The two most famous mid-century science fiction novels in the Galactic Empire genre that inspired Star Wars are Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Frank Herbert’s Dune. Both are coming to TV this fall, Foundation on Apple TV this Friday and Dune on HBO Max and in theaters on October 22.
Both are set thousands of years in a future full of human-settled planets (but few if any aliens) ruled by tottering empires.
From a literary point of view, Dune is the superior work of art. Asimov began Foundation when he was in his early 20s after reading Gibbon and Toynbee and coming up with the idea of a Science of History that predicts the future. This is an idea that only a very young man who hasn’t much experience with how inevitably wrong his predictions will turn out to be could dream up.
On the other hand, it’s also a really interesting idea. Foundation is hard science fiction at its least aesthetic and humanistic. Asimov wasn’t all that good at writing characters, but his mathematical psychohistorian Hari Seldon and The Mule who upsets Hari’s careful plans are useful shorthand references when talking about forecasting.
In contrast, Herbert was in his prime in his early 40s and invested years in writing Dune to be his breakthrough and a great leap forward for the science fiction genre. It has many interesting influences redolent of the early 1960s, such as Lawrence of Arabia, Machiavelli’s The Prince, the Jesuits, the French Foreign Legion, Jung, and the life of General Chinese Gordon, who battled the Taiping in China and the Mahdi in Sudan. It also has themes that came into prominence later, such as ecology and jihad.
While Dune has richer characters, its complexity also makes it harder to wrap your head around than Foundation.
Dune is closer to sword and sorcery fantasy, although generally Herbert offers sciencey-sounding explanations for why his violence is waged in sort of Borgia vs. Medici way with lots of sword-fighting and poisonings instead of just taking off and nuking it from orbit.
Ten episodes of Foundation have been filmed with the hope of running a Game of Thrones-like 80 episodes. The cast is rather obscure: character actor Jared Harris, son of Richard Harris, will play Hari Seldon, the science of history genius who leads the rebels on a planet of scientists in out-anticipating the Empire. But Game of Thrones started out with only a few third-tier movie stars like Sean Bean and dwarf Peter Dinklage, so presumably the economics of (hopefully) long TV series work against casting big names.
I don’t remember much of the details of Foundation’s plot, but I’m guessing they’ll make up a bunch of new stuff, which could be good if it turns out to be good. Or could be bad because it’s hard to make up good stuff.
Dune, in contrast, is a big budget movie ($165 million for 2 hours and 35 covering the first half of the original novel) with a lot of second tier (i.e., well known but not DiCaprio-level) movie stars cast rather carefully to fit their descriptions in the book: e.g., tiny pretty boy star Timothée Chalamet plays the small teenage pretty boy hero Paul Atreides. My guess is that Chalamet is the most well-suited name actor (although, admittedly, his name, Timothée Chalamet, gets on lots of guys’ nerves) to play the 15-year-old Paul.
In Dune, all the characters are extremely superior individuals who have been eugenically bred for their aristocratic roles, so you need movie stars.
Thus, Oscar Isaac is Atreides' Mediterranean aristocrat father Duke Leto, Javier Bardem is Stilgar, leader of the Space Bedouin Fremen, Josh Brolin and Jason “Aquaman” Momoa (from Game of Thrones) are the Duke’s military retainers, and Charlotte Rampling is the crone Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit order of sorceresses who serve the function of Jesuit confessors.
Judging from the trailer, director Denis Villenueve (Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049), is trying to faithfully reproduce the book, with the most obvious changes being giving Paul’s pretty girlfriend Chani a bigger role and giving some macho humor to the various tough guys.
Dune will likely be denounced for the White Savior trope of a T.E. Lawrence–like revolt-in-the-desert leader. Also, the book is homophobic because the grotesque bad guy Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is a homosexual who preys on and occasionally murders youths.
How good will the two properties be?
When showrunner David Goyer told James Cameron that the rights to Foundation were up for bid again, Cameron offered Goyer his expert opinion: “That’s a hard one.” Similarly, Dune defeated the considerable talents of David Lynch in 1984.