The real main character of Dune isn’t who you think.
At a glance, the trailers for Dune might lead you to believe it’s all about Timothée Chalamet becoming a morally complex pseudo-Luke Skywalker figure. However, throughout the six original Frank Herbert novels, the journey of Paul Atreides is only a fraction of the true narrative. The heroes of Dune are many, and not all of them are really classic heroes. Even within the first book, the narrative isn’t solely focused on Paul.
Recently, Dune director Denis Villeneuve has said that in the forthcoming sequel — Dune: Part 2 — Zendaya’s Chani will have a much bigger role than in Part 1. Hardcore fans of the original book might think this smacks of a major revision. But something was lost in translation here, and even if that hadn't been the case, elevating Chani’s role in Dune: Part 2 makes total sense. Here’s why. Light spoilers ahead for the 1965 Dune novel.
Chani’s role in Dune explained
In the novel, Dune and (presumably) the upcoming film adaptation, Chani is a Fremen, a native of Arrakis. Paul and his family are not, though eventually Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), become honorary Fremen after being exiled to the deep desert. Eventually, Chani and Paul become lovers and the power couple that will eventually rule the galaxy.
Chani is the daughter of Liet Kynes, a climatologist who is publicly working for the Empire and, secretly, a member of the Fremen. In the book and previous adaptations, Liet Kynes has been a man, but in the new Dune, Liet Kynes is a woman, played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster. It’s unclear if the new film will directly establish Liet Kynes as Chani’s mother.
Why Chani seems different in the new Dune
According to an interview published in the Italian-language magazine La Repubblica, Villeneuve apparently said that Chani would be the focus of Dune: Part 2. One quote was shared in the media (including an earlier version of this story), which seemed to indicate Chani is the primary protagonist of the story going forward. This is not accurate.
Inverse has learned that all of this was taken a bit too far, and confusion in translation led to Villeneuve’s intent being taken out of context. A more accurate version of the quote should be:
“Zendaya wanted to audition and today, after shooting the film and seeing what a wonderful actress she is, I’m sorry I auditioned her. It was just because I didn’t know her. However that day, she impressed me and when she left the studio I knew that Chani was her, the young desert tiger. I am honored to present two such explosive talents on-screen [Chalamet and Zendaya] and I can’t wait to shoot the second part of ‘Dune’ to get them back together.”
Additionally, it was made clear that his intent is that Zendaya is a protagonist of the next film, not the protagonist. Though to be clear, it appears that Villeneuve was misquoted, and according to our source, he never said the word “protagonist” at all, regardless of the translation issues.
In Dune, women push the narrative
Translation errors aside, Zendaya’s character is still a huge part of the second half of the first book. And indeed, even though Villeneuve was slightly misquoted, he’s also been (correctly) quoted saying that he instructed screenwriter Eric Roth to focus on “the female characters” in the book, adding, “I think femininity is at the heart of the film.”
This is also true of the book. From Lady Jessica to the Bene Gesserit to Chani, and even the book’s quasi-narrator Princess Irulan, the women of Dune tend to be the ones making the most important decisions. In the first 10 minutes of Dune: Part 1, we learned that the movie makes a narrative switch from Irulan to Chani. Essentially, the film changes the narrative framework from one woman to another; both are equally important in the novel. And again, we should all remember that the Dune movie getting released in October is only the first half of the movie. Part 2 hasn’t started filming yet.
Either way, on a story level, Chani is much more important than Princess Irulan. Yes, in the overall story of the books, Paul marries Princess Irulan but only as a public and political move. In reality, his “queen” (so to speak) is Chani. The new film already acknowledges this by giving the opening narration to Zendaya, shifting the film’s focus slightly to that of the Fremen.
If any Dune-heads out there are frustrated that Chani will have a bigger role in Part 2 than she does in the book, that means they should probably reread the book. On top of that, shifting narrative focus is not the same as changing the events or meaning of the story. In fact, having Chani be a big deal in Part 2 is totally faithful to the book, even if it ends up feeling different on screen. Even though something was lost in translation, the essential truth remains: Chani will be huge in Dune: Part 2. Just as she should be.
Dune hits theaters and HBO Max in the US on October 22, 2021.