The Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is a fictional character from the Dune franchise created by Frank Herbert. He is primarily featured in the 1965 novel Dune and is also a prominent character in the Prelude to Dune prequel trilogy by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. The character is brought back as a ghola in the Herbert/Anderson sequels which conclude the original series, Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune.
Baron Harkonnen is portrayed by Kenneth McMillan in David Lynch's 1984 film Dune. Ian McNeice plays the role in the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Frank Herbert's Dune and its sequel, 2003's Children of Dune. Harkonnen will be portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård in the 2020 Denis Villeneuve film Dune.
ConceptionFrank Herbert wanted a harsh-sounding name for the antagonistic family opposing House Atreides in Dune. He came across the name "Härkönen" in a California telephone book and thought that it sounded "Soviet", though it is in fact Finnish. In earlier drafts of Dune, the character was called "Valdemar Hoskanner".
DescriptionHerbert's "Appendix IV: The Almanak en-Ashraf " in Dune says of Harkonnen :
The character is usually described as the primary antagonist of the novel. Herbert writes in Dune that the Baron possesses a "basso voice" and is so "grossly and immensely fat" that he requires anti-gravity devices known as suspensors to support his weight. He is one of the wealthiest members of the Landsraad and a bitter rival of Leto Atreides, and the Baron's "legendary evil and intellect" are unmatched by anyone else from House Harkonnen. In the novel, the Baron feigns outrage over losing control of Arrakis to Leto, but is actually conspiring to use the situation as an opportunity to destroy the Atreides once and for all. William Hughes of The A.V. Club describes the Baron as "a decadent, monstrous gasbag of depravity and evil". As ruthless and cruel as he is intelligent and cunning, the Baron is "crafty and power-hungry" and has a talent for manipulating others and exploiting their weaknesses, as well as a propensity for torture and blackmail. IGN describes the character as "cruel, sadistic and hedonistic", Travis Johnson of Flicks.com.au explains that Harkonnen is written as "a predatory homosexual given to pederasty and incest, an unrepentant rapist and murderer." The Baron's sexual preference for young men is implied in Dune and Children of Dune. It is noted, however, that he "once permitted himself to be seduced" by a Bene Gesserit in the liaison which produced his secret daughter.
''Dune''As Dune begins, a longstanding feud exists between the Harkonnens of Giedi Prime and the Atreides of Caladan. The Baron's intent to exterminate the Atreides line seems close to fruition as Duke Leto Atreides is lured to the desert planet Arrakis on the pretense of taking over the valuable melange operation there. The Baron has an agent in the Atreides household: Leto's own physician, the trusted Suk doctor Wellington Yueh. Though Suk Imperial Conditioning supposedly makes the subject incapable of inflicting harm, the Baron's twisted Mentat Piter De Vries notes:
The Baron has taken Yueh's wife Wanna prisoner, threatening her with interminable torture unless Yueh complies with his demands. Harkonnen also distracts Leto's Mentat Thufir Hawat from discovering Yueh by guiding Hawat toward another suspect: Leto's Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica, of whom Hawat is already distrustful. The Atreides are soon attacked by Harkonnen forces as Yueh disables the protective shields around the Atreides palace on Arrakis. As instructed, Yueh takes Leto prisoner; however, desiring to slay the Baron, Yueh provides the captive Leto with a fake tooth filled with poisonous gas as a means of simultaneous assassination and suicide. De Vries kills Yueh but he also dies with Leto in the assassination attempt; however Harkonnen survives. The Baron then manipulates Hawat into his service, by convincing Hawat that Lady Jessica was the traitor and using Hawat's desire for revenge on Lady Jessica and the Emperor as motivation to assist House Harkonnen.
Jessica flees into the desert with her and Leto's son Paul Atreides, and both are presumed dead. Paul's prescience helps him determine the identity of Jessica's father, the "maternal grandfather who cannot be named" — the Baron himself. Over the next two years, Harkonnen learns that his nephews Glossu Rabban and Feyd-Rautha are conspiring against him to usurp his throne; he lets them continue to do so, reasoning that they have to somehow learn to organize a conspiracy. As punishment for a failed assassination attempt against him, Harkonnen forces Feyd to single-handedly slaughter all the female slaves who serve as Feyd's lovers. He explains that Feyd has to learn the price of failure.
