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Dune Release Date, Cast And Story

In 1965, novelist Frank Herbert released Dune, an ambitious science fiction epic chronicling the struggle for an immensely valuable desert planet amid a massive intergalactic empire. The book quickly drew acclaim, and in the decades since its publication it's become one of the most important genre works of the 20th century, spawning several sequels, a film adaptation, a TV miniseries, and more. Now, after years of development, Dune is coming to the big screen once again courtesy of celebrated director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049). 

Villeneuve's Dune is slated for a holiday season release at the end of 2020, but it's already set up as one of the most-anticipated films of the year. It's no wonder, when you consider the talent assembled both in front of and behind the camera. It features an ambitious storytelling road map, a supremely talented cast, and the potential to become the next major movie tentpole with a tie-in TV series also already in its corner. With all of that in mind, here's everything we know about Dune so far.

What's the release date for Dune?

Even after development began on the current cinematic version of Dune, the road to the big screen was set to be a long one. Denis Villeneuve was confirmed as director in 2017, and in the winter of 2019 the film finally got a release date of November 20, 2020, placing it firmly in the Thanksgiving holiday release window for that year. That release date already felt like it had been a long time coming, but it turns out that the saga of Dune's development was far from over.

Principal photography on Dune finally kicked off in the spring of 2019 as the film angled for its November 2020 release, but in August of 2019 Warner Bros. Pictures (which will distribute the film for Legendary) announced that the release date had actually been pushed back a bit. Now, instead of being a Thanksgiving competitor, Dune will be angling for some of the Christmas box office with a release date of December 18, 2020.

Who's starring in Dune?

Any Dune adaptation faces a monumental challenge in assembling a cast to fill Herbert's universe, and it starts with finding the perfect actors to stand in the center of it all as the Atreides family. In 2018, Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) joined the film as Paul Atreides, making Dune his first blockbuster role. Shortly after reports of Chalamet's involvement started circulating, Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) joined the film as Paul's mother, the Bene Gesserit woman Lady Jessica, who first begins teaching him the gifts that will later manifest as messianic abilities. 

With the two most prominent members of House Atreides in place, it was time for the film to cast Duke Leto Atreides, Paul's father who brings his family to Arrakis to take over leadership of the planet, and finds only trouble. In early 2019, it was revealed that Duke Leto will be played by Oscar Isaac, who adds another major sci-fi franchise to his resume just a few years after joining the Star Wars galaxy. These three actors form the core family unit that is House Atreides, but they're far from the only major stars joining the film.

Who else is in the cast of Dune?

Dune is an epic novel spanning several years and featuring two major royal houses (Atreides and Harkonnen) battling each other for supremacy on a planet that also includes its own native race, the Fremen. That means a massive cast needed to be assembled to make the film work, and because this is a Denis Villeneuve film adaptation of one of the most beloved genre novels ever, A-list actors have lined up to make the supporting cast for Dune is a truly all-star ensemble. 

Among the stars assembled to round out the film's cast are Stellan Skarsgard as Vladimir Harkonnen, Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, Javier Bardem as Stilgar, Zendaya as Chani, Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, David Dastmalchian as Piter De Vries, Dave Bautista as Glossu Rabban, and Charlotte Rampling as the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Mohiam. It's an exciting, diverse roundup of some of the most acclaimed actors working right now in both action blockbusters and prestige dramas — exactly the right blend for Herbert's sprawling space opera of warring dynasties.

The story of Dune

Dune is one of the most celebrated and influential science fiction novels ever written. First published in 1965, Frank Herbert's novel is set amid a future civilization built on a kind of interplanetary feudal system. There's a central government led by an Emperor, and various planets are controlled by his vassals, which take the title of Baron or Duke. 

The main action of Dune takes place on the planet Arrakis, one of the most important fiefdoms in the Empire because its vast desserts contain "the spice," an addictive and valuable substance. The novel follows the Atreides family as they are given control of Arrakis by the Emperor, only to find that a vast plot to overthrow them is already underway. Amid these political struggles, Duke Leto Atreides' young son, Paul, begins to manifest superhuman abilities that make him a messiah figure among the local Fremen. A rebellion begins, and Paul's abilities make him into a leader fit to challenge the Emperor himself. 

Of course, Herbert's novel is much more complicated than that, and after Dune he just kept going. Herbert himself wrote five sequels to the novel and concluded his series with Chapterhouse: Dune in 1985, but the story didn't end there. Herbert's son Brian picked up the torch from his father and, with novelist Kevin J. Anderson, has published more than a dozen more Dune books, many of them prequels to the original novel.

Past Dune adaptations

The earliest attempts to adapt Dune for the screen kicked off just a few years after the novel was published. In the mid-1970s, director Alejandro Jodorowsky launched a tremendously ambitious effort to bring the novel to the screen with a project involving everyone from Orson Welles to Salvador Dalí to Pink Floyd. Jodorowsky eventually abandoned the project when the financing for the film could not be fully realized, but his efforts were later chronicled in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky's Dune

The post-Star Wars era improved the fortunes of Dune as a movie, and in 1984 a big-screen version helmed by director David Lynch was finally released, starring Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides. Though it has since become a cult film, Dune was a box office flop and earned negative reviews. Lynch, not yet the household name he would be after Twin Peaks, was frustrated by a lack of creative control and eventually disowned his Dune altogether. 

