Dune, Avatar, and worldbuilding

Show, don't tell

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve probably spotted that the second part of the Dune duology has taken over the world. I’m a huge fan of the book, and to see it finished with such a spectacular entry is a relief. I loved every second of it and drank it up like a fresh pint of worm water on Arrakis.

I’m also a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Like Dune, there has also been a recent adaption and a universally panned previous one.

While sometimes dismissed as a kid’s cartoon, Avatar has a simple premise and builds from there - the world is divided into four countries, where each ethnic group can control one of the four classical elements through an ability called bending. While this ability is not always inherited, one person in the world can control all four. The lore is deep and complicated, and everyone in the world has their own motivations.

Watching both of these adaptions recently, there’s a big difference is how they stuck the landing.

This post contains minor spoilers for the start of Dune: Part 2 and the premise of a few episodes of Avatar, both the original animation and the new adaption.


Great worldbuilding is about setting up rules, and then seeing what impact it would have on the world and the characters. Arrakis is an inhospitable planet, and the things you see reflect that. There’s a great scene early on where the Harkonnen forces drop down to capture Paul and Jessica. Like the Fremen, the Harkonnen forces have suits built for the harsh environment. Vents spin and whir, because the Harkonnens need to deal with the heat just like everything else on Arrakis. Things feel dirty, worn, and believable.

The world of Avatar depicted in the the original animation also does this really well. Earthbenders carve great cities out of the ground, Airbenders live in monasteries high up in the mountains, Waterbenders at the Northern Water Tribe constructed their city out of ice, and Firebenders can more easily work with metal - so they’ve reached a stage of industrial revolution that has enabled them to wage war on the other three nations largely unchallenged.

Avatar the animation and Avatar the recent live action adaption differ when it comes to this level of worldbuilding. In the animation, each nation builds their culture and technology around their respective bending ability. A great example of this happening during an important early part of the Avatar story. The main characters arrive at the great Earth Kingdom city of Omashu and marvel at its’ three peaks that tower high out of the mountain. To aid the citizens in travel, tracks cross back and forward through the city, rising through all the various levels.

In the adaption, these tracks were designed by a single man - the Mechanist. He exists as a character in the animation, but his role in the greater conflict was merged with an unrelated feature of the world. In the animation, the track network still exists, but Earthbenders are the source of power, not machinery. In the animation, the world has been through a genocide followed by one hundred years of war because of bending. It shows the reliance that all nations put on bending and how bending can be a source of great power and great danger.

By making a choice to leave details like this behind, the adaption is telling a subtly different story. There’s still rocks, fire, ice and air flying. There’s still genocide and war. But the world just doesn’t feel the same as it did when I saw it the first time round.

Stick the landing

Denis Villeneuve also decided to leave elements out of Dune. Element that I’d love to have seen, such as the Spacing Guild and the wider landed gentry of minor houses that also lived on Arrakis. They aren’t such a big deal though, as these aren’t too important to the story of Dune - a story about plans within plans, factions tugging at fate, and ultimately one of Paul’s relationship with the Fremen.

Avatar’s story is about Aang and his friends, but the story is also about bending, its’ impact on the world, and Aang’s relationship with his bending. It’s just a shame they left so much of that story out.

Other things

Apart from those, I’ve also been enjoying:

  • The last few bits of Cyberpunk 2077.
  • Taskmaster New Zealand - almost as good as the UK one. Season 2 is some of the craziest stuff I’ve seen on TV.
  • Married At First Sight Australia - Lila got me into the UK one last season, and this one is wild.
  • Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow - I rinsed it in a few weeks. What a glorious tale of art, friendship, love, and play.
  • Memories - I took myself off to the Prince Charles Cinema to see this being shown on a Friday afternoon and loved it.
  • I’ve been playing some more delightful things on my Playdate.
  • The Gentlemen on Netflix was a fun watch. So much fun that we binged it in a day.