‘Dune’ Director Recreated Zendaya’s Character to Sharpen the Book’s Warning About Saviors

At an early screening in NYC, director Denis Villeneuve said Frank Herbert wanted his books “to be a warning, a cautionary tale regarding Messianic figures.” Villeneuve repurposed Zendaya's Chani to deliver this.

‘Dune’ Director Recreated Zendaya’s Character to Sharpen the Book’s Warning About Saviors

Warning: Spoilers below

Dune: Part 2 has finally hit theaters and, among many other reasons it’s already likely to be one of the biggest movies of the year, the sequel finally features Zendaya in a major role—AKA, as a much more prominent figure than just the ethereal desert woman in Paul Atreides’ (Timothee Chalamet) dreams in Dune: Part One. The sequel picks up right where the first left off, with Paul and his mother, the Bene Gesserit witch Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), joining a group of indigenous Fremen in the wake of the Harkonnens’ massacre on House Atreides.

While Paul remains Dune’s increasingly questionable protagonist, the perspective of Zendaya’s Chani—a Fremen warrior who doesn’t believe in the prophecy that Paul is a savior—is pivotal to understanding where director Denis Villeneuve is trying to take Dune. These films are based on Frank Herbert’s books, which were written to comment on colonialism, religion, white saviorism, and the perils of saviorism more generally. At a Monday screening of Dune: Part 2 in New York City, Villeneuve spoke about the role of Chani’s character in the sequel to clarify that Paul’s arc is meant to critique rather than glorify Messianic figures who promise to free the oppressed.

The film centers largely around Paul’s inner conflict with his own maybe destiny—that is, to become a Messianic figure—and his desire to simply work alongside the Fremen toward liberation. Many of the Fremen believe Paul will liberate them from the Empire’s oppression and conquer the universe, and Paul’s own mother is determined to make that prophecy come true at any cost. 

This is all further complicated by Paul’s budding romance with Chani. But by the final stretch of the movie, Paul is set up by his mother—who has become the Fremens’ Reverend Mother and is determined to make him into the prophesized Kwisatz Haderach, as she believes this will protect him from harm—and drinks the sandworm-procured Water of Life. The water moves him to embrace his identity as the Fremens’ savior, empowering them to destroy the Harkonnens and the Emperor and unite around Paul to go to war against the other great houses and help him ascend the throne. Chani is disgusted and horrified by Paul’s transformation; in one especially chilling scene, she tries to warn other Fremen that blind belief in saviors is “how they enslave us,” but is silenced. The Fremens’ worship of Paul is so intense that they’re prepared to wage a potentially catastrophic holy war across the universe in his name, as Paul has foreseen in his visions.

In the books, Villeneuve says he noticed how Chani’s character faded to a more tangential role after Paul rose to power, as she goes along with his Messianic arc, becomes his concubine, and bears his children. At the same time, Villeneuve noted that Herbert was frustrated with the reception to his books: “He felt that the readers misunderstood [his books], that people saw the celebration of Paul Atreides,” Villeneuve said. “But for him, he wanted the book to be a warning, a cautionary tale regarding Messianic figures.” 

Warner Bros

In order “to correct that perception,” Villeneuve continued, Herbert wrote the sequel to DuneDune: Messiah. Knowing this, Villeneuve said, “I did my edition, not trying to be faithful, specifically, to the book, but to Frank Herbert’s initial desires.” Essentially, in order to help audiences consider Paul’s rise through a more critical lens, Villeneuve gifts us with his version of Chani, a skeptic whose disdain for the prophecies delivers on Herbert’s core intentions with Dune and its critique of saviors.

“In order to show the big difference, I will say, is the character of Chani. In the book, the second part, [she’s] kind of disappearing in Paul’s shadows—she’s a believer, and her character becomes less interesting,” Villeneuve said. “And I thought there was a very strong opportunity there to create a character that will give us a new perspective on Paul, and get closer to Frank Herbert’s intention.”

There’s a lot I love about this, namely that so many sci-fi and fantasy projects that involve Messianic saviors tend to lack self-awareness a la Daenerys Targaryen crowd-surfing a sea of brown people as they worship her in Season 3 of Game of Thrones. But I especially love that Dune: Part 2 delivers its criticism by utilizing a female character who otherwise would have gone to the wayside, cast off as a concubine and a womb. 

Dune, in general, has a slate of impressively influential female characters—namely the Bene Gesserit, which now includes Florence Pugh’s Princess Irulan, who pull all the strings and manipulate and control literal bloodlines. And with Part 2, there’s the addition of Chani as not just her own person with her own beliefs, unlike her character in the books, but as the main foil to the Dune universe’s worship of Paul; Chani is the voice that guides audiences to question the sinister implications of a foreign savior galvanizing an oppressed people to fight and die for a war in his name. 

I can easily see a less thoughtful director-writer botching all of this, perhaps reducing Chani to a peripheral sex symbol, making Paul a standard hero and liberator, oversimplifying the story and its complex, cautionary themes, and just leaning into CGI explosions. But on top of the cinematic excellence, impeccable storytelling, and stunning performances, Dune: Part 2 is all the more powerful thanks to Villeneuve’s use of Chani, and the dimension of cynicism she adds that Herbert himself wanted for Dune.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin