In David Lynch's 1984 Dune film, the Baron Harkonnen's face is covered with pustules that his private physician attends to frequently. This concept was continued in the game Dune 2000, which based its look-and-feel largely on Lynch's film.

A still from Dune (1984), depicting Baron Harkonnen's face which is covered in pustules

The Baron was morbidly obese in the book, but there was no mention of him being diseased or infected, nor do I remember any mention of him ever having said boils or pustules.

Has anyone involved the production of the 1984 film explained why this element was added to the character, and/or what the in-universe cause is?

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    in the prequel novels they explain it, but alot of people dont consider those canon
    – Himarm
    Mar 1, 2017 at 0:55
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    @Himarm - And those post-date the film. The tail wagging the dog, as it were.
    – Valorum
    Mar 1, 2017 at 1:25
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    I think the simple answer is "David Lynch" happened to him.
    – SteveED
    Mar 1, 2017 at 2:58
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    In the prequel novels Baron Harkonnen is poisoned by a Bene Gesserit reverend mother as revenge. The poison is actually a long term illness that destroys the Barons good looks. As others have noted, many don't consider the books canon. I've heard they are based on FH notes and discussions with his son. Mar 1, 2017 at 6:33
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    @Withywindle If I recall correctly, it was a wide variety of STDs, not poison. ... and I agree, the books sure didn't feel like canon...
    – Ghotir
    Mar 1, 2017 at 14:59

3 Answers 3


Simple, but speculative answer would be "to make him less likeable".

In the original book Vladimir Harkonnen is just obese. Problem with this is that fat people in the movies usually work as a likeable, clumsy comic reliefs rather than villains and masterminds (which would be even more true for a floating fat guy), but if you cover him with pustules - no one will find him funny anymore.

This also works as a cover for another of his unpleasant trait that has been removed in the movie - he supposed to be a sadistic pedophile*, but displaying it in the movie would give it a much more strict than "PG" rating.

The in-universe reason for his less-than-pleasant look (with pustules or not) is explained in the prequel,

Revered Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam blackmails him into being a father for her child - unfortunately the baby is born deformed and Gaius smothers it in the crib. She asks baron for his "service" again, but this time, he humiliates and rapes her. As a revenge she infects him with a STD that changes his appearance

In the movie he still kills a boy, but his victim is around 16-20, which greatly reduces the evilness of the scene

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    Everyone knows teenagers have it coming.
    – Steve-O
    Mar 1, 2017 at 4:03
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    Definitely. In the original book, he's a hedonist, but one who takes care of his appearance. Even his obesity is carefully calculated to project a certain image to other people. The Lynch movie was very visually striking, but the Baron's character was reduced to cackling Hollywood ugly evil. And the floating fat guy part still wound up making him look funny.
    – Dranon
    Mar 1, 2017 at 4:43
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    @Steve-O Movie logic: kill a teenager and you are a bad man. Kill a dog or a child and you are a monster (and movie is facing the "R" rating)
    – Yasskier
    Mar 1, 2017 at 7:18
  • @Yasskier I get what you are saying but the fact that in the Lynch film he kills the boy by removing a "heart plug" definitely increases the evilness of the character. Heart plugs, for when you just need to drain the blood of your subjects quickly. Mar 1, 2017 at 13:24
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    David Lynch also just loves to fill his movies with grotesque images.
    – the guest
    Mar 3, 2017 at 12:54

The Baron Harkonnen did have a disease; shown in the film as boils, obesity, and a lack of mobility which required him to use a suspensor.

His disease was intentionally inflicted upon him by the Bene Gesserit Reverend mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. The Sisterhood used blackmail to coerce the Baron into impregnating Mohiam. Baron Harkonnen Sprung a trap on Mohiam and raped her as punishment for the blackmail scheme. Mohiam dealt a punishment of her own by conjuring a sexually transmitted disease utilizing her stores of biologic memory. This act of rape lead to the conception of Jessica and the Baron's Disease.

Source: Dune, House Atreides by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson

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    This was added many many years later, largely in response to his depiction in the film, not the other way around.
    – Valorum
    Mar 3, 2017 at 21:40
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    The lack of mobility / floating harness was in every work/adaptation I've seen. The boils were not.
    – Radhil
    Mar 3, 2017 at 21:43
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    the OP asked for an in universe answer, your opinion of the new series doesn't DE-cannonize them. The suspensor harness was a result of the disease according to the Brian Herbert books.
    – RedOculus
    Mar 3, 2017 at 22:00
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    @RedOculus - Which is fine, aside from the fact that the film and the book series don't share the same universe. There are very substantial thematic and technological differences.
    – Valorum
    Mar 3, 2017 at 22:45
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    Then here is a source within the movie, that proves Disease... Allow me to quote his Doctor. "You are so beautiful my Baron. Your skin - love to me. Your diseases - lovingly cared for for all eternity!"
    – RedOculus
    Mar 3, 2017 at 23:39

An expansion of @Yasskier’s answer.

Lynch is familiar with and has, himself relied on, the long-held habit of Western culture to define the human norm, then to construe the non-normative as dangerously close to being non-human.

Sci-fi and fantasy aficionados are well-versed in notable examples like Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, or even the twist of Quasimodo. But also, this concept forms the basis in classic Western literature like Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome or particularly William Shakespeare’s Richard III.

It is a form of the practice of 'othering' to create a fear of the unknown across the boundaries of a character’s physical features.

But, as notable American literary critic Leslie Fiedler suggests:

“the strangely formed body has represented absolute Otherness in all times and places since human history began…”

In a space opera like Dune, the Baron Harkonnen embodies deformity with its hideousness, intending to be a reflection of the Baron’s soul.

  • Note that this answers neither fork of the question; there's no comment here from any of the production staff on why the character was portrayed this way, nor is there any information on an in-universe cause.
    – DavidW
    Jun 15, 2022 at 17:19

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