Denis Villeneuve’s (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) upcoming big screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune could be the most anticipated epic in science fiction history. Published in 1965, Dune continues to be the GOAT on most SF booklists.
Such a rich, complex story has been difficult to translate effectively to the screen. Even Frank Herbert’s quote, “plots within plots” seems an appropriate summary of his seminal book.
An accurate, true-to-the-book movie adaptation felt out of reach. Villeneuve, a true Dune fan, seems like the right director to make it happen. If we can agree that Denis is the chosen one, let’s explore the lead roles. Would Frank Herbert be pleased with Villeneuve’s choices? How about the legions of Dune fans? I’m going to breakdown the lead roles in the Dune 2021 cast.
Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides
Paul, the hero of Dune, is the product of generations of breeding by the powerful Bene Gesserit Sisterhood. He eventually becomes the ruler of the planet Arrakis, the only source of the most valuable substance in the universe, the spice melange.
Paul’s character arc evolves from a young teenage aristocrat to the messiah-figure and leader of Dune’s native people, the Fremen. Paul reluctantly accepts that he is the one destined to save humanity through a destructive war and the resulting gene diversification, but he resists this path to absolute power.
There’s no questioning Timothée Chalamet’s acting chops, but was he the best choice to play the young protagonist? Herbert describes Paul as small for a 15-years-old, “a stringy whipcord of a youth” with black hair, green eyes and an oval face.
Even in his early twenties, Chalamet’s youthful look fits this description well. Chalamet’s powerful on-screen presence and charismatic delivery is a good match for the young leader of an army of freedom fighters waging war against the might of the Imperial forces.
Rebecca Furgeson stars as the Lady Jessica
The Lady Jessica plays a central role in the story and in Paul’s development. She is Paul’s mother and concubine to the Duke Leto Atreides. (There are still concubines in the far future?) Jessica is member of the manipulative Bene Gesserit order. She must walk the line of loyalty to her Bene Gesserit affiliation and her love for the Duke.
Her Bene Gesserit superiors command her to only bear daughters, but she fulfills the Duke’s desire for a son. Jessica is self-aware, determined and intuitive. She demonstrates her strength amid great personal loss and carefully establishes a relationship with the mysterious Fremen.
Can Rebecca Furgeson portray the delicate balance of power and vulnerability required to match Herbert’s vision of Lady Jessica? Furgeson’s recent role as Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible – Fallout may give us an indication.
She commanded screen presence and attention even next to Tom Cruise. Her calm exterior decried her inner strength and endurance. She displayed intelligence, depth and sophistication, precisely how Herbert described the Lady Jessica.
Oscar Isaac portrays Duke Leto Atreides
The leader of House Atreides, Duke Leto is ambitious and ruthless when it comes to protecting his family’s interests. He willingly accepts the Imperial offer to rule the planet Arrakis, even when he suspects that the former tenants, House Harkonnen, have sabotaged the planet’s spice production.
Leto is wise and perceptive, taking no chances with security measures during their relocation to Arrakis. However, he misplaces loyalty in a member of House Atreides, which leads to his undoing. Leto has strength and wisdom, but underestimates his vulnerability as a stranger in a strange land.
Best known as Poe Dameron, from the recent Star Wars movies, Oscar Isaac may be the best casting match yet. He has the gravitas needed to accurately portray the Duke Leto. Isaac has emotional and physical range. He displays infectious energy and undaunted leadership as Poe Dameron.
In the science fiction film, Annihilation, Issac plays Natalie Portman’s despondent, war-ravaged, husband with heart-wrenching depth. He demonstrates tenderness and vulnerability as Mikael Boghosian in the WWI drama, The Promise.
Herbert describes Duke Leto as “a tall man with olive skin and black hair. He had a narrow face full of angles and planes, with a high-bridged nose that gave him the look of a hawk.” Isaac may not be tall, but he matches the other descriptions extremely well.
Zendaya stars as Chani
When Paul and Jessica are reluctantly taken in by a tribe of the Fremen, they are assigned the young woman, Chani, to guide and protect them. Paul and Chani fall in love and Chani becomes Paul’s Fremen wife. Chani is a deadly warrior and instructs Paul and Jessica in the Fremen martial arts.
In an effort to enhance his powers, Paul ingests spice essence and enters a coma-like trance. Chani revives him and eventually helps him accept his destiny as the Fremen messiah. Chani is a soldier, guide and loyal mate to Paul.
Zendaya starred in the Disney Channel TV series Shake It Up! and the Disney Original Movie, Frenemies. Her feature films include Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Greatest Showman and Spider-Man: Far From Home. And most recently starring in the HBO drama series Euphoria, for which she won Critic’s Choice Award and Primetime Emmy Award.
Herbert described Chani as “a young woman, dark skinned, very skinny with an elfin face with big eyes all blue like black pits with no white in them. She had long tawny-red hair.” Zendaya is a perfect match physically, but does she have the experience to bring Chani to life?
Villeneuve is taking more of a risk with Zendaya’s lack of experience, especially with such a critical character. She has shown her dramatic range, but is it enough? She may not have the depth of experience yet, but Zendaya seems to have the potential and this is her chance to prove it.
Lead Role Wrap-Up
Peter Jackson kept his Lord of the Rings films true to Tolkien’s books and it payed off. It appears Villeneuve is taking the same approach with Dune. Villeneuve’s leading cast nails the physical resemblance to Herbert’s characters.
The male role of Liet Kynes has been changed to a woman, reminiscent of Jackson magnifying Arwen’s position in the Rings films. Even with minor changes, Dune should remain faithful to Herbert’s story. Villeneuve’s lead actors are also faithful representations to the original text.
As far as the leading roles go, Villeneuve appears to be headed the right direction. Based on their previous performances, these actors should hit the mark. And, nearly all these actors are in the prime of their careers, so they should bring an audience.
The Dune 2021 cast is a powerhouse, let’s hope the supporting cast is equally well-matched to the original book. Perhaps one of the challenges of making a successful Dune film is getting all the characters right. And if there is one thing Dune has, it’s a lot of characters.