Dune: 10 Things Only Book Readers Know About The Baron – Screen Rant

The Baron Harkonnen is one of Dune’s most compelling figures, and there’s a lot about his personality that only book readers will understand.
The success of any epic movie often depends on a number of factors, but one of the most important is the strength of its central characters, especially the villain. In Dune, that role falls to Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a man of many deviant appetites with a mind that allows him to be both shrewd and ruthless when it comes to political maneuvering.
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Though the new movie shows viewers a great deal about him, there are even more fundamental aspects of his character that are revealed in both Frank Herbert’s original book and its many sequels and prequels.
One of the Baron’s most notable attributes is his size (part of the reason that Stellan Skarsgard had to spend so much time in makeup). In both Herbert’s novel and the new adaptation, his obesity is meant to suggest his tendency to indulge in pleasure for its own sake, which in turn reflects on his failures as a character. Those who have read the prequel novels by Frank Herbert’s son and the science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson learned that, many years prior to the events in Dune, he was actually handsome and fit, someone that many people desired.
Lady Jessica is one of the most important characters in both the movie and the book, especially given that she is a key part of the millennia-long breeding program of the Bene Gesserit. Readers of the book long ago realized that her part in the drama is even more important, and complicated, than immediately apparent, because it turns out that she is none other than the daughter of the Baron himself. Book readers also know that this will have significant consequences for many different characters.
For a long time, it was unclear who, exactly, Jessica’s mother was, since that was left somewhat ambiguous in the original novel. In the prequels, it’s revealed that it was none other than Gaius Helen Mohiam, the Bene Gesserit who tests Paul and goes on to play a key role in many of the events of Dune.
In fact, she would have two daughters with the Baron, though only one of those (Jessica) was strong enough to survive to play her key role in the breeding program. Given their history, it’s no wonder theirs is one of the most vexing relationships in Dune.
When Jessica is inducted into the Fremen, she undergoes a procedure called the spice agony, and this results in her child, Alia, being born as a full Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit. As a result, she can access the memories of her ancestors, and this includes Baron Harkonnen, her grandfather.
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Unfortunately, given that this is one of the most vicious people in the series, he soon begins to manipulate and control her behavior, and only her suicide keeps his plans from reaching their fruition.
During the course of the original novel, readers meet two of the Baron’s relatives, his two nephews. What readers learn in the prequels is that Glossu and Feyd-Rautha are both sons of Vladimir’s brother, Abulurd, who is as unlike his brother as it is possible to be. While the other Harkonnen sibling could easily have been chosen as his father’s heir, Vladimir’s obvious political skull and ruthlessness assured that he gained control of the family’s destiny.
One of the Baron’s great skills is to surround himself with aides who are as ruthless as he is, including the twisted Mentat Piter De Vries. He is the Baron’s right hand man, willing to execute his master’s every whim and desire.
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What isn’t shown in the book is that Piter is actually the second Mentat of the name to serve the Baron; the other was killed several years earlier. It’s considered by some to be a bit of retconning, but it does demonstrate how expendable the Baron’s assistants really are.
The origins of the Baron’s corpulence are something of a mystery, but it is revealed in the prequel series that, as with so many of the events of the novels, it’s tied in with his encounter with Mohiam. After the failed first pregnancy, the Baron actually raped the Reverend Mother and she, as a means of getting back at him, made sure he was infected with a disease that caused rapid weight gain. By the time of the events of the original book, and now the movie, he’s almost unable to move of his own volition (his use of suspensors leads to a very striking shot in Dune).
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Baron’s character is just how far he’s willing and able to go in the pursuit of his lusts and desires. In the book, he not only pursues very young men – sometimes children – he also subjects them to unimaginable horrors, including bloody forms of torture (at one point his chambers have to be cleaned as a result of the mess that he’s made in torturing one of his unfortunate victims). Unsurprisingly, some of these crazy moments don’t end up in the Dune movie.
By the time that the book takes place, House Harkonnen is one of the most powerful houses, with enormous wealth and influence (largely thanks to the Baron and his ruthless politicking). However, readers know that it is also a very old house, and in fact, one of the Baron’s ancestors played a key role in the long struggle that humans waged against the thinking machines. Unfortunately, the family was also shamed during that battle, which contains the seeds of the long-lasting Atreides/Harkonnen feud.
Baron Harkonnen is a man who respects strength more than anything else, and it’s for this reason that he turns a blind eye to the fact that his younger nephew, Feyd-Rautha, actually tries to lead a conspiracy against him in the book. In fact, he thinks it’s actually a good idea, because it will train the young man how to be as politically ruthless as he needs to be in order to survive the politics of their world. When the rebellion fails, he punishes his nephew by forcing him to execute his own slaves.
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Thomas J. West III earned a PhD in film and screen studies from Syracuse University in 2018. His writing on film, TV, and popular culture has appeared in Screenology, FanFare, Primetimer, Cinemania, and in a number of scholarly journals and edited collections. He co-hosts the Queens of the B’s podcast with Mark Muster and writes a regular newsletter, Omnivorous, on Substack.