Where’s the Emperor? Arguably, the most pivotal character in Dune: Part One is the one character we never see: Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV. It’s the Emperor who tells House Atreides that they have to move from Caladan to the planet Arrakis, better known as the planet “Dune.”
While very important to the world of Dune, Emperor Shaddam IV is not in the movie. Here’s who he is in the book, why we don’t see him in the film, and why we’ll almost certainly see him when (and if) Dune: Part Two ever gets made.
Major spoilers ahead for Dune: Part One.
Who is the Emperor in Dune?
In Dune: Part One, everything that happens in the film stems from a series of decisions that the Emperor has made. In the movie, he’s the guy offscreen who has screwed over House Atreides. In the book, he is Shaddam Corrino IV, the 81st Emperor from House Corrino and notably the last of such Emperors. His daughter is Princess Irulan, who, eventually, marries Paul Atreides— not for love, but political convenience.
In the new film, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) references this fact when he tells Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) that he could become Emperor because the Emperor has no sons and Paul could marry one of the daughters. Paul's speech in this scene is pretty much word-for-word as it is in the book, including Paul’s promise that “From the throne...I could make a paradise of Arrakis with a wave of my hand.”
In the 1984 version of Dune, the Emperor was played by legendary actor José Ferrer, and very early on in that version, we are let in on his schemes. In all versions of Dune, that scheme is as follows:
- Pretend to give House Atreides control of Arrakis
- Use the harsh conditions of Arrakis as a trap for House Atreides
- Take out Duke Leto, and get rid of House Atreides
- Make it look like the Harkonnens did it, but use Imperial Sardaukar soldiers to make sure it happens
Why does the Emperor have against House Atreides?
The way the interstellar political structure in Dune works is, in a nutshell, like this:
- Various Great Houses vie for power across different star systems
- A group called CHOAM regulates the money
- The Emperor and the Imperium represent the final say in terms of the law
The last point is critical. Even when Paul decides to move against the Emperor in the second half of the book (and, in theory, the forthcoming film Dune: Part Two), he still needs the political power that derives from the Emperor. In the book (in a line not in the film, but from the same conversation with Liet-Kynes), Paul distinguishes the Sardaukar soldiers and the role of the Emperor, saying, “The Sardaukar are one thing, the legal source of my authority is another.”
TLDR: Paul doesn’t want to tear down the existing system. He wants to use it to his advantage.
So, why does the Emperor want to screw over House Atreides in the first place? In the film, several characters say that the Emperor was “afraid” of House Atreides, or as the Baron says, “jealous.” But why does the Emperor want to trick the Atreides into going to Arrakis, only to turn around and send the Harkonnens to get rid of them all? In the film, the answer is vague. But, much later in the original novel, Thufir Hawat puts it like this:
“The Padishah Emperor turned against House Atreides because the Duke’s Warmasters Gurney Hallek and Duncan Idaho had trained a fighting force — a small fighting force — to within a hair as good as the Sardaukar. Some of them were even better. And the Duke was in a position to enlarge his force, to make it ever bit as strong as the Emperor’s.”
Because Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) had built a great army thanks to Gurney (Josh Brolin) and Duncan (Jason Momoa), the Emperor saw that one of the Great Houses was getting ready to take power away from him.
In a roundabout way, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Under Duke Leto, House Atreides would have never sought to overthrow the Emperor, but once the Emperor has Duke Leto murdered and Paul becomes the Duke, House Atreides does bring down the Emperor. At least that’s what happens at the end of the book, and that’s what will probably happen in Dune: Part Two.
Why isn’t the Emperor in Dune: Part One?
Like another “missing” character — Feyd — the reason that Emperor Shaddam IV isn’t in Dune: Part One is because he’s mentioned more than he’s seen for at least the first half of the book. In this way, Denis Villeneuve keeping the Emperor off-screen in Part One is pretty faithful to the book. Most of the big stuff with the Emperor appearing in the flesh doesn’t get going until after page 700. So, if we get Dune: Part Two, we will totally get to see the Emperor.
For now, though, in Dune: Part One, all you need to know about the Emperor is this: He’s a nervous ruler who gambled on helping a corrupt House — the Harkonnens — in an attempt to consolidate his power. For this Emperor, things won’t get nuts until Dune: Part Two, but, as you can see in Dune: Part One, Paul already has a plan to take him down.
Dune: Part One is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.