My Dream Cast – ‘Dune’

A few months ago I finally got around to reading Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece Dune, a book I had shamefully neglected for too many years.  At some point I intend to do a proper review of the novel, but it is so complex and layered that I expect I will have to read it again before I attempt such a review.  Meanwhile, I am using this book to inaugurate a series devoted to my dream cast (and I don’t mean a video game system) for various books I would love to see filmed, or in some cases, filmed right.

Actually, I have watched and enjoyed both David Lynch’s 1984 film and the Sci-Fi Channel–pardon me, I meant the SyFy–miniseries of 2000, but let’s face it: both of these treatments were riddled with problems, especially the Lynch film.  Despite its ponderous and messy nature, I am still quite fond of David Lynch’s take on Herbert’s book, if for no other reason than that, despite the odds being stacked against it, it actually got made.  I no doubt would’ve adored Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version had it ever seen the light of day (alas, one can now watch a documentary about this most notorious of unmade adaptations and muse about what might’ve been), but in truth it probably had about as much chance of being produced as Frosty the Snowman has of actually coming to life; it was just too amazing to be true.

But since we’re imagining here, let’s pretend that Yours Truly is in charge of casting all the most awesome movies based on books.  Here are my picks for all the important roles for Dune if it were being made in 2014.

Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib (Leo Howard)

Leo Howard; Paul Atreides by Mark Zug
Leo Howard; Paul Atreides by Mark Zug

Arguably the most important role in the story is that of Paul Atreides, the teenaged son of Duke Leto Atreides and a young man bound for legend.  At 17, Howard is the prime age for the character who starts out at 14 and winds up in his late teens or early twenties by book’s end.  He has the dark-haired, slightly exotic good looks described by Herbert in the novel, and moreover, he brings a set of physical skills to the role that are rare for an actor of his age.  Howard’s martial arts training lends him an edge for scenes of hand-to-hand combat, which occur frequently in the book.  But the real question is, can he act?  Well, for some critics the 13-year-old Howard upstaged his adult counterpart in playing a young Conan in the 2011 Conan the Barbarian reboot, and director Marcus Nispel said of him, “Leo absolutely blew me away. Almost the entire first act of Conan is the kid, which is unheard of. At the start, reading the script, everyone was like ‘We have to cut that down to ten minutes.’ And now everyone’s like ‘Can we make that longer?’ He worked out like a charm. There aren’t many young actors who could carry that sort of weight.”  If you haven’t seen the film, here’s a scene of the youngster in action, and here’s an interview in which Howard (along with costar Ron Perlman) explains the nature of his role. I mean, Kyle McLachlan was awesome and all, but as far as I’m concerned, this kid is Paul Atreides.

Mark Zug Art and Illustration

Duke Leto Atreides (Robert Downey, Jr.)

Robert Downey Jr.; Duke Leto Atreides by Vladimir Kolpakov

Jürgen Prochnow played Duke Leto–head of House Atreides and father of Paul–in David Lynch’s film, and I must confess, he was just about perfect for the role.  Handsome but stern, Leto must convey the kind of effortless gravitas that comes with being born into a noble family while simultaneously demonstrating the prudence, curiosity and fairness for which he is known.  It may be hard to shake our image of Downey as the wisecracking genius Tony Stark, or as the wisecracking genius Sherlock Holmes for that matter, but I would love to see him take on a role with more reserve and stateliness, and I am quite confident he can pull it off.

DeviantArt: AGRbrod

Lady Jessica (Amy Adams)

Amy Adams; Lady Jessica Atreides by LadyAquanine
Amy Adams; Lady Jessica Atreides by LadyAquanine

Fresh off her Best Lead Actress nomination for her role in American Hustle, Amy Adams is a hot property in Hollywood these days.  With her auburn locks, her beautiful countenance and her impressive talent, she is ideal for the part of Lady Jessica, Duke Leto’s beloved concubine, a powerful Bene Gesserit witch and the mother of Paul and Alia.

Doll Divine: LadyAquanine

Alia Atreides (Isabelle Nélisse)

Isabelle Nélisse; Alia Atreides by CarlosNCT
Isabelle Nélisse; Alia Atreides by CarlosNCT

Although appearing relatively late in the book, advanced beyond her years and powerful in the weirding way, Alia Atreides is unquestionably an important character.  Casting the perfect child actor for an essential role is always difficult, but that’s especially true when you’re talking about a part that demands the kind of maturity to properly convey Alia’s spooky brilliance and complex moral ambiguity.  Isabelle Nélisse is still pretty much an unknown, but she impressed me well enough as the younger of the two haunted sisters in the chilling Guillermo del Toro-produced Mama.

