Get to Know the Women of DUNE

We’re all excited for Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic Dune. The epic story is a perfect fit for the big screen, and after a failed attempt from Alejandro Jodorowsky in the mid-’70s and a panned 1984 film from David Lynch (who later disowned the project), we’re ready to see the novel get the celebrated treatment it deserves.

Thanks to Vanity Fair, we got our first look at Villeneuve’s film this week. Nestled among photos of Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Oscar Isaac as his father Duke Leto was some insight into how this version will update the story and improve on previous attempts. Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Lady Jessica—Bene Gesserit, mother of Paul, wife of Duke Leto—in the film had this to say about Villeneuve’s take on the story: “Denis was very respectful of Frank’s work in the book, [but] the quality of the arcs for much of the women have been brought up to a new level. There were some shifts he did, and they are beautifully portrayed now.”

If you’re familiar with the original text or Lynch’s film, then you know women play an important role in Dune. But they don’t always have the agency they deserve, nor has Lady Jessica always had the intended impact. This quote has us even more excited for what Villeneuve is putting together. It’s clear women will influence Paul’s journey in unexpected new ways.

But if you’re new to the world of Dune, here’s a little more information about the women we can expect to see in the new film. Note: Some female characters, like Princess Irulan and Alia, are not listed in the cast and will likely not appear until the second Dune film.

Lady Jessica
Rebecca Ferguson in a black cloak as Lady Jessica in Dune

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures

The most prominent female character in the first Dune novel, Lady Jessica is a powerful and fearsome woman. She’s a member of the Bene Gesserit, a sect of women trained both physically and mentally to achieve enlightenment and influence humanity, although she’s an outcast for previous insubordinations. The “concubine” of Duke Leto Atreides I, she bears him a son when she was meant to provide a daughter, per the instructions of the Bene Gesserit breeding program.

She moves with her family from Leto’s home planet of Caladan to Arrakis, a nearly inhospitable desert location. Arrakis is ripe with a spice known as melange. Spice is a powerful drug central to the galactic empire’s economy. Soon after their arrival on Arrakis, tragedy strikes House Atreides. Shocking events throw Lady Jessica’s life into disarray.

“She’s a mother, she’s a concubine, she’s a soldier,” Ferguson told Vanity Fair of her character, who is described as “a warrior priestess.” The article also notes Jessica is especially expanded in Villeneuve’s script, which he co-wrote with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts.

Zendaya wearing a head scarf as Chani in Dune

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures

Another important character in Dune is Chani, who first appears in Paul Atreides’ dreams before his arrival on Arrakis. He meets her later in the story, after his family comes to the planet. She’s a native Fremen, who’s in charge of protecting Paul. The two fall in love and continue to share a powerful connection, although enemies test their fates and loyalties throughout the book.

Though portrayed by Sean Young, a white woman, in Lynch’s version, Herbert’s text describes Chani as dark skinned. She’s portrayed by Zendaya in Villeneuve’s version, who— as we see in the photos from Vanity Fair—has the character’s trademark blue eyes, which indicates melange usage, a symbol of pride for the Fremen.

Gaius Helen Mohiam

Gaius Helen Mohiam from David Lynch's Dune.

Universal Studios

Perhaps the most intriguing character in all of Dune, Gaius Helen Mohiam is a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit and a mentor to Lady Jessica. The text describes her as “an old woman in a black aba robe with hood drawn down over her forehead.” It compares her to a witch. Herbert notes her scrawny hands and melange-addicted blue eyes. Though angered at Lady Jessica for having a son, she takes an interest in Paul. She tests his humanity with the gom jabbar before he departs for Arrakis.

Charlotte Rampling plays Gaius Helen Mohiam in Villeneuve’s Dune, but we haven’t learned anything else about her yet. Siân Phillips portrayed the character in Lynch’s film.

Liet Kynes
Sharon Duncan-Brewster standing in the desert as Liet Kynes in Dune

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures

In what is sure to be a controversial choice for many, Villeneuve race and gender-bent the character of Liet Kynes for his version of Dune. In the books, Kynes is an esteemed planetologist and ecologist on Arrakis who serves the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. Though seemingly loyal to the empire (spoiler alert!) Kynes is secretly the revered leader of the Fremen and father of Chani.

Max von Sydow played the role in Lynch’s version, but British actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster will tackle the part in Villeneuve’s film. This likely means she’s Chani’s mother, but there isn’t much else to translate. Mostly, the gender-swapping is another thrilling way of infusing the film with more women, and especially women in leadership roles.

Here’s what Duncan-Brewster had to say about her role: “What Denis had stated to me was there was a lack of female characters in his cast, and he had always been very feminist, pro-women, and wanted to write the role for a woman. This human being manages to basically keep the peace amongst many people. Women are very good at that, so why can’t Kynes be a woman? Why shouldn’t Kynes be a woman?”

It’s hard to be skeptical about Villeneuve’s stance on women considering his previous work, which has featured a powerhouse and multi-faceted role for Emily Blunt in Sicario and a tender, heartbreaking Amy Adams in Arrival. His French-language films also center on female characters, particularly the devastating 2009 film Polytechnique, about a real-life school shooting where the male perpetrator specifically targeted women.

We can’t wait to see what Villeneuve and his co-writers bring to the women of Dune. The film hits theaters on December 18, 2020.

Featured Image: Universal Studios

Editor’s Note: Nerdist is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks.

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