WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Dune, now in theaters.
Baron Vladimir Harkonnen by Frank Herbert Dune is recognized as one of the most menacing villains in popular science fiction. Sadly, Baron Harkonnen is also infamous for being the only gay character in Dune, encouraging negative stereotypes of the LGBTQ + community and, in turn, equating being gay with evil.
As Dune was originally written in the 1960s, Baron Harkonnen is a product of Herbert’s time. According to Dreamer of Dune: the biography of Frank Herbert, the author of Dune had very homophobic beliefs and had a bad relationship with his gay son, Bruce. Herbert’s views on sexuality and his refusal to accept Bruce as a gay man may have been projected onto Baron Vladimir Harkonnen’s character while he was writing. Dune. This encouraged the prejudicial portrayal of gay men in the wake of the Baron’s actions in the book and earlier screen adaptations.
In the Dune book, Baron Harkonnen is portrayed as predatory, pedophile and incestuous. He is said to be drawn to his nephew Feyd, who was around 15 or 16 at the time. The book also mentions that Baron Harkonnen uses drugs on his lovers, often without consent. His preference for men is an open secret shared between the other characters in the story. When Feyd asks the Baron why he didn’t marry one of the Bene Gesserit women so he could take advantage of their supernatural abilities, the Baron replies, “You know my tastes!
In Dune: Harkonnen House, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson write: “Baron Vladimir Harkonnen had made a career of seeking new experiences. He tried his hand at hedonistic pleasures – rich foods, exotic drugs, deviant sex – by discovering things he had never done before. While Herbert and Anderson do not directly link the Baron’s sexuality to this mention of “deviant sex,” the nefarious stereotype that gay men are predatory or unnatural certainly relates to this quote, given that most readers will already know that the baron is canonically gay from Frank Herbert Dune.
Baron is a little less mean in David Lynch’s 1984 Dune film, but only by a small fraction. All references to incest and pedophilia have been removed from the script. However, the Baron, played by Kenneth McMillan, is still extremely predatory and a very grotesque character. In one scene, Baron Harkonnen physically attacks and kills a young man. The baron kisses the young man as he does, involving romantic or sexual feelings towards his victim. While the Baron was not openly confirmed as gay in the 1984 film, the subtext makes it incredibly clear that this scene was meant to reinforce the nefarious stereotype of older gay men displaying predatory behavior towards younger straight men.
McMillan’s Harkonnen is also covered in boils and sores, which may reflect the AIDS epidemic that emerged at the time of filming. While nothing is ever openly stated, the intention to portray the film’s only gay character as predatory and grotesque is still strikingly clear.
The 2000 mini-series Frank Herbert’s Dune, directed by John Harrison, shows Baron Harkonnen, played by Ian McNeice, with fair skin and less violence. He expresses his attraction to men, calling Feyd a “handsome boy” on several occasions. There is also a scene where the Baron accuses Feyd of attempting to kill him by placing a poisoned needle in the leg of a concubine. Although the baron’s sexuality is never directly linked to his bad personality in Frank Herbert’s DuneThe fact that he’s still the only canonically gay character in this adaptation isn’t flattering.
How Baron Harkonnen represents the LGBTQ + community as the only gay character in Dune has left Denis Villeneuve, director of 2021 Dune film adaptation, with a tough decision to make – either stick with the source material and make it clear that the Baron is canonically gay, or remove all mention of the Baron’s sexuality from the final script altogether. Villeneuve opted for the second option. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Villeneuve said: “As much as I love the book deeply, I felt that the baron very often flirted with the caricature. And I tried to give it a little more dimension.
Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen almost feels absent when compared to other on-screen portrayals. He doesn’t scream or steal like Baron McMillan and openly flirt with men like McNeice’s. The most intimidating behavior he displays in Villeneuve Dune it’s when he has Leto Atreides undress and place him on a chair across from him at the end of a comically large dining table. Baron de Villeneuve Dune is more of a cold, calculating character – similar to McNeice’s portrayal but considerably toned down. This character change disappointed some fans, as they left theaters wishing that Baron Harkonnen was more present in the film.
One thing worth noting is that Dune is a very political story, so the Baron doesn’t necessarily have to be too loud and dramatic to come across as threatening. In a society that closely mirrors medieval feudalism, Baron Harkonnen is certainly not the only power-hungry and tyrannical figure. As Herbert wrote in Emperor God of Dune, “Monarchies have good characteristics beyond their star qualities. […] They correspond to an ancient human requirement of a parental hierarchy (tribal / feudal) where everyone knows their place. Dune is set up to introduce intense power struggles. As such, Baron Harkonnen has plenty of opportunities to show his evil personality through political issues rather than through his sexuality.
Considering that Baron Harkonnen’s sexuality has been linked to so many other evil things he did in the book and other screen adaptations, cutting off any mention of it in the 2021 film adaptation was a wise decision. The baron in the Dune The book is a product of Herbert’s time and arose out of the fact that the author projected his homophobic views onto his story. All administrators who have adapted Dune since the book’s publication have had to choose how to portray the baron as the only gay character in such a widely admired sci-fi epic. Villeneuve’s choice to leave Frank Herbert’s homophobic portrayal of Baron Harkonnen in the past saves all LGBTQ + viewers of the 2021 film from having to see these harmful stereotypes repeated on the big screen. While Baron Harkonnen’s screen time has been limited, Villeneuve and Skarsgard will have a much better chance to show what they can bring to the character in the sequel.
To see how Villeneuve’s film deals with Baron Harkonnen’s sexuality, Dune is in theaters now.
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