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Two tiny human figures stand in a rocky desert with the circular, toothy mouth of an immense, building-sized sandworm looming over them in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One Image: Warner Bros.

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God Emperor of Dune would make a terrible movie — and we need it

C’mon, Denis Villeneuve, give us our giant philosophical worm king

With the recent release of the trailer for Dune: Part Two, Dune fever has been reignited, and it already seems hotter than it was ahead of the first movie’s premiere. By the time the movie is released in November, Paul Atreides, Lady Jessica, and Chani might even be household names. But even though Frank Herbert wrote six Dune novels, it’s unlikely this film franchise will go on for five more movies. We’ll be lucky if we even get one more.

“I always envisioned three movies,” Denis Villeneuve told EW in a 2021 interview. “That would be the dream. To follow Paul Atreides and his full arc would be nice.” The third movie would be a full adaptation of Dune Messiah, the much-shorter second book in the series that takes readers to the end of Paul’s rule.

It’s a worthy goal for Villeneuve, one that no fan of the books could reasonably complain about: The fact that we got any decent adaptation at all is a miracle. It’s also easy to see why a director would want to bail out of the series after Messiah. While the first two Dune books can be weird and inaccessible at times, they’re nothing compared to the books that come after.

A cover of the book God Emperor of Dune, with a giant sandworm with a human face sitting in the desert, a tiny human figure silhouetted in front of it, standing and facing it Image: Brad Holland/G.P. Putnam’s Sons

To quickly summarize: Book three in the series, Children of Dune, jumps forward nine years after Paul’s supposed death. His twin children, Leto II and Ghanima, have full access to all the thoughts and feelings their parents ever felt, right up until the moment the twins were conceived. They also have access to their grandparents’ memories, their great-grandparents’ memories, and so on. So even though Paul’s children are only 9 years old, they both talk, think and act with the wisdom of gods. What does Leto II choose to do with this wisdom? The rational thing: He turns himself into a giant indestructible worm and becomes Emperor of the entire universe.

The fourth book, God Emperor of Dune, skips ahead 3,500 years. Leto II is still alive, and still a giant worm. Thanks to his invulnerable monopoly on the spice, he maintains complete and utter control over the universe. To make things stranger, he’s also spent the millennia making clones of Duncan Idaho (the warrior played by Jason Momoa in Villeneuve’s Dune) to serve him, even though each new Duncan inevitably turns against him and needs to be replaced. Meanwhile, a descendant of Leto’s named Siona is plotting a rebellion against him, unaware that Leto has been watching her every step and allowing her to get as far as she has. Leto also falls in love with a beautiful young woman named Hwi Noree, lamenting the whole time how he can’t have sex with her like a normal man. It’s very funny.

From an adaptation standpoint, this book is a nightmare. Not only would a director need to figure out how to make a giant worm character look good on screen for two hours straight, they’d also have to figure out how to sell general audiences on an entry in a franchise where almost everyone involved in the first few movies is long dead. There’s also the obstacle that God Emperor is remarkably light on action: Most of the book consists of Leto II mulling over philosophical quandaries, sometimes discussing them with his underlings, but mostly talking to himself. More so than any other book in the series, this is a story specifically suited to literature, not film.

But like plenty of fans of the books, I want this movie anyway. I want to see the giant worm monstrosity on the big screen, no matter how questionable the CGI turns out. I want to see him literally squash his enemies with his giant, awkward worm body, as he does in the book several times over. I want to see the worm weep and mope around because he can never be a proper husband to the woman he fell in love with 10 seconds ago. I want to see a gender-swapped version of the question, “Would you still love me if I were a worm?” tackled on the big screen once and for all.

