Il Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, since its first appearance in Dune novel of 1965, is, in the collective imagination of science fiction consumers, an antagonist to be feared and above all impossible to forget.  

The baron immediately becomes a character who impresses himself strongly in our minds. He is endowed with a calculating and perverse mind and is devoid of any morals and qualms. He is hungry for power almost more than for all those carnal pleasures of which, however, he does not deprive himself.

Before continuing to read we would like to inform you that the article contains SPOILER both on various films and on novels. Those who have not had the opportunity to see and read everything and do not want to spoil the surprise, it is better that you stop here! We warned you!

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An intriguing and treacherous mind in a corrupt body

Il Baron Harkonnen it is presented to us, with a few expert brushstrokes, in all its terrible splendor. The reader meets him, for the first time, while he talks to his mint ("Human computers"), Piter de Vries. Nothing is hidden from the reader of what is about to happen. Starting the reading of Dune we immediately discover that there is a conspiracy underway. Someone will fall, we know, and things in the entire universe will never be the same again. All thanks to the machinations of this prominent character. The mind behind the fall of the house Atreides and the death of Duke Leto, it is precisely the patriarch of the house harkonnen. Its presence is suffocating in its mammoth immanence. 

The Baron is the gray eminence who moves, with unexpected grace, on the political scene of Dune. Ruthless to the point of unbelievable, corrupt and corrupting, this giant moves on the stage that entertains Emperor Shaddam IV until the inevitable conclusion of this drama. 

Member of the Landsraad, the council of the Great Houses, as the undisputed head of the Harkonnen house, the Baron gained considerable power through blackmail, murder and favors bestowed on other members. Everyone except the Atreides house owes him in some way. 

Once a handsome and desired man, now he is a mountain of flesh that moves only thanks to a specially prepared suit that allows him to gravitate. Apparatus that looks like a crude caricature of stillsuits of the Fremen.      

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Baron Harkonnen Dune 2021

Opposite ends of the spectrum: Baron Harkonnen and Duke Leto Atreides

The line that divides the Duke and the Baron is marked and recognizable.
On the one hand, we have the honor and love for the family that goes beyond the principle of reason of state. In fact, Leto loves Jessica, his concubine, and for this reason he does not seek, at least actively, a political marriage that would lead him to the imperial throne. The Duke is also an enlightened governor loved by his people and his soldiers who will give their lives for him ...

On the other hand greed - perfectly rendered even in the physical aspect - wickedness personified, the ruler followed not out of loyalty but out of pure terror. Sadistic in the way he proposes himself to both his enemies and members of his court. 

What it cannot honorably achieve, the Baron Harkonnen he takes it by any means. Two opposite figures that make up two sides of the same coin: that of power that corrupts or destroys. 

Casa Atreides becomes immense thanks to the exploits of Paul after the death of his father, but only thanks to the Baron. Without him, in fact, the Duke and his family would never have left Caladan, starting the events that will bring an Atreides to the imperial throne after the fall of the Corrino house.  

Without his work in the shadows the great Houses would not have turned their faces away when the Atreides house fell. Of course the big houses do not know that the Emperor is behind the Baron's attack, but they do not even care given that they have not been personally threatened, much less in their possessions.  

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Baron Harkonnen and Atreides

The quintessence of the Rival

Vladimir Harkonnen is the rival that every hero deserves. Paul he is so great in his exquisite pairing of young man - human according to the Gom Jabbar of the Reverend Mother - and elect called to lead the new Jihad only to the extent that his sworn enemy is immense. 

In the pages of the book, up to the moment of his death, we learn about a man of immeasurable darkness, both moral and psychological. A bad for which one cannot feel empathy. He does not have a poignant story behind him that could lead the reader to understand, at least in part, his actions. Cruel for the simple sake of being, his violence is often an end in itself if it does not become the tool used to get what he wants.  

A character difficult to bring back to the big screen due to his many vices and his ferocity but who has come to life four times, which risked being five if the Jodorowsky's project had seen the light. 

The different faces of Baron Harkonnen

In the mid-XNUMXs cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to bring Frank Herbert's work to the screen. With his psychedelic and visionary narrative he would have created a fourteen hour version with too many narrative freedoms. For this project Jodorowsky wanted Orson Welles in the role of the Baron. The project was abandoned after years of pre-production due to financial problems.    

In eighties version by David Lynch, a film by now immortal even if with a troubled history; wrong from many points of view, yet epochal perhaps also due to the fact that it made Dino De Laurentiis fail, it was played by the American actor Kenneth McMillan. 

In this transposition the baron becomes, if possible, even more shocking. The pure sadism that runs through this character's veins is offered to us without any censorship from the first time we see him on screen. 

A grotesque and disturbing figure on a black chair that is all too reminiscent of that of a dentist, subjected to the loving care of his doctors who try to stop the advance of the pustules on his face. Unlike the book, Lynch's version of the reverend mother's revenge for the rape she suffered is even more debilitating. Not only is her body swelling out of all proportion, but the face the Baron once was so proud of is also slowly being destroyed by the disease. 

The whole scene doesn't even try to deny its highly sensual and sexual nature. In compliance with the most classic Show, don't tell we discover something more of the baron. His preferences, the way violence in all its forms arouses him and perhaps even more in Feyd's reaction, as if that barely hinted smile, in complete opposition to Rabban's coarse laugh, hides a dark truth that the viewer does not really want to know and that the reader perhaps already imagines. 

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Baron Harkonnen in the miniseries

In the XNUMXs the miniseries Frank Herbert's Dune e Children of Dune they see the light. While not bringing anything new to the saga, neither from an artistic point of view nor from an explanatory one, they still have the merit of having brought new fans closer to Herbert's work. In this case the Baron was played by the English actor Ian McNeice. Vladimir Harkonnen returns to be more faithful to the book, at least from a physical point of view. The first of the two miniseries does not dwell much on his character, it is in the second that we still learn something new. 

If we thought we got rid of him with his death at the hands of Alia, Paul's younger sister, we made a mistake. While his presence is no longer physical, a third generation of Atreides still has to deal with the Baron. 

Alia is born with all the powers of a Reverend Mother, but there's a reason the Bene Gesserit order fears her. In their eyes, Alia is an aberration and unfortunately they are not completely wrong. Like any Reverend Mother, she can access past knowledge up to coming into contact with people who lived even millennia before her. But there is a mind that more than any other clings to her and slowly comes to possess her. 

Baron Harkonnen exploits this possibility as only a skilled manipulator can. Gradually he becomes a confidant for Alia, a friend who in exchange for precious advice asks only to be close to her will when Alia lies with her lovers who soon turn into young men chosen by the Baron himself. 

The Baron's Revenge

The sweetest revenge. The Baron hasn't been able to do anything to stop Paul and so he takes Alia from her, corrupts her to the point of making her unrecognizable. He transforms her into a perfect Harkonnen, taking advantage of her blood flowing through her veins. Thus we see how much Alia becomes the perfect synthesis between Feyd-Rautha and the Baron himself, all in the splendid body of an Atreides. 

This has always been the Bene Gesserit plan. A female Atreides who united with a Harkonnen male, presumably Feyd-Rautha, gave birth to the Supreme Being (Kwisatz Haderach) which unlike Paul would have been under their complete control. 

Without this end, the birth of Alia becomes an uncontrolled variant in the universe, to the point of making her easy prey for the revenge of Baron Harkonnen who, even when dead, can at least boast of having taken the life of a daughter of Duke Leto. 

In this evolution the Baron becomes even more powerful. Without the limitations of a battered body, the only way to break his influence on the present is for Alia to die. The young woman, in a last moment of clarity, when she gains control over her mind for the last time, she kills herself to destroy the old enemy once and for all. 

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Conclusions

As we have seen, the evolution of the character of Baron Harkonnen is the result of the times. From being a charismatic and cruel antagonist at birth, he becomes a hedonist sadist who does not hide his impulses in the eighties, where everything was allowed, to the point of becoming the manipulator who lives in the shadows at the beginning of the new millennium. 

As in all evolutionary curves there is an apex before the descent. In this case we could say that the culmination of his development occurs with the work of Lynch up to the inevitable involution that we have witnessed with Dunes by Denis Villeneuve of 2021. 

The Baron, who now has the features of Stellan Skarsgård, returns to being a human mountain whose face is no longer disfigured. His mannerism is refined. He hides his impulses behind a mask of exquisite and false kindness. Even the meeting with the Reverend Mother is an affected staging in which everyone is civil while in reality everyone present hates each other for one reason or another. He transforms, before our eyes, into a slimy businessman and it almost seems that the millennial fiefdom between Atreides and Harkonnen is just a mere economic fact. 

This new version is also a child of the times. Purged of all those aspects that would make him a character too extreme and easily attacked by that part of the public who cannot contextualize, diverting attention from the work to focus it on him, the new Baron is somehow aseptic but perfect for the representation that Villeneuve is creating. 

It is a different DUNE and therefore also the characters are reread and reworked. Change the stage on which you move. The political scene told by DUNE takes on different meanings for the modern viewer and it is right that the new generations can, as has already happened in the past, make the characters their own and analyze them with the tools at hand.      

That said, each of us has our own ideas and motivations, so the question is a must: which Baron do you prefer?