Arts Beat: Driving Force

Reflections on the debt that "Star Wars'' owes to science fiction author Frank Herbert and "Dune.''

You won’t see Frank Herbert’s name when the credits roll at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and there’s no chance whatsoever that he’ll be sitting next to you. But you wouldn’t be watching the movie without him.

Herbert, who died in 1986, is the author of Dune, a futuristic epic published 50 years ago that is considered by many to be the most influential science fiction novel ever written. It’s so influential that the plot may sound familiar even if you’ve never read the book. It tells a story of a young man who is handy with a high-tech sword, comes from a family imbued with supernatural powers he’s still trying to understand, and finds himself battling an evil empire filled with overweight villains and the occasional close relation.

Filmmaker George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars series, never made any bones about the fact that it was largely inspired by Dune, and you don’t have to work too hard to find parallels large and small in its settings, themes and characters.

Science fiction geeks used to get a kick out of tracking down all the parallels. (In the how-obvious-can-you-be category: Dune features a character who is the hero’s sister, a princess named Aliea. Star Wars features a character who is the hero’s sister, a princess named Leia.) But as time goes by and the Star Wars series develops its own characters and conventions, Herbert’s contribution is acknowledged less and less.

Still, there are persistent reverberations, even if, by now, they are all but subliminal. For example (I won’t betray any spoilers here—there are enough jerks doing that) the all-in-the-family theme that Herbert developed is still with us. You’ll see a key father-son confrontation in The Force Awakens. That’s all I’m sayin.’

More importantly, there’s a key thematic element that bears bringing up here out of respect to Herbert. Rey, a newly introduced protagonist, is female. No ordinary female. We don’t find out much about her background, but when she’s drawn into a battle, her skill set makes that clear. What is equally clear is that you’ll be seeing more of her. Funny how some people in the Star Wars universe just automatically know how to handle a lightsaber the moment you put one in their hands.

Some reviewers have made a big fuss over the girl-power emphasis in this film. Fine. Applaud the current generation of Star Wars filmmakers all you want, but know that the very foundation of Herbert’s Dune was a matriarchy, ruled over by the Bene Gesirett, a women-only order with mind-bending mental powers and a multi-generational game plan to rule the universe. Like many a steel-magnolia momma, they cultivated a special do-as-you’re-told tone of voice that made your knees turn into rubber and dissolved your will to resist.

You did not want to mess with the Bene Gesirett. That’s all I’m sayin.’  Enjoy the film, and may the Frank be with you.

"Dune'' website:


Categories: Arts Beat