The Inverse Interview

Dune 2 Writer Reveals Why They Changed Alia

“We were a little leery of that talking toddler.”

Warner Bros.
Dune: Part Two

Any fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune will tell you about all the changes Denis Villeneuve’s two-part movie adaptation made to the story, even if you didn’t ask. Some were for the better, others for the worse, but one particular subject fans will delight in talking about to anyone who listens is a character introduced late in the novel: Alia Atreides.

Alia is Paul Atreides’ (Timothée Chalamet) younger sister, who was born among the Fremen after the community had long accepted Paul and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Because Lady Jessica drank the Water of Life while pregnant, Alia is born with all the memories of her ancestors, emerging from the womb already talking and fully self-aware. It’s Alia who kills Baron Harkonnen, not Paul, giving her the nickname “Saint Alia of the Knife.” A tiny talking toddler wielding a knife and saying things like, “Even an Emperor may tremble before Muad’Dib, for he has the strength of righteousness and heaven smiles upon him!” certainly offers memorable imagery.

Lady Jessica spends Dune: Two pregnant with a very strange child.

Warner Bros.

In the novel, this is possible because of a two-year time jump that takes place two-thirds of the way through the book. Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two ignores this jump, instead condensing its story into an eight-month period directly following Part One. But Jon Spaihts, who co-wrote both Dune movies with Villeneuve, said they considered ending Part One with the time jump before deciding against it.

“We knew it was coming, and [it was] one of the things we had to sort out when writing Dune: Part One,” Spaihts tells Inverse. “And one possibility was that the time jump would be the break, and the first film would carry Paul and Jessica all the way up to becoming members in the tribe and Jessica becoming a Reverend Mother, and then we would leap forward years.”

Villeneuve and Spaihts ultimately realized it would have made Part One too overstuffed by putting “an extra unwieldy act on the tail of the movie.” So the first movie instead ends with the fall of House Atreides, and Paul and Jessica’s wary acceptance by the Fremen. To avoid confusing audiences by starting Part Two with a two-year time jump, this meant the sequel would have to do away with the jump altogether. And that would mean no Alia, at least not in the form book readers were excited for.

Why Did Dune: Part Two Avoid Toddler Alia?

Alicia Witt as Alia in David Lynch’s Dune.

Universal Pictures

“We were a little leery of that talking toddler, as a distraction in the middle of the film,” Spaihts said. “That’s a difficult thing to execute on film.”

Instead, Alia appears in two forms: as an unborn fetus (who still talks to her mother psychically) and as an adult, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, in Paul’s visions. Arguably, a talking fetus is even stranger than a talking toddler, but Spaihts also says Alia wasn’t the main reason they skipped the time jump.

“To allow such a long time lapse inevitably would sort of cool the passions of Part One,” Spaihts says. “If Duke Leto’s death were years and years ago, then it would lessen the lingering trauma that all the characters were feeling. We wanted the heat of their passion to be fresh and their wounds to be fresh.”

That’s why they ultimately decided on a condensed timeline, which left Alia still in the womb. This also allowed for Jessica’s role to be expanded, Spaihts says. “It left Jessica talking to a kind of phantom inside her and walking through the Fremen world in an apparent madness, talking to someone who wasn’t there. And we loved the drama of that.”

Villeneuve delighted in crafting Alia in the womb, Spaihts says. “Denis was engaged by the visual challenge of representing this little premature adult in utero wrapped in pearly pink light and floating in a fluid.”

Other Stories (And Babies) Lost to the Timeline

After the novel’s time jump, Paul and Chani (Zendaya) have a child, whose tragic fate affects Paul’s decision.

Warner Bros.

Spaihts also acknowledged other characters cut when the timeline was condensed. Most notable is Leto Atreides, the child Paul and Zendaya have during his two years with the Fremen. But Spaihts points out that readers never meet Leto; he’s mentioned when Paul learns he’s been killed off-page. “He has grief about it, but has little time for that grief because in the middle of conducting a war,” Spaihts says.

“So the arrival and departure of that off-stage baby barely ruffles the waters of the novel itself, and really would’ve been a peculiar distraction in the film.”

Instead, Spaihts and Villeneuve chose to center the film’s emotional crux around the romance of Paul and Chani, and how it leads to a tragic betrayal. “The story of young love crossed with a terrific political and philosophical collision between the two of them and between the pressures the world puts on those two young lovers... I think that’s the most important thing in this story,” Spaihts says. “In many ways, our choices and adaptation were about simplifying the story to allow that relationship to play as the river that runs through the middle of everything.”

Dune: Part Two is playing in theaters now.

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