Just how creepy is Dune? When you consider that the basic story involves controlled breeding, holy wars, assassinations, and the secretions of giant sandworms, the idea that one character is brought back from the dead as a metal-eyed zombie feels almost tame. And yet, in the novel Dune Messiah, the resurrection of Duncan Idaho at the hands of the secretive Bene Tleilax is perhaps the most pivotal and strangest continuity leap in the entire Dune saga, second only to Leto II mutating into a half-sandworm creature in Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune.
But can any of the wild leaps of the Dune book sequels be shown on screen? Well, the short answer is yes, they already have been. The 2003 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, Children of Dune, depicted all the events of that third novel but also used its first part to adapt Messiah. To date, the John Harrison script for Children of Dune represents the only major screenwriting for Dune sequels that tackle elements of the novels beyond the first one. That is, until now.
Though long rumored to exist, a partial version of David Lynch’s screenplay for a Dune Messiah sequel has surfaced. And, based on what we now know, there’s at least one big lesson for Denis Villeneuve — beware the Bene Tleilax!
Spoilers ahead for the book Dune Messiah (1969).
Journalist Max Evry’s massive book, A Masterpiece in Disarray, is an excellent oral history of the making of David Lynch’s 1984 Dune film. The book came out in September and represents a new essential guide to one of the most debated films in sci-fi history. But, during the research process, Evry stumbled across something else: part of Lynch’s script for an unmade sequel to Dune 1984, a direct adaptation of Messiah.
In a new article for Wired, Evry outlines his discovery of the 1980s Dune 2 script at the Fullerton Library in at Cal Tech. For context, this is a holding of a bunch of papers collected by the scholar Willis E. McNelly and is the go-to source for Dune researchers. (I also used this public resource to research Frank Herbert’s letters from the 1950s through the end of the 1960s for my Dune history book, The Spice Must Flow). So, in essence, this script has been hiding in semi-plain sight, and Evry was the person smart enough to recognize the “slim folder” for what it was. In it, Evry struck gold.
Was Lynch’s Dune Messiah faithful to the book?
As Dune fans are well aware, Lynch’s version of Dune took some liberties with the source material not found in the two other adaptations of Dune — John Harrison’s versions in 2000 and 2003, and now, Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 and 2024 versions. But, interestingly, it seems that the broad strokes of Lynch’s Messiah, while retaining the same aesthetic vibe from the previous film, stays close-ish to the overall plot of the book in two ways.
First, the plot centers on the conspiracy to bring down Paul Atreides and favors “palace intrigue over action.” Second, the shifty Bene Tleilax, specifically Scytale, are central to the story, perhaps in a way that isn’t as much of the case in the novel. And it’s here where Lynch’s script gets very Lynchian, making the Tleilaxu even grosser and scarier in the screenplay than they are in the novels. Here’s one example: “Scytale's friends are laughing and wildly rolling marbles under their hands as they watch Scytale sing through eighteen mouths in eighteen heads strung together with flesh that is like a flabby hose.”
But would this have worked? And what the heck are the Bene Tleilax anyway?
Bene Tleilax and Scytale, explained
Make no mistake, these folks don’t exist anywhere in the first 1965 Dune novel and were invented by Frank Herbert specifically for the sequel, Messiah, in 1969. However as Evry has revealed, Lynch would have retroactively revealed that the Baron’s doctor (Leonardo Cimino) from the first film was really Scytale.
In the books, Bene Tleilax — or “Tleilaxu” — are essentially Dune’s version of cloners, and damn good ones, too. While they play an important part in various conspiracies in both Messiah and the third novel, Children of Dune, the biggest way in which they change the game is through the resurrection of Duncan Idaho.
Instead of creating outright clones, the Tleilaxu have something called “gholas,” which are basically reconstructions of a deceased person. Though the end result is, essentially, a new character. This is why in Messiah, the Duncan ghola is called “Hayt,” at least at first. The early gholas also have creepy metallic eyes, because it’s not Dune unless there’s something freaky going on with people’s eyes. Hayt is the first of several Duncan duplicates, a trope that continues throughout all six books.
The Bene Tleilax has another genetically altered creation: a Face Dancer. This is Herbert’s version of a human shapeshifter, which proves to be an essential part of the plot of Messiah. Because both of these ideas are introduced somewhat rapidly in Messiah, it makes sense that Lynch would have wanted to try and make it clear that the seeds for all of this were in the first film, hence retroactively turning the Baron’s doctor into the Face Dancer, Scytale.
Will Dune: Part Two (2024) also adapt Messiah?
Because Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming film Dune: Part Two adapts the second half of the first novel, purists might assume that this new film won’t touch the events of Messiah at all. After all, like Lynch before him, Villeneuve has said he’s working on the script for Messiah, which, would conclude his film trilogy of books, and fully adapt the first two novels.
But, if Villeneuve is really thinking about Messiah, isn’t it possible that Dune: Part Two might already introduce the Bene Tleilax early? Chronologically, the Bene Tleilax have to be lurking around at this time, because they snagged the body of Duncan right away, in order to turn him into a ghola. Some fans have already theorized that Tim Blake Nelson’s role — which has yet to be revealed — is actually Scytale. There’s also good money on the idea that Dune: Part Two will set up the Bene Tleilax and reveal their cloned version of Duncan (Jason Momoa) in this film, as a tease for the next.
If any of this turns out to be the case, then it would seem that Villeneuve is already taking a page from David Lynch: Make sure to set up your creepy Dune shapeshifters and cloners ahead of time, even if you’re not entirely sure if you’re going to make another movie. That said, I think we can all rest easy knowing that Villeneuve’s Bene Tleilax will be scary, but hopefully, fall just short of being Lynchian nightmares.