A longer and more faithful adaptation of Herbert's novel arrived on the small screen in 2000 as Frank Herbert's Dune, a TV miniseries written by John Harrison that aired in three two-hour installments on the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy). It was successful enough that a sequel, Frank Herbert's Children of Dune, followed in 2003 and adapted the next two novels in Herbert's series. 

Attempts to bring Dune back to the big screen kicked into gear once again in 2008, when Paramount Pictures announced Peter Berg would direct a new adaptation. That effort eventually stalled, and in 2016 Legendary Pictures announced that they had landed the film and TV rights for Dune — the project we will finally see come to fruition in 2020.

The talent behind the camera on Dune

Soon after Legendary's announcement that they would be adapting Dune for the screen again, reports began to circulate that director Denis Villeneuve was the studio's choice to direct the new film version. Villeneuve's involvement was confirmed by Brian Herbert in 2017, after Villeneuve dazzled audiences with Arrival but before Blade Runner 2049 arrived in theaters to critical acclaim. Thanks to those two films in particular, Villeneuve is one of the most important voices in science fiction cinema right now. He's also a lifelong Dune fan who called the chance to adapt the book "the project of my life," while also making it clear that he won't be relying on the Lynch film version at all. 

"I mean, David Lynch is one of the best filmmakers alive, I have massive respect for him," Villeneuve said. "But when I saw his adaptation, I was impressed, but it was not what I had dreamed of, so I'm trying to make the adaptation of my dreams. It will not have any link with the David Lynch movie. I'm going back to the book, and going to the images that came out when I read it."

Villeneuve is joined in his efforts to adapt the book into the movie of his dreams by screenwriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, who share screenplay credit with the director.

How will Dune adapt such massive source material?

Frank Herbert's original novel is not the longest genre epic you're likely to find on the shelves at your local bookstores, but it is among the most dense. Dune is a book absolutely packed with plot, covering dozens of characters, multiple groups and cultures, and a vast mythology — some of which is only hinted at in the first novel. It's the kind of book so full of detail that it needs an appendix at the back so you can look up various invented terms for more clarity. 

That means adapting the book to the screen is hard, particularly when you're working within the constraints of a big-budget film, which these days pretty much demands you bring the film in with a runtime of three hours or less. Even with that in mind, though, adapting Dune as one three-hour story is a daunting prospect that's defeated filmmakers in the past. So, for Villeneuve's film version, the solution was obvious: don't try to make Dune one film. 

In the summer of 2018, after Villeneuve made it clear that he was setting a goal of two films for Dune, Brian Herbert confirmed that the screenplay for the new film would adapt "approximately half" of the first novel in the series. It's not clear how far "approximately half" will take us, but the novel does include a time jump to allow Paul Atreides to age a bit at one point, so it's possible the first film will leave off there.

Future Dune sequels

Brian Herbert confirmed in 2018 that Villeneuve's desire to split Dune into two films had come to fruition, and that the film we'll see in 2020 will adapt only half of the novel. This was reaffirmed in the spring of 2019 by Legendary Pictures CEO Joshua Grode, who added a little context as to why the split happened.

"There's a backstory that was hinted at in some of the books [that we expanded]," he said. "Also, when you read the book there's a logical place to stop the movie before the book is over."

There's one really interesting wrinkle in all of this, though. Yes, Dune will be split into two films, but it's not like The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson shot all of those movies back-to-back, but Villeneuve is not making one Dune film right after the other. Instead, Legendary seems to be waiting to see how the first film fares before launching into production on a sequel, which adds intrigue to what Villeneuve said when he first discussed his two-movie plan. "Dune will probably take two years to make," he said. "The goal is to make two films, maybe more."

So far, the only adaptation we've gotten beyond Herbert's first novel is the Children of Dune miniseries, but if Villeneuve has his way we could one day see a film version of God Emperor of Dune and even Chapterhouse: Dune. It all depends on how well the first film does.

A tie-in Dune TV series

While we still don't know when the second half of Dune will make it to the big screen, Villeneuve and company aren't waiting around to expand on the mythology. In June of 2019, it was announced that Legendary Television will produce Dune: The Sisterhood, a new TV series ordered by the then-unnamed WarnerMedia streaming service which we now know will be launched as HBO Max in 2020. 

The Sisterhood will follow the women of the Bene Gesserit, the secretive and powerful order of which Paul's mother Lady Jessica is a member, and will be set in the same universe as the film. "The Bene Gesserit have always been fascinating to me," Villeneuve said. "Focusing a series around that powerful order of women seemed not only relevant and inspiring, but a dynamic setting for the television series."

Villeneuve will serve as director for the series, while his Dune co-writer Jon Spaihts is set to script. The series does not yet have an announced cast or release date, but the launch of a tie-in TV show clearly illustrates just how ambitious Legendary's plans for Dune as a franchise really are.