DeviantArt: CarlosNCT

Thufir Hawat (Willem Dafoe)

Willem Defoe; Thufir Hawat by Mark Zug
Willem Defoe; Thufir Hawat by Mark Zug

Thufir Hawat is a fascinating character.  As the Mentat for House Atreides, he is one of Leto’s closest advisers and is key to the Harkonnen plot to destroy the Atreides.  Tricked by the sinister baron into believing the Lady Jessica is a traitor to his master Duke Leto, he is the brooding, serious counterpoint to the more jovial and open-natured Gurney Halleck.  Herbert describes him as thin and sharp-faced.  Sorry, but Freddie Jones was entirely wrong for the part.

Gurney Halleck (Hugh Jackman)

Hugh Jackman; Gurney Halleck by Mark Zug
Hugh Jackman; Gurney Halleck by Mark Zug

If Thufir Hawat is the coolly reasoning mind of House Atreides, then Gurney Halleck is surely its heart.  Brave, passionate and unwaveringly loyal to Duke Leto, he is a large and imposing figure in the book.  In another odd bit of casting in the Lynch film, Halleck was played by a young Patrick Stewart.  P. H. Moriarty made slightly more sense in the role in the 2000 miniseries, but I have never really been happy with either one.  Gurney needs to be intimidating and physically powerful, but also capable of sensitivity and likability.  Who better than the man who has played both Wolverine and Jean Valjean with equal gusto?

Duncan Idaho (Denzel Washington)

Denzel Washington; Duncan Idaho by Jacob Atienza
Denzel Washington; Duncan Idaho by Jacob Atienza

Many stripes of warrior exist in the Dune series, each harkening to a sort of Campbellian warrior type.  Duncan Idaho, a Swordmaster of Ginaz, is the futuristic analog of the chivalrous knights of old.  True to his type, upon his arrival at Arrakis Idaho embarks upon a quest to befriend and learn the ways of the native Fremen population.  Although never specifically identified as black, Duncan is described as being dark and possessing curly black hair.  He is also handsome, charming and something of a ladies’ man.  In short, this part has Denzel Washington written all over it.

The Inexhaustible Well

Dr. Yueh (Gary Oldman)

Gary Oldman; Dr. Yueh by Unknown Artist
Gary Oldman; Dr. Yueh by Unknown Artist

A Suk doctor and the real traitor to House Atreides, Dr. Wellington Yueh is, perhaps more than any other in Dune, a character of Shakespearean tragedy and psychological torment.  Undergoing rigorous conditioning, the fidelity of Suk doctors to their employers is legendary, which is why his treachery is never suspected until it’s too late.  Gary Oldman is one of my three favorite actors for villainous roles (the other two are John Malkovich and Christopher Walken), and although Yueh is not a villain in the strictest sense, his betrayal of the Atreides qualifies him as a scoundrel.

Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV (Kevin Spacey)

Kevin Spacey; Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV by Ilya Baranovsky

I must say that the choice of José Ferrer to play Shaddam Corrino IV was pretty spot on.  I can think of few actors as perfect as Ferrer, but Spacey is one of them.  I can’t say exactly why, but something about Kevin Spacey has always suggested nobility to me.  With his soft eyes and disarming smile, Spacey looks harmless enough, but that is what makes him such a great choice for Shaddam IV, who is anything but harmless, of course.  And when Spacey does play dark, his performance can be all the more chilling for his benevolent appearance.

DeviantArt: Ilya-B

Count Fenring (Steve Buscemi)

Steve Buscemi; Count Fenring by Unknown Artist
Steve Buscemi; Count Fenring by Unknown Artist

Herbert describes Count Hasimir Fenring, Shaddam IV’s only friend and closest adviser, as being a small weaselish fellow who also happens to be one of the most dangerous men in the Imperium.  It’s a part Steve Buscemi was born to play.

Princess Irulan (Emma Watson)

Emma Watson; Princess Irulan by Sara Spano

Although never a central player in the novel, Princess Irulan is nevertheless an important character because she is the narrator of the book.  In the Dune miniseries her part was even expanded so that she played a bigger role in the story.  I am content with her being the narrator, and even if her visage doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, her voice should.  At any rate, she figures much more in the sequels to Dune, and we do want sequels, don’t we?

DeviantArt: Iayetta83

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (John Goodman)

John Goodman; Baron Harkonnen by Mark Zug
John Goodman; Baron Harkonnen by Mark Zug

I reckon the most difficult casting choice would be the part of Baron Harkonnen, the highly obese central villain of the story.  Although he has since lost a good deal of the weight he used to carry, Goodman has the right look to be able to carry off a fat suit.  Of course, these days it’s possible to add body weight via CG, as was done with Kevin Durand’s character the Blob in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but I kind of have my heart set on John Goodman at this point.  He doesn’t play villains often, but when he does he brings a certain psychopathic zeal to the character (e.g. his character in Barton Fink).  In short, Goodman isn’t just an overweight actor; he’s a good overweight actor, and I really think he would be amazing as the head of House Harkonnen.

Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (Nick Robinson)

Nick Robinson; Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen by Unknown Artist
Nick Robinson; Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen by Unknown Artist

Nick Robinson was a pip in the lead role of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings of Summer, but I can certainly see him taking a darker turn as someone like Feyd-Rautha, the favorite nephew of Baron Harkonnen.  Feyd is known for his sly underhandedness and trickery in the fighting arena, although he is not exactly a slouch in close combat.  He is, in a sense, the dark counterpart to Paul Atreides and is destined to meet Paul in a fateful knife duel near the book’s finale.  In the book he also happens to be the Baron’s lover (well, one of them), but in the mid 1960s when the novel was written the Baron’s homosexuality represented just another facet of his depravity.  Needless to say, that aspect is a little quaint and should be left out of the film adaptation altogether.

Beast Rabban (Jonah Hill)

Jonah Hill; Beast Rabban by Neil McClements
Jonah Hill; Beast Rabban by Neil McClements

Where Feyd-Rautha represents some of the more striking qualities of the Harkonnen clan, “Beast” Glossu Rabban embodies all of its worst traits.  A brutally direct dictator when left in positions of leadership, he is deployed by the Baron to subjugate Arrakis.  Jonah Hill may seem like an odd choice for such a part, but I find that comedians can often be surprisingly effective in serious roles.

DeviantArt: NeilMcClements

Piter De Vries (John Malkovich)

John Malkovich; Piter De Vries by Jim Hatama
John Malkovich; Piter De Vries by Jim Hatama

You kind of saw that one coming, didn’t you?  As the Harkonnens’ “twisted” Mentat, his deviousness and amorality may exceed that of even the Baron himself.  I can’t think of a better actor when it comes to projecting sociopathic tendencies with a mere glance than John Malkovich.

DeviantArt: JimHatama

Reverend Mother Mohiam (Alice Krige)

Alice Krige; Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam by Ivelin Trifonov
Alice Krige; Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam by Ivelin Trifonov

Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam is the most prominent representative of the Bene Gesserit, a faction of powerful psychic witches who manipulate the Imperium and the Greater Houses from behind the scenes.  Mohiam is a menacing old hag who actually looks like the witch she is.  We’ve seen Alice Krige play such parts before, most notably as the head of the religious cult in the film version of Silent Hill, and was she creepy in it?  Boy howdy!

DeviantArt: Ivelin

Liet-Kynes (Daniel Day-Lewis)

Daniel Day-Lewis; Liet-Kynes by NEWATLAS7

Whilst reading the Dune novel I had a much different person pictured in my head as Liet-Kynes: John Lithgow.  But Lithgow may be a bit too old for the part by now.  Besides, anyone who plays a member of the Fremen tribes needs to be thin and sinewy to show that they live on a desert world with very little water to go around, and I think Day-Lewis is a good choice.  Liet-Kynes is the brilliant royal planetologist who effectively goes native on Arrakis and becomes a powerful ally of the Fremen population and the Atreides family.

DeviantArt: NEWATLAS7

Stilgar (Michael Shannon)

Michael Shannon; Stilgar by Mark Zug
Michael Shannon; Stilgar by Mark Zug

Stilgar is an eminent Fremen leader who takes Paul under his wing and grooms him to be Stilgar’s eventual replacement.  The Fremen, being a tribe of ascetic desert nomads, are definitely tough customers (they make mincemeat out of Shaddam IV’s Sardaukar soldiers), and Shannon, who killed it as General Zod, the main antagonist of the latest Superman outing Man of Steel, and who looks like he could be a younger sibling of the metal-mouthed evil henchman Jaws from the James Bond films,  definitely has what it takes to portray Stilgar.

Chani (Ryan Newman)

Ryan Newman; Chani by Devon Cady-Lee
Ryan Newman; Chani by Devon Cady-Lee

Chani, Fremen daughter of Liet-Kynes and eventual lover of Paul Atreides, should not only be beautiful but also have a kind fierceness about her.  I think this lovely young lady, who is currently carving out a nice little place for herself as Emily in the Nick at Night series See Dad Run, is all of that and a bag of chips.  And hey, she practically already has those famous spooky blue-within-blue eyes of the long-term Spice addiction that all residents of Dune eventually acquire.