Cover art from the 1981 French version of God Emperor of Dune shows a stylized painting of a man with chitinous armor over his head, shoulders, and torso, and the lower body of a worm, lying in a steaming bath of a blood-red fluid
Cover art detail from a 1981 French edition of God Emperor of Dune
Image: Pocket Books

It helps that God Emperor of Dune also just so happens to be the best book in the entire series. This might be a diversion from public consensus, but it’s true: Dune is the fun series installment with the triumphant, crowd-pleasing ending, but God Emperor is the story Frank Herbert was clearly the most interested in telling. This is the book the entire first three books were leading up to, and that the final two books were written in reaction to. Maybe things would look different if Herbert had time to finish his seventh and final Dune book, but as it turned out, God Emperor is the thematic climax of the series.

As silly as the book’s premise sounds on the surface, it works as a climax because Leto II’s position as an immortal, nearly invulnerable worm has put him in a fascinating thematic place. He has access to nearly all the knowledge in the universe, and he’s allowed to reshape the world in his own image for more than 500 pages straight, with no restraints whatsoever. Usually, a character in Leto’s position is the villain of the story, or he meets his downfall not too long after he achieves complete power. But Frank Herbert gives Leto II thousands of years to do anything he wants, and Herbert follows through on this thought experiment as thoroughly as anyone could’ve hoped.

A movie would not be able to do all this with anywhere near the depth the book managed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Despite what you’ll hear from many frustrated fans of other book series that were adapted to TV and film, the goal of an adaptation shouldn’t be to give us a scene-by-scene re-creation of the source material. The goal should be to zero in on the emotional core of the story, then restructure events to work on screen while making sure the story’s core still rings true.

We know from Denis Villeneuve’s past work that he understands this. His 2016 movie Arrival made massive changes to the Ted Chiang novella it was based on, all of which served to more properly fit the story to the screen. Meanwhile, Dune: Part One cut out almost everything related to the book’s subplot of the characters trying to root out the Harkonnen spy among them, which makes sense, because the book tells this storyline almost entirely through the characters’ inner thoughts. The movie instead focuses on the core story of the first half of the novel, which is all about young Paul suffering a major personal tragedy and being forced to become a leader before he’s fully ready. Part One nails this storyline, and that’s all it truly needs to do.

Likewise, the core of God Emperor is simple. It’s a story about a man who turns himself into an inhuman monster because he believes it’s necessary to save humanity. His sandworm exterior is just an avenue to explore the costs of power and absolute knowledge, and whether those costs are worth it. In order to adapt this book into a worthwhile movie, the writers wouldn’t have to try to squeeze every scene from the book into the film; they’d just need to explore this one concept.

The 1984 Berkley Books cover of God Emperor of Dune, with three men in white standing at the base of a towering grey, scaled worm-shaped figure with a human face where its mouth would be
The 1984 Berkley Books cover of God Emperor of Dune
Image: Berkley Books

A God Emperor movie would still be strange and alienating to general audiences, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. The beauty of the Dune book series is the author’s apparent refusal to cater to conventional mass-appeal storytelling. Already, Villeneuve has followed the same approach: Just as in the book, the protagonists of the first film have been widely criticized for being cold, distant and humorless, and the pacing and worldbuilding has already been criticized as slow and confusing. These are all unavoidable results of adapting the Dune franchise loyally — but for a small yet loyal section of the audience, this is also the appeal.

Fans love Dune because of how weird it is. We love how little Frank Herbert seemed to care about alienating any readers who weren’t on his wavelength. In a movie landscape where blockbusters feel increasingly safe and predictable, it’s refreshing to get a franchise that isn’t afraid to push boundaries, not just with its aesthetics, but with its structure and character choices. God Emperor is the Dune series at its strangest and boldest, which means it’s also Dune in its purest form.

Yes, box office-wise, the Dune movies will almost surely peak with Dune: Part Two, followed by a sharp decline if Villeneuve does adapt the increasingly bizarre sequels. We know that a God Emperor movie would lead to angry audience reactions that might make the Beau Is Afraid backlash seem tame by comparison. We know most audiences might not get past the barrier of being asked to empathize with a slimy main character who’s 23 feet long and weighs 10,000 pounds. But whether general audiences realize it or not, cinema needs its giant worm king, and it would be a shame if these movies never delivered.

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