The Baron's plan to assure Feyd's power is to install him as ruler of Arrakis after a period of tyrannical misrule by Rabban, making Feyd appear to be the savior of the people. However, a crisis on Arrakis begins when the mysterious Muad'Dib emerges as a leader of the native Fremen tribes against the rule of the Harkonnens. Eventually, a series of Fremen victories against Beast Rabban threaten to disrupt the trade of the spice. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV decides to intervene himself and arrives on Arrakis along with legions of Sardaukar forces. Shaddam and the Baron are shocked to learn that Muad'Dib is, of course, a very-much-alive Paul Atreides. The Imperial forces fall prey to a surprise attack by the Fremen. Part of the Fremen/Atreides strategy is to wait until a sandstorm shorts out the force field shields of the Harkonnen/Imperial transport ships, disable them with projectile weapons, and then attack with a vast assault force, using sandworms under cover of the severe weather to break the enemy lines. The Sardaukar and Harkonnen forces are trapped on the planet, astonished at the sandworm mounts and vast numbers of their attackers. Their past ruthlessness gives them little hope of quarter from the enraged Fremen.
Rabban dies in the initial part of the battle; the Harkonnen army is massacred to the last man and almost all the Imperial Sardaukar are killed. Baron Harkonnen himself is poisoned with a gom jabbar by Paul's young sister Alia Atreides, his own granddaughter, and dies at the age of 83, with the latter also revealing her direct lineage to him just beforehand. Paul then kills Feyd in ritual combat. House Harkonnen's virtual extermination removes it as a galactic power, but Paul's ascension to the Imperial throne in Shaddam's place guarantees that Vladimir's descendants will long reign as the Imperial House Atreides.
''Children of Dune''Alia had been born with her ancestral memories in the womb, a circumstance the Bene Gesserit refer to as Abomination, because in their experience it is inevitable that the individual will become possessed by the personality of one of their ancestors. In Children of Dune, Alia falls victim to this prediction when she shares control of her body with the ego-memory of the Baron Harkonnen, and eventually falls under his power. Alia eventually commits suicide, realizing that Harkonnen's consciousness has surpassed her abilities to contain him.
''Prelude to Dune''In the Prelude to Dune prequel series by Brian Herbert and Anderson, it is established that Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is the son and heir of Dmitri Harkonnen and his wife Victoria. Harkonnen's father had been the head of House Harkonnen and ruled the planet Giedi Prime. Trained since youth as a possible successor, Vladimir had been eventually chosen over his half-brother Abulurd. Unhappy with his brother's doings, Abulurd eventually marries Emmi Rabban and renounces the family name and his rights to the title. Under the name Abulurd Rabban, he reigns as governor of the secondary Harkonnen planet Lankiveil. Abulurd and his wife have two sons: Glossu Rabban and Feyd-Rautha; Vladimir later adopts the boys back into House Harkonnen, and Feyd becomes his designated heir. The Baron's most prominent political rival is Duke Leto Atreides; the Harkonnens and the Atreides have been bitter enemies for millennia, since the Battle of Corrin that ended the Butlerian Jihad. When Emperor Shaddam IV orchestrates a plot to destroy the "Red Duke" Leto, the Baron eagerly lends his aid.
The young Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is described as an exceedingly handsome man, possessing red hair and a near-perfect physique. The Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam is instructed by the Sisterhood to collect his genetic material for their breeding program. As the Baron's homosexuality is something of an open secret, Mohiam blackmails him into having sexual relations with her and conceives his child. When that daughter proves genetically undesirable, Mohiam kills her and returns to Harkonnen for a second try; at this point he drugs and viciously rapes her. She exacts her retribution by infecting him with a rare, incurable disease that later causes his obesity. Mohiam's second child with the Baron is Jessica.> In ', the deteriorating Baron at first walks with the assistance of a cane, then relies on belt-mounted suspensors to retain mobility. He consults numerous doctors in the expanse of time between the ' and Dune: House Harkonnen, up to and including his future instrument Dr. Yueh, all of whom are ultimately no help. To conceal this debilitation, he pretends that his obesity is due to intentional overindulgence, lest the Landsraad remove him from power. When he determines that Mohiam inflicted him with the disease, he attempts to coerce her into revealing the cure, but soon discovers that there is none. The Baron, Duke Leto, and Jessica herself are unaware that Jessica is secretly the Baron's daughter or that he has even fathered one. In the year 10,176, the Baron's grandson Paul is born to Leto and Jessica.
''Hunters of Dune''In Hunters of Dune, the continuation of the original series by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, the Baron is resurrected as a ghola by the Lost Tleilaxu Uxtal, acting on orders from the Face Dancer Khrone. Khrone intends to use the Baron ghola to manipulate a ghola of Paul Atreides, named Paolo. Khrone tries various torture techniques for three years to awaken the 12-year-old Baron's genetic memories; these methods fail due to the Baron's sadomasochistic nature. Khrone is successful when he imprisons the Baron in a sensory deprivation tank for a prolonged period; the Baron's memories of his former life return. The reincarnated Baron is soon haunted by the voice of Alia in his mind; the source of this inner Alia is never explained.
1984 filmBaron Harkonnen is portrayed by Kenneth McMillan in David Lynch's 1984 film. The obese and disheveled Baron is overtly unstable, and covered in oozing pustules. William Hughes of The A.V. Club deemed McMillan's facial prosthetics "very memorable". Emmet Asher-Perrin of Tor.com wrote that "Lynch's attempt is infamous for really leaning on codified aspects of the Baron, to the point where his sore-ridden appearance has been called out as a likely connection to the AIDS epidemic, which was a prevalent health crisis while the film was in production." Travis Johnson of Flicks.com.au noted that the Lynch film embraced "the archetype of the depraved gay sadist", which would not be acceptable in 2019. Asher-Perrin added, "Lynch also makes a point of connecting the Baron's desire for men to deviancy and violence, deliberately juxtaposing his assault of a young man with a tender love scene between Duke Leto and Lady Jessica Atreides."
2000 miniseriesplays the Baron in the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Frank Herbert's Dune, and its sequel, 2003's Children of Dune. Asher-Perrin notes that the miniseries played down the negative aspects emphasized by the Lynch film, and writes, " appearance was not altered to make him seem ill, he never physically attacks anyone, and the miniseries paid more attention to the fact that the Baron was a rapist, his preference for men being incidental." She also praises McNeice as a standout among the cast, writing that he "manages to make the Baron Harkonnen—easily one of the most despicable characters in science fiction literature—every bit as conniving and vicious as he needs to be...and every bit as fascinating. McNeice has a superb sense of how to make the baron mesmerizing to watch no matter how odiously he behaves".
2020 filmBaron Harkonnen will be portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård in the 2020 Denis Villeneuve film Dune. Skarsgård called the role "small but important", and noted "I had seven hours in make-up every day because I had to be really fat." Villeneuve said:
Discussing the film in its early stages, Asher-Perrin writes that "Baron Harkonnen needn't be obese for the sole purpose of making misguided points." She suggests that the film find "a different way to highlight the Baron's obsession with excess", and argues that the character's iconic suspensors could be presented as "an affectation of laziness rather than a physical necessity." Travis Johnson adds that the novel's depiction of Harkonnen as "a predatory homosexual" is problematic in 2019. He writes of the new film, "It's going to come down to the writing and filmmaking as to whether this characterization will fly in the current era, or will come across as an unfortunate throwback stereotype."
Merchandising and influenceA line of Dune action figures from toy company LJN was released to lackluster sales in 1984. Styled after David Lynch's film, the collection featured a figure of Baron Harkonnen, as well as other characters. In 2006, SOTA Toys produced a Baron Harkonnen action figure for their "Now Playing Presents" line.
H. R. Giger's Harkonnen Capo Chair is a chair originally designed by the artist as set dressing for an unrealized 1970s adaptation of Dune by Alejandro Jodorowsky.
AnalysisWilliam Hughes calls the Baron "one of the most iconically awful villains in all of science fiction", and Stuart Conover of ScienceFiction.com describes him as "one of the most insidious villains". Maude Campbell of Popular Mechanics writes that the Baron is "one of the most evil characters ever put to paper ", and Jon Michaud of The New Yorker compares
"Herbert's scheming, backstabbing villain, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen" to the villainous Lannister family of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. Emmet Asher-Perrin suggests that "what makes the Baron truly monstrous the fact that he spends all of his time plotting murder, sowing discord, and destroying populations of people to get his way". Hughes writes that the evil Harkonnen is "specifically designed to make the noble Atreides family seem that extra bit more dignified and pure", with Jesse Schedeen of IGN agreeing that the Baron is "as cruel and vindictive as Leto is noble and just." Hughes goes on to say that Herbert "successfully made so vampirically vile that he casts a shadow over the entire series." Sandy Schaefer of Screen Rant calls the Baron " a deliciously despicable antagonist". Travis Johnson points out that in the novel Harkonnen is a predatory homosexual given to pederasty and incest, an unrepentant rapist and murderer, but depicting him as a "depraved gay sadist" is "not a particularly good look in the cold light of 2019." Asher-Perrin also notes:
While the novel suggests that the Baron's obesity might be the result of a genetic disease, the Prelude to Dune prequel trilogy by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson explains that Harkonnen was once a fit, attractive but vain man who is given the incurable disease intentionally by the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Mohiam after he drugs and rapes her. Asher-Perrin suggests that in this narrative, "the Baron's corpulence is meant to be comeuppance for doing something reprehensible, a physical punishment meant to hurt his vanity by taking away the attractiveness he so prized in himself." He also remarks that this retelling "does nothing to alleviate the connection being drawn between weight and hedonistic sadism".