DeviantArt: Gorrem

Esmar Tuek (Danny Trejo)

Danny Trejo; Esmar Tuek by Moebius
Danny Trejo; Esmar Tuek by Moebius

Tuek, a Spice smuggler, isn’t a major player in Dune, but he does show up at a dinner party hosted by House Atreides.  Tuek is a colorful character whose scarcity in the novel is one of my few complaints about it.  It’s a minor thing, I suppose, but the smugglers are the final piece of the delicate power balance involving the Major Houses, the Emperor, the Benne Gesserit and the Spacing Guild, and as such they should be prominently represented in the film.  I elect the rough-looking Trejo to fill in that gap.

Moebius Official Site

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20 thoughts on “My Dream Cast – ‘Dune’

  1. Nice casting. I always imagined Gurney a bit more ugly, so I kind of want to see Willem Dafoe in that role, and Hugh Jackman as doomed Duncan Idaho, but I like that you had Denzel as Duncan, so now I’m all torn.

    Michael Shannon as Stilgar? Sign me up. Take my money now!

    1. Thanks! I thought my choices were pretty solid overall. The only one I’m really questioning is Jonah Hill as Beast Rabban, mainly because I think he might be too short and too friendly looking.

  2. i like a lot of your choices, but being a longtime reader and admirer of the books i’ve got some points to raise. #1- the fremen, through their language and herritage (bedwine, anyone?) are Bedouin arabs. i realize that in the thousands of years (centuries?) between now and then the ethnic lines have probably blurred quite a bit, but being extremely clannish nomads i think they would have stayed pretty close to type. casting might be a bit trickier, though. though i love the idea of oldman as dr. yueh, i”ve always seen him as classic mandarin chinese, and the name and description of the drooping ‘stache just add to that impression. malkovich as piter is an inspired choice, but doesn’t really fit the physical description. maybe benedict cumberbatch ? all in all a great list you came up with, and we can only hope that someone eventually makes a better adaptation than the two attempts so far!

      1. yeah, your right, but wasn’t piter described as looking kind of ‘elven’ or fox-like (not in those exact words, but that’s the impression i’ve always had from the books)?. yes, b.c. is an adonis but i think he could portray a malevolent puckishness very well if a role called for it. yes, he is a big guy, but i think he could make himself look more slight (sherlock looks thin almost to the point of frailty, for example). but i do see your point with malkovich, too, he’s just to ‘big’ in features and stature for my idea of the role. .
        seriously, the only place where i would take any kind of ‘issue’ with your casting would be regarding the ethnicity of the fremen, which the other 2 attemps to shoot the saga also chose to ignore.the rest is simply a matter of taste, and your choices are good ones, it a little different from mine.
        cheers,
        rob

      2. Ah, okay. I don’t remember exactly how his features were described. Fox-like sounds about right. So yeah, maybe someone a bit smaller than Malkovich would be better. My feeling on the Fremen–and this comes from the fact that Herbert predicted a multicultural future where all the religions kind of became one religion–is that they were probably a bit mixed as well. I wouldn’t have an issue with casting a darker-skinned actor as Stilgar, but I would also like to see a more diverse mix there than a particular ethnic group. Especially since they pretty much live in their stillsuits, I would think they would tend toward lighter skin over the generations.

  3. Some brilliant choices there. And funnily enough I chose Emma Watson as Princess Irulan as well, mostly for her narrative voice alone. Willem Dafoe and Gary Oldman too are fantastic choices although I was leaning towards an Asian actor for Dr. Yueh myself. For Gurney however (I’m only envisioning these actors as I read the book btw), I settled on Chiwetel Ejiofor after seeing him training Doctor Strange just recently.

    For the Baron, John Goodman is a sound choice. I myself after seeing Wilson Fisk on the Netflix Daredevil series and for his portrayal alone, I chose Vincent D’Onofrio. And for Duke Leto I’m using Benicio Del Toro while reading.

    1. Thank you! Your choices are good as well. I’m really enjoying D’Onofrio as the Wizard in Emerald City. Ejiofor is an interesting choice for Gurney. I can see that. Dr. Yueh probably is meant to be Asian, though I didn’t want the only real Asian in the cast being the traitor. Maybe if one of the heroic characters is also Asian, that might work.

  4. I’m here because I wanted to look up a character. I’m reading the book right now. Excellent choices, I absolutely replace my vision of the count with Buscemi right now 😀
    But since herbert heavily lents on the arabien culture for the fremen, they’re all arabien in my inner eye.

    1. Ah, thanks! Yeah, I wouldn’t have a problem with all the Fremen being cast with Arabic actors. My assumption is that it is so far in the future, with so much interracial mixing, that such distinctions are mostly moot. I did make some exceptions though, particularly with Duncan Idaho. I suppose one could also argue that the Suk doctors are meant to be Asian, but again I rather like the idea of mixing up the racial and cultural distinctions, which I think Frank Herbert would’ve approved of. That being said, then, there are probably too many white people on this list and certainly more room for people of color. Thanks for your comment!

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