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)
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.
Duke Leto Atreides (Robert Downey, Jr.)
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.
Lady Jessica (Amy Adams)
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.
Alia Atreides (Isabelle Nélisse)
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.
Thufir Hawat (Willem Dafoe)
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)
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)
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.
Dr. Yueh (Gary Oldman)
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)
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.
Count Fenring (Steve Buscemi)
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)
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?
Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (John Goodman)
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 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)
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.
Piter De Vries (John Malkovich)
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.
Reverend Mother Mohiam (Alice Krige)
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!
Liet-Kynes (Daniel Day-Lewis)
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.
Stilgar (Michael Shannon)
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)
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.
Esmar Tuek (Danny Trejo)
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.