Vladimir Harkonnen is the main antagonist of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune. The Baronial leader of House Harkonnen, he rules from his ancestral homeworld of Giedi Prime, exercising a tyrannical rule of exploitation and sadism over the lives of the slaves unfortunate enough to end up in the service of his House. A long-standing rival of House Atreides, the Baron is determined to bring about their end, with particular emphasis on seeing Duke Leto Atreides' humiliating defeat.
The Baron is the uncle of Count Glossu "The Beast" Rabban and Feyd-Rautha, who serve as his instruments in pursuit of universal dominionation, with Rabban acting as his brutal enforcer on Arrakis and Feyd being groomed to eventually take the Baron's place as the Head of House Harkonnen - and much more, should the Baron's plans come to fruition.
He was portrayed by the late Kenneth McMillan in the 1984 film, and Ian McNeice in the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries.
Corrupt, manipulative, and entirely without mercy, Baron Harkonnen's brilliant intellect is outshone only by his sheer cruelty and unrelenting ambition. In his pursuit of personal power, he is not only prepared to annihilate House Atreides and condemn the young Paul Atreides to death, but even to sacrifice his own nephew Rabban in a scheme to anoint Feyd as the apparent saviour of Arrakis. Furthermore, he is secretly plotting to betray the Padisha Emperor - his one-time partner in the downfall of House Atreides - and have him replaced by Feyd, crowning him as Emperor and granting the Baron a position of direct influence over the affairs of a universe-spanning empire.
The Baron's ruthlessness is apparent in every scene he appears in: should any of his pawns outlive their usefulness, he will not hesitate to eliminate them for the sake of clearing up loose ends. As soon as Wellington Yueh has completed sabotaging House Atreides from within, the Baron reunites him with his wife as agreed - by having Yueh murdered. In order to teach Feyd a lesson, he goes so far as to order the execution of every woman in the pleasure quarter, justifying the mass-murder with a dismissive remark of "there will always be more women." The Baron's prized Mentat, Piter DeVries, is fully aware of this ruthless tendency and does everything in his power to ensure that he remains indispensible - but the Baron knows it will be only a matter of time before Piter's usefulness comes to an end. Later, when Piter and a guard captain are killed in a botched assassination attempt, the Baron can only reflect that it at least spares him the trouble of having the two of them executed. When he obtains the captive Atreides Mentat Thufir Hawat as a replacement for Piter, he ensures that Thufir will never be able to defect by poisoning him with a latent toxin: every day, an antidote to the toxin is introduced into Thufir's food, leaving him both symptom-free and effectively oblivious to his affliction; should the Mentat ever try to escape, he will quickly succumb to the effects of the poison and die.
In conversation with others, Baron Harkonnen affects a jovial, avuncular demeanor, often addressing his relatives and servants with endearments. Only when angered or moving in for the kill against his opponents does he allow this facade to slip, revealing himself as the heartless, manipulative schemer he truly is: here, his lack of empathy becomes apparent, not only ordering mass-murders simply to teach Feyd a lesson, but allowing Rabban to conduct massacre after massacre on Arrakis - knowing that "the Beast's" atrocities will make it easier for him to present Feyd as a benevolent ruler to the people of Dune.
A venal, self-indulgent man, the Baron enjoys the luxuries that his immense wealth affords him, not only in the form of his lavish attire and possession, but also the young slaves he regularly molests. Indeed, when he later resurfaces in Alia's mind, he asks only one price for helping her to control the ancestral voices that threaten to overwhelm her: namely, to be allowed to experience carnal pleasure through her.
In 10,191, Baron Harkonnen and Emperor Shaddam IV devised a plan to rid themselves of the Atreides, the latter intending to remove Duke Leto as a threat before his popularity granted him the influence to usurp Shaddam, the former eager to end his feud with House Atreides in a final and decisive act of revenge. As always, however, the Baron intended to use the ensuing chaos as an opportunity to seize greater power. Nonetheless, the plan began with the Emperor ordering the Atreides to move from their ancestral homeworld of Caladan to the planet Arrakis, in order to take over the Spice-mining operation there. Once they had arrived on the planet, the Baron made use of a traitor among the Atreides - the Suk doctor Wellington Yueh - to sabotage them from within; normally, persuading a Suk doctor to turn on his masters would have been impossible thanks to the psychological conditioning undergone, but the Baron was able to override this by holding Yueh's wife hostage, ensuring the doctor's total cooperation with House Harkonnen's designs.
With the aid of the Emperor's Sardaukar troops, the Baron was able to stage an ambush on the unsuspecting Ateides, resulting in their forces being either scattered or killed en masse; amidst the confusion, Duke Leto's wife Jessica and son Paul were forced to flee into the desert, while Leto himself was paralyzed and taken before the Baron to suffer humiliating tortures. Suspecting (correctly) that his wife had already been murdered, Yueh attempted to allow Leto a fighting chance to decapitate House Harkonnen's leadership by replacing one of his teeth with a poison capsule; unfortunately, not only was the doctor murdered in order to tie up loose ends, Leto's poison capsule only killed the Harkonnen Mentat Piter DeVries and a handful of guards, leaving the Baron unharmed.
With all oppositions to his power over Arrakis removed, the Baron installed his nephew Rabban as planetary governor, allowing him to brutalize the populace in order to create an enemy that the people could rally against - ensuring that their loyalties would lie with his other nephew, Feyd, when he came to "rescue" them from Rabban's tyranny. However, out in the deserts of the planets, Paul and Jessica joined forces with the local Fremen; over the years that followed, Paul eventually ascended to the role of Muad'Dib, leader and messiah of the Fremen, allowing him to lead a war of liberation against Harkonnen rule, bringing Spice production to a standstill.
With the galactic community endangered by the potential loss of Spice, the Emperor himself was forced to directly intervene, venturing forth to Arrakis in person. Though the Baron hoped to exploit this by having the Emperor supplanted by Feyd, the conflict ended with the Emperor's forces surrounded by Paul's Fremen warriors, the Emperor's only source of leverage in the standoff being Paul's recently-captured sister, Alia. In the confusion, Baron Harkonnen attempted to seize Alia in a public show of loyalty, only for the child to jab him with a poisonous Gom Jabbar, killing him in seconds. Following a duel with Feyd for the fate of the Empire, Paul was eventually able to oust Emperor Shaddam from power and replace him as Emperor of the known universe, ending the novel with Baron Harkonnen dead and his House effectively obliterated.
However, the death of his body was not the end for the Baron. Because Alia had been exposed to the Water of Life prior to being born, she was susceptible to the memories and personalities of her ancestors, including her grandfather. The Baron manipulated her into acting against her only family, offering to help her resist the multitude of personalities that threatened to drown out her own personality; in reality, this only allowed him to influence her directly, granting him the perfect opportunity to take revenge on the Atreides. However, though his actions ultimately forced Jessica off Arrakis and allowed him to institute a new reign of terror, he was ultimately undone when Leto II returned from the deserts; having been defeated in combat by the Sandtrout-empowered Leto, Alia was able to regain control of her own mind and kill herself, ending the threat of the Baron once and for all.
- The novel version of the character, while certainly cruel and ruthless, is more a manipulator and prefers psychological torture to outright brutality, as in the 1984 the movie version. In this respect Ian McNeice's portrayal of Baron Harkonnen in the 2000 Dune miniseries is more faithful to the novel than Kenneth McMillian's version in the 1984 film.
- Both the movie and miniseries versions of the Baron Harkonnen however omit any reference to the Baron being a pederast, as in the novel.