About two months ago, on March 1st, 2024, “Dune: Part Two” released in theaters to critical acclaim and smashing financial success. Following up on its 2021 predecessor, which was simply titled “Dune,” the film marked the continuation of director Denis Villenueve’s theatrical adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel of the same name. At its core, the main plot of “Dune” has remained largely unchanged since the book’s initial serialized release from 1963 to 1965. House Atreides, a powerful nation within the Imperium empire, has been given colonial control over the desert planet Arrakis in order to advance the harvesting of its ultra-valuable spice. Unbeknownst to the Atreides, however, this was a ploy by the Emperor to incite war between their house and the former colonizers of Arrakis: the Harkonnens. When the Atreides are massacred by a surprise ambush coordinated between the Harkonnens and the Emperor, young heir Paul and his mother escape and seek refuge with the native Fremen people. Now seeking justice and vengeance, Paul allies with the Fremen against the oppressors of Arrakis, while gradually growing into an influential dark messiah fanning the flames of a holy war.

Now, when crushed into a bite-sized paragraph such as that, “Dune” almost comes off as a relatively simple story. This could not be further from the truth. Approaching a whopping 188,000 words in length, the original novel is a long-running epic that leaves no grain of Arrakis sand unturned. That’s why when it came to the matter of adaptation, Villenueve saw it fit to take a distilling approach to the original work. While still lengthy on their own (coming in at an impressive combined runtime of 5 hours and 20 minutes), “Dune” and “Dune: Part Two” cut numerous scenes out, streamlined several plot threads, omitted certain characters entirely, and did everything in their power to maintain and update the main narrative beats of the novel for a new, 21st-century audience. Works such as Villenueve’s “Dune” films elicit an all-encompassing fundamental question about adaptations in general: just what exactly should they change, if anything? In this case, if the story of “Dune” worked perfectly fine in the novel, why bother making all these changes? Should this be considered unfaithful from an artistic perspective? Is changing a story via adaptation inherently disingenuous to the original piece and its creator? Creative adaptations inhabit murky waters — some are praised for their innovation, while others are considered unfaithful for the same reasons. So what makes a change justified versus disrespectful? And where does Villenueve’s “Dune,” this monumental adaptation of an even more monumental novel, ultimately stand?

All of these questions rang repeatedly in my mind as I dug into “Dune.” (See what I did there?) The new movies generally follow the outline of the novel to some extent, but many of the characters have been heavily re-written to play different roles than what they used to. However, I do not believe these changes come from a place of unfaithfulness or disrespect towards the original story. Instead, they simply reflect the major cultural changes we have experienced in the decades following the 1960s, especially regarding gender norms and the roles of women. Back when “Dune” was first written, women occupied a far more marginalized role in America (not to downplay the issues that persist today). While the ‘60s did show a rise in the representation and influence of women in the workforce and other areas of society, there was still a very commonplace and pervasive notion of them being peripheral and ultimately ‘second place’ to men. Since then, however, our society has undergone a dramatic shift towards the egalitