Duke Leto Atreides is sometimes overlooked as an important character in the world of Dune. Both the 1984 movie and the 2000 miniseries, which were based on Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune, failed to show the true depths of the Duke's character. Although, the miniseries version of Dune did offer a more detailed account of the story it was still guilty of butchering the Duke's character. Much of the Duke's brilliance was attributed to his son Paul in the miniseries.
Both the series and the movie had a limited amount of time to tell the story, so they relied on a common practice used by screenplay writers to solve this problem. It involves eliminating or merging minor characters. Anyone not central to the story is either cut or different aspects of their personalities are given to other characters. From the perspective of a screenplay writer attempting to turn a novel into a movie the practice makes sense. There is little point in introducing an entire character just so that they can perform one act in the movie. It is easier and certainly more efficient to have another character say or do whatever is necessary to create the scene. However, this can become a problem for fans who love these minor characters. Fans who like the sidekicks, the quirky best friends, or in this case a clever but ultimately doomed Duke, may resent the way these characters are treated.
In the futuristic setting of the story there are people with amazing mental and physical abilities. Interstellar space travel, body shields made of energy and advanced weaponry such as laser guns all exist, but these advances have done little to stop the political intrigues of the Emperor and the other noble families or great houses. In Dune these political plots are played out on a universal scale and Duke Leto Atreides finds himself trapped in one of these deadly plans.
Readers are warned from the start that things will not end well for the Duke as the book begins with everyone predicting or plotting his death. Leto has been ordered to take control of the desert planet Arrakis also known as Dune. Arrakis is the only planet that produces spice which is the most important commodity in the universe. Under normal circumstances this move to Arrakis would be considered a good thing – a promotion that gives the Duke more power, but Leto knows that it is a plot created by the Emperor and rival House Harkonnen to destroy him. Instead of attempting to flee he decides to go to Arrakis. He knows that if he can gain the support of the ‘Fremen’ (the people who live in the deep desert of Arrakis) that he will gain a fighting force that could rival the Emperor’s army.
The Duke is described as “a man of surpassing warmth and surprising coldness” (Herbert, 1965). This warmth can be seen in his love for Paul and his concubine, the lady Jessica but his cold calculating nature can still be seen in these relationships. For example, although the duke clearly loves Jessica he decides not to marry her because of political reasons. As long as Leto remains unmarried there is a chance that he could marry someone from one of the other great houses to form a political alliance. His manipulative personality is also revealed once his family moves to Arrakis. When he finds out that there is a traitor among them and suspicion falls on Jessica he allows everyone, except Paul, to believe that he suspects her. He even treats her as if she's the traitor so that he can discover who his real enemies are.
The Duke rarely does anything without an agenda. This is a trait that he shares with both Jessica and Paul. His kindness is sometimes linked to his political plans. When the Duke bans the practice of selling the ‘water squeezings’ from used towels and proclaims that a cup of water will be freely given to the beggars his act of kindness can also be seen as a ploy to gain the support of people.
Unfortunately, none of the Duke’s plans were able to save him from his tragic fate. He is captured by his enemies in House Harkonnen. He dies after releasing a poisonous gas in an attempt to kill the Baron Harkonnnen.
Leto was unable to complete his plan to turn the ‘Fremen’ into an army capable of defeating his enemies but his plans were later taken up by his son. Paul uses many of his father’s ideas and builds on them. As the book points out Paul can be viewed as an extension of his father. While nothing can diminish the role that Paul Atreides plays in the story, since he is the main character, his father’s influence on him and the entire world of Dune is undeniable.