Dune Went Further On TV Than Lynch Or Villeneuve Ever Dreamed

They never made Dune like this before, or since.

Children of Dune
Inverse Recommends
We may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

For massive fans of Frank Herbert’s first Dune novel, the release of Dune: Part Two in 2023 marks the third time a filmed adaptation of this book has made it to the ending. But, the moment where Paul becomes (spoiler!) Emperor of the Universe is not the end of the Dune saga. Not by a long shot. And though Denis Villeneuve aims to make a third movie after 2023, that still won’t get beyond the second book, Dune Messiah. But, 20 years ago, one ambitious miniseries made it much further than any other Dune adaptation before.

On March 16, 2003, the three-part miniseries Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune hit the Sci-Fi Channel, which at the time, had not yet been rechristened “the SyFy Channel.” This was a very good year for sci-fi movies and sci-fi TV. On May 16, The Matrix Reloaded opened in theaters, in November, the first version of Clone Wars would hit The Cartoon Network, and by the end of the year, the Sci-Fi Channel would also deliver the epic miniseries that launched the reboot and game-changing Battlestar Galactica. Because all of those other sci-fi phenomenons went on to dominate the mainstream, it feels like the Children of Dune miniseries was a blip, forgotten to the sands of time.

But here’s the thing. Children of Dune was one of the most highly-rated Sci-Fi Channel production of all time and received mostly positive reviews. Like all Dune adaptations, mainstream critics were obsessed with its relative accessibility, with Variety concluding that this miniseries was “more accessible,” than its predecessor, Frank Herbert’s Dune. This kind of bias has followed Dune around for a long time, mostly because its filmed adaptations predate the mainstreaming of serialized sci-fi and fantasy narratives, which, arguably happened right after 2003; thanks to Battlestar, Game of Thrones, and in some ways, the MCU. Focusing on whether casual viewers could or couldn’t follow a sci-fi series is one of those knee-jerked biased talking points that was also attached to Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine, two shows that arrived about a decade before Sci-Fi’s Children of Dune, but both of which owed a lot to the Dune books in their basic development. The 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica also owes a great deal to Dune. Both are epic sci-fi series that feature zero space aliens, and both have an AI revolt that exists in their backstory.

Children of Dune’s place in the history of sci-fi movies and TV is probably not as prominent as it should be, simply because of the success of Battlestar overshadowed it later that year. Although the production value of Children of Dune has its merits, the fact is, it looks like it was made 20 years ago, while the Battlestar miniseries somehow looks like it was made yesterday. And it’s on this detail where Dune adaptations have always struggled. It’s one thing to create convincing science fiction set in the tin cans of spaceships. It’s something else to convincingly create a planet like Arrakis. The sandworms in the Sci-Fi Dunes are nobody’s favorite version, though, at the time, they were pretty amazing.

But the reason to watch (or rewatch) Children of Dune isn’t for the production values, instead, it’s all about Dune novelty. Structurally, the miniseries is pretty brilliant. In the first of three parts, the series just adapts all of Messiah in one go. This is smart because relatively speaking, that book is much shorter than Dune or the third book, Children of Dune. This leaves two full miniseries episodes to jump ahead almost two decades to the third book and reveal the titular Children. No other Dune adaptation has ever gotten this far, and smartly, it was decided to make the children of Paul and Chani much older in this story; James McAvoy and Jessica Brooks star as Leto II and Ghanima Atreides. By having these two not be little kids filled with adult memories — as they are in the novel — the miniseries turns them into Dune’s version of Luke and Leia. Power baby Alia Atreides also gets to appear as an adult here, played by Daniela Amavia, the only adult to ever play this character to date.

Don’t mess with the twins.


Tonally and aesthetically, Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune is a direct sequel to Frank Hebert’s Dune, which aired on Sci-Fi three years earlier. Although Dune 2000 director John Harrison could not direct again because of scheduling conflicts, he did write and produce the sequel, and many of the shrewd narrative decisions he made with the first miniseries are repeated here, too. Children of Dune is compact and epic, partly because Harrison’s screenplay combines elements from the second and third books so well that you forget it wasn’t like that in the first place. Although Irulan’s sister Princess Wensicia (Susan Sarandon) doesn't appear until the third novel, Harrison brings her into the action of Messiah, and then again, in her book role as the scheming force trying to dethrone Leto and Ghanima.

Much of the cast from the first miniseries returns, including Ian McNeice as Baron Harkonnen, P. H. Moriarty as Gurney, Alec Neman as Paul, Barbora Kodetová as Chani, and perhaps most notably, Julie Cox’s nuanced and complex portrayal of Princess Irulan. A fan of the books as a child, Cox did more with Irulan in Children of Dune than Frank Herbert ever did on the page. The status Florence Pugh’s Irulan holds in the hearts and minds of Dune fans is unknowable for now. But, Cox, as of now, is the greatest Irulan. And again, even if Denis Villeneuve gets to Messiah, we still won’t get to this version of Irulan: the quietly confident leader and defacto mother of Paul and Chani’s children.

Although Dune 2000 had Saskia Reeves as Lady Jessica, she was unable to return for Children. But, in that problem, the sequel got the brilliant Alice Krige, better known to Star Trek fans as the Borg Queen from First Contact and Voyager. (And in 2023, Picard again!) Why Krige wasn’t approached to play one of the Bene Gesserit elders in the newer films, we’ll never know.

From the performances to the smart writing, Children of Dune was ahead of its time in 2003. It took the Dune saga to the end of its first book trilogy, and in doing so, created the most singular Dune adaptation ever. From hardcore fans to newer Dune heads, this miniseries is special, ambitious, and certainly worth your time. After all, in terms of the onscreen versions of the saga of the Atreides family, we may never get this far again.

Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune is mostly on YouTube. Though, a Blu-ray is probably your best bet.

Related Tags