In the year 2000, television hosted a major sci-fi event. Over three nights in December, the Sci-Fi Channel (not yet renamed Syfy) released a four-and-a-half hour-long epic.
Directed by John Harrison (now a producer on this year’s Dune), the miniseries — and its sequel, Children of Dune — was destined to go down as the most misunderstood Dune adaptation of them all.
Here’s why this under-the-radar miniseries is essential for completists, how it set up Denis Villeneuve’s Dune this year, and where to stream it for free. Mild spoilers ahead for the book version of Dune.
What is Frank Herbert’s Dune?
Frank Herbert’s Dune is a 2000 miniseries starring William Hurt as Duke Leto and Alec Newman as Paul Atreides.
A wildly faithful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s first Dune novel, this series was one of the most ambitious (and expensive) projects launched by the Sci-Fi Channel. It also landed smack-dab in the middle of Hurt’s “sci-fi dad” phase, after his turn in 1998’s Lost in Space but before Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
This miniseries preceded the 2003 Battlestar Galactica miniseries and, in terms of viewership, was one of the most popular programs the Sci-Fi Channel ever launched. (Would the Sci-Fi Channel have charged ahead with Battlestar without Dune working out first? It seems unlikely.)
True to its name, Frank Herbert’s Dune changed almost nothing from Herbert’s book. With production values on par with the original Babylon 5, this miniseries tries to bring an epic story to the small screen. If you are pressed for time and can’t read the entire book before the new Dune film hits theaters, watching this miniseries is the next best thing.
Newman’s casting as Paul is a little tricky, simply because he seems so grown-up (Paul is supposed to be a teenager). But then again, Kyle MacLachlan didn’t seem like a teenager either. The format of Frank Herbert’s Dune also gestured at its faithfulness to the book. Writing in the introduction to the 2000 book The Secrets of Frank Herbert’s Dune, director John Harrison said:
“I decided that Herbert’s own structure could serve quite well as the basis for the mini-series. Each night would reflect one of the three ‘books’ that comprise his novel: “Dune,” “Mauad’bib,” and “The Prophet.”
Villeneuve seems to be attempting something similar with the new Dune. The first film — Dune: Part One — will adapt roughly those first two “parts” of Dune. And, in theory, Part Two will tackle what’s left. As such, watching Frank Herbert’s Dune could resemble a structural rough draft for what the new Dune films are attempting.
Is the 2000 Dune miniseries any good?
Full disclosure: the writer of this piece watched the 2000 Dune the year after I read the novel for the first time. Watching the miniseries more recently, its production values are lacking. But considering Frank Herbert’s Dune was a made-for-TV miniseries two decades ago, aspects hold up surprisingly well. If you’re hoping for a version of Dune to enthrall you and make you super-pumped for the new Villeneuve, Frank Herbert’s Dune might do that. But that’s not why you should watch. The reason to see this miniseries is to grasp just how far sci-fi pop culture has come in just twenty years.
After Star Wars launched in the ‘70s, and after Star Trek experienced a renaissance in the ‘90s, the early 2000s were an odd time for sci-fi. These days, high-level science fiction is everywhere, from Netflix to Apple TV+ and (shortly) back in movie theaters. Two decades ago, event sci-fi wasn’t as typical. Yes, The Matrix had blown everyone's minds in 1999, but that was an outlier.
Science fiction that took itself seriously was still scarce. Again, Frank Herbert’s Dune was very much in the Babylon 5 camp at the time, in that it was an underdog watched only by hardcore sci-fi fans. But, if this miniseries’ big swing at Dune came out today, it would be more analogous to Foundation — a long, thorough effort to adapt very famous books from niche entertainment into a blockbuster sensation.
This Dune miniseries may not be great art on its own, but it was a conduit through which plenty of other science fiction flowed. Without it, we might not be living in the same pop culture sphere.
What about the Children of Dune miniseries?
Three years after Frank Herbert’s Dune, The Sci-Fi Chanel released another miniseries, called Children of Dune. This miniseries starred Susan Sarandon as Princess Wensicia and — wait for it — James McAvoy as Leto II, Paul’s son. The miniseries adapted two novels, the Dune sequel Dune Messiah and the third book Children of Dune. In Children of Dune and the subsequent book, God Emperor of Dune, Leto II becomes a huge deal, literally. (Spoiler: He turns into a big sandworm! Really!)
This miniseries was equally ambitious, and because of its star power, it is somewhat more watchable than the previous series. That said, this miniseries is deep in the Dune weeds, and again, attempts a faithful adaptation of the books. If you don’t understand what’s going on, Children of Dune will not hold your hand.
That said, like the other miniseries, you could argue this is a decent substitute for reading the books (ONLY if you’re pressed for time and planning on reading the books later. Please! Read! The! Books!)
Where can I stream the Dune miniseries?
Officially, neither Dune miniseries is streaming. That said, there are several complete fan uploads of the 2000 miniseries on YouTube. The three stand-alone episodes comprising the whole series are embedded into this article (see above), but you can all check these links.
There’s also a full 4.5-hour version of the miniseries here. These are user-uploaded non-official YouTube versions, so watch them at your own peril. At this time, Children of Dune is not streaming online.
Dune hits theaters and HBO Max on October 22.