Dune’s Creator: A Glimpse of Genius

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

A seven-minute standing ovation greeted the Sept. 3 Venice Film Festival premiere of “Dune,” based on the best-selling sci-fi novel of all time by Frank Herbert. Herbert’s wife, Sewanee’s Theresa Shackelford, shared a first-hand glimpse of the man behind the magic.

Serendipity tracked the path that led to Shackelford and Herbert meeting. When Nashville-based book distributor Ingram refused to find a position for her in California, Shackelford took a job with Putnam. After living in a Detroit hotel for six weeks and several other grim posts, Shackelford finally persuaded Putnam to let her serve as the Los Angeles representative. When visiting authors came to town, she accompanied them to book signings and publicity events. With authors Dick Francis and Frank Herbert arriving the same week, Shackelford hoped Putnam would assign her to Francis, but Putnam insisted she accompany Herbert who recently lost his wife and needed some TLC.

A few days after the uneventful visit, Herbert phoned Shackelford and revealed his dead wife Beth spoke to him in a dream and said, “It’s okay. She’s the one.” Shackelford tried to discourage Herbert, but he went out of his way to be in her life. When Herbert learned of her panic when her purse, ID, and apartment key were stolen, he chartered a plane and flew to LA to have her locks changed. Ultimately, Herbert rented a beach front apartment just a few blocks away to be close to her.

Fiercely independent, Shackelford continued to work even after they married. And Herbert needed his private time, three or four hours in the morning when he wrote. “He was the most brilliant man I’ve ever known,” Shackelford acknowledged. “but he never made you feel stupid or inadequate. You could share ideas with him. He was wonderful to talk to.” Herbert came home with her to Alabama one Christmas to meet her family and charmed everyone he met.

The first “Dune” novel evolved into a six-book saga. In a story about the struggle for control of a desert planet, the only source of a spice which fostered longevity, mental acuity, and enabled space navigation, Herbert explored the multilayered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion. “If you want to say something, you’ve got to put the message in a pot,” Herbert once told Shackelford when they were discussing the writing process. When the Star Wars movie came out, Herbert knew Star Wars creator George Lucas borrowed from him and other sci-fi novelists. But, according to Shackleford, Herbert said of the borrowing, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

The first “Dune” movie, in production when Herbert and Shackelford met, “was scorched” by the press, Shackelford said. Herbert acknowledged the difficulty of turning a popular book into a movie and believed the problem stemmed from readers having already built a set in their minds.

The first movie covered all of book one and a portion of the second and third book, forcing filmmaker David Lynch to cut much material, Shackelford pointed out. The new “Dune” movie only covers a portion of the first book in the series, but filmmaker Denis Villeneuve plans on a sequel if the movie is as well received as early reception promises. “Villeneuve’s film is of such literal and emotional largeness that it overwhelms the senses,” said Independent reviewer Clarisse Loughrey.

Although scheduled for simultaneous release in theaters and on HBO on Oct. 22, Villeneuve insists “Dune” should be seen on the big screen, Shackelford said. Shackelford is considering hosting a local screening when the pandemic calms down.

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