October 16, 2021

where are the fans of Frank Herbert’s work?

Fans of Dune do they exist? Did they disappear, like the water disappeared from Arrakis, the desert planet imagined by the American writer Frank Herbert? Or do they live folded up in metaphorical sietchs, these underground shelters in which the people of the Fremen bide their time before sweeping over the world?

Dune, it is a colossal literary success born in 1965, confirmed by its five “official” suites until 1985 and maintained since the end of the 1990s by Brian Herbert, the prolix son of the author. Tens of millions of copies sold, several more or less successful adaptation attempts and, since September 15, a new Hollywood blockbuster, directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve.

However, with all due respect to enthusiasts of the “duniverse”, it must be recognized that if Dune has had an impact in bookstores comparable to that of Lord of the Rings or from Harry Potter, its influence on popular culture remains discreet.

And we are not simply talking here about the experts of the Dunian gesture: it is hard to imagine seeing a Sunday lover wearing a t-shirt bearing the effigy of Paul Atréides, the hero of the saga, or with a plush sand under the arm. “This is the great paradox of Dune : having a huge but invisible community ”, explains Usul, videographer and columnist for Mediapart, whose spectators, although faithful, must be few to realize that his pseudonym is taken from the work of Herbert.

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also Ecology, feminism, artificial intelligence: why “Dune” still fascinates

An imagination without images

Anudar (this is also a pseudonym) is one of the hosts of “From Dune to Rakis”, an online forum where, for twenty years, die-hard French-speaking fans have been dissecting the work of Frank Herbert. The forty-something recalls that Dune had, from the second half of the 1960s, many followers. “It is a work that has been greatly appreciated in circles of the American counterculture”, he explains to us, not without having underlined the irony of this intellectual proximity between a progressive America and a Frank Herbert little suspect of democratic friendships. This is confirmed by Renaud Guillemin, member of the community of “Duniens” in France and researcher at the CNRS, who sees in Dune “One of the most studied, dissected and commented books of its time”.

But, rightly or wrongly, Dune is seen as a serious work and its desert planet Arrakis as the theater of a history, it is the case to say it, rather arid. It is the anti-Star Wars : sscience fiction without science, it describes a society that is both futuristic and feudal. A space opera without space, its feet in the sand and its head in political intrigue, whose heroes are monsters, with no possible redemption.

And it is this intellectual side that still today, for Anudar, ” the fans come together in a different way, around the debate of ideas ” and therefore in a more discreet way, where those ofHarry Potter, for example, may prefer the disguise or the organization of a quidditch tournament. “The novel gives us the journey of a hero called to become a messiah, and shows us that it is in fact the worst that can happen, summarizes Renaud Guillemin. Frank Herbert writes it in a central scene of the novel: “The worst that could happen to you would be the coming of a hero.” It is an eminently political book that denounces fanaticism. “ A message that is hardly compatible with the very notion of… fans.

The emancipation of Dune bookstores alone could also have been upset by the lack of imagery left by the author. At least that’s Anudar’s thesis. “There is a clear adaptation deficit. In the case of Lord of the Rings, the author himself proposed illustrations. Herbert, on the other hand, was not an illustrator: there were a few in it Analog [le magazine dans lequel Dune a initialement été édité sous forme de feuilleton], but not enough to implement imagery in the minds of fans. “

Same story with Renaud Guillemin. For him, unlike Star Wars or to Lord of the Rings, which have even been picked up by advertising, « Dune does not have an easily recognizable visual identity: no one knows what an Atreides looks like or what distinguishes it from a Harkonnen [deux familles nobles]. Even the distilled [la combinaison] of a Fremen, no one knows what that looks like. “

The children of “Dune II”

Despite the covers of the books, a stillborn film project imagined by Alejandro Jodorowsky or a famous board game but long unavailable, fans have thus lacked the visual support to fuel (and share) their passion for Dune.

It was not until nearly twenty years and the release of the film adaptation of the American David Lynch that Dune sees itself endowed with a strong visual identity. Unfortunately, it is a missed appointment with the general public.

“Many people think that Lynch’s film is not good: I think it has the merit of existing”, warns Anudar, for whom the declensions of Dune are too rare to be allowed to reject them altogether. However, he describes his graphic atmosphere as “Minimalist, creepy, not very attractive”.

Read also Lynch’s “Dune”, in 1984, an extravagant, battered work, between grandiose and kitsch

Two adaptations, loosely inspired by the film although released eight years later, have been judged with much more leniency: those in video games, Dune and Dune II, released almost simultaneously in 1992. Two visions of the same story told respectively by the French studio Cryo and the American studio Westwood, and two works that each marked, in their own way, the history of video games.

The miniseries (three episodes each) adapting the first two volumes of Dune and broadcast in 2000 and 2003 on the Sci Fi channel (now SyFy) also have their followers: “Even if it was quite faithful to the book, it was so cheap that it was almost theater filmed with really disgusting colored lighting, tranche Usul. And it was a huge success. At the same time, you want to do what besides reread the book, watch the film dozens of times, and admire the new illustrations by talented artists? We don’t have much to eat. “

An appetite for Dune which explains the success since 1999 of the many novels co-authored by Brian Herbert, the author’s son, and Kevin J. Anderson. Works generally considered minor and which divide fans. In fact, it still misses Dune a great unifying adaptation. “The” fandom ” [la communauté de fans], it exists at the intersection of movies, games, etc. And in reality, in the case of Dune, the intersection between these communities is reduced, regrets Anudar. There are ancient Dunian communities, but in circles that don’t really overlap. “

The long awaited messiah?

This is an indicator like any other: in 2016, while nothing indicates that the crossing of the desert that fans of Dune may come to an end, the section devoted to the work of Frank Herbert on the Reddit forum (one of the largest in the world) has less than 10,000 subscribers. The one devoted to Lord of the Rings : more than 100,000. But in November of the same year, Denis Villeneuve’s film was suddenly announced and the section Dune then knows a crazy progression and has since caught up half of its delay on The Lord of the Rings.

“There is not, to my knowledge, a community of fans that has developed only around a book”, recalls Renaud Guillemin. Same The Lord of the Rings, already picked up by role-players and hard rock lyricists, reached a higher level of fame when adapted for cinema by Peter Jackson in 2001. So, fans start to dream that, unlike Lynch’s, the adaptation by Denis Villeneuve could be the one who will put everyone in agreement.

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also Denis Villeneuve brilliantly takes up the challenge of “Dune”

To the point, perhaps, of seducing new fans? Lloyd Chery, journalist and book coordinator All about Dune (Atalante & Leha, 2021), recounts this scene in which he witnessed the film’s premiere: to a journalist who handed them a microphone, teenagers confessed to not knowing anything about Dune and just be there to see two of the young actors, Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, real teenage idols.

The old men of Dune Will they not feel dispossessed of “their” work if, tomorrow, college students decide to wear a Paul Atréides t-shirt or to hang sand worm stuffed animals above their beds? ” Absolutely not, defends Anudar. The purpose of a community like ours is to identify what happened before us and to pass it on after us. When you think about it, it’s even quite Herbertian, the question of transmission ”, in reference to the story of Dune, which spans millennia and generations. “And maybe they too will have new things on Dune to tell us. “