — much more war and bloodletting — forcing future generations to clean up the mess.

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The Empire and the Emperor

Pulling the strings behind the scenes in Dune is the Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV. Jealous of Duke Leto Atreides’ growing popularity, he plots with Baron Harkonnen to destroy Leto’s family and secure his dominance over Arrakis and the rest of the Imperium. It’s a plot that results in the death of Leto but also the beginning of the end for the Corrino dynasty that had ruled the galaxy for thousands of years prior to the events of the book.

Star Wars of course has Emperor Palpatine, the Dark Lord of the Sith responsible for the fall of the Jedi and the destruction of Anakin Skywalker as well as all of the torment suffered by the saga’s heroes. While he’s a brilliant strategist, manipulating several factions at once throughout the nine saga films, his hubris is ultimately his downfall in the Original and Sequel Trilogies, not unlike Shaddam’s own defeat.

Princess Irulan and Leia

The Dune novel has a peculiar structure: each chapter opens with excerpts from the writings of Princess Irulan, the chronicler of the events that took place on Arrakis, including the rise of Paul as Muad’Dib, the ascendance of the Bene Gesserit, and the fall of Shaddam IV. The twist is that Irulan is actually the Emperor’s daughter and the future wife of Paul, and also trained as a Bene Gesserit. As the book series progresses, we learn more about her life as a member of the most powerful Houses in the Imperium, as well as how she ended up recording the stories of the Atreides Empire.

Lucas seemed to be headed towards somewhat similar territory when he first teased a romantic connection between Luke and Princess Leia until he pulled a 180 in Return of the Jedi, making them siblings despite having made the characters kiss just a movie ago. Whoops.

As characters, Irulan and Leia aren’t really alike beyond their royal titles. Dune‘s princess is shown to be cruel and jealous at times, while Leia is altruistic, brave, and kind. They’re both born of privilege but use their power and platforms to different ends.

Nevertheless, although the rescue of a princess has long been a common trope in works of fantasy and science fiction, the other similarities between Dune and Star Wars suggests Lucas cherry-picked the idea of his movie’s princess from Herbert, too.

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Bene Gesserit and the Jedi

Dune‘s Bene Gesserit, an ancient religious order of women who manipulate and engineer galactic events from behind the scenes, were likely as much of an inspiration for the Jedi (and the Sith) as Akira Kurosawa’s honorable samurai. Operating as spies, religious leaders, and even scientists, the Bene Gesserit’s influence can be felt throughout every corner of the Imperium, even the Emperor’s own halls, and across the Known Universe’s history. Like the Jedi they inspired, the Bene Gesserit are driven by prophecy. They believe that through their actions, they’ll bring about the ascension of their Chosen One, the Kwisatz Haderach.

The Jedi too operate as a multi-discipline religious faction with deep roots within the Republic, but before Lucas fleshed out what the Jedi Order was like in the Prequel Trilogy, the similarities with the Bene Gesserit came down to Force powers. Before Obi-Wan Kenobi used a Jedi mind trick to convince Imperial stormtroopers that Threepio and Artoo weren’t the droids they were looking for, the Bene Gesserit used the Voice to exert their influence on others. Like the Jedi, the Bene Gesserit have superior combat abilities known as the Weirding Way that cannot be matched by most other opponents. They can also sense emotions and whether someone is telling the truth.

Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers can also use the Spice Melange to see the future, the kind of prescience that has long been associated with the Jedi, whether it’s Luke receiving a vision of his friends suffering on Cloud City or Anakin dreaming of Padme’s death during childbirth.

Fremen and Rebels, Sardaukar and Stormtroopers

Comparisons could be drawn between the Fremen and Tatooine’s Tusken Raiders as two cultures living and surviving in the harsh deserts of their home worlds, but the natives of Arrakis play a role in the first book that might also remind you of the Rebel Alliance. They’re the underdogs who rally around Paul to fight Imperial tyranny and win. Of course, the Rebels aren’t a religious faction, but having Luke and the Force on their side probably helped keep morale up during their chilly exile on Hoth.

Meanwhile, the Padishah Emperor has the Sardaukar, his elite force of armored soldiers that serve a similar function as Emperor Palpatine’s legions of stormtroopers. But while the Empire’s troops wear white armor and prefer blasters, the Sardaukar are clad in black, using a mix of blades and laser rifles during combat. Later versions of stormtroopers, such as Death troopers, more closely resemble the Sardaukar.

Baron Harkonnen and Jabba the Hutt

Baron Harkonnen’s perverse cruelty is on display throughout the book, a monster of a man both on the inside and out. Indeed, beyond the grotesque descriptions of his physical appearance, his murderous tendencies and taste for child sex slaves make him one of the most reviled villains in literary history.

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Jabba the Hutt isn’t all that much more likable, an equally obese space slug who, like the Baron, is driven by greed and a thirst for power. He also keeps female prisoners chained up against their will, such as the Twi’lek dancer he dooms to the rancor pit and when he puts Leia in a revealing metal bikini (she rightfully strangles him to death later). Jabba may have been Lucas’ more cartoonish-looking homage to the Harkonnen villain of Herbert’s work — down to the palace to match the Baron’s castle — but he’s no less monstrous.

Dune is playing in theaters and on HBO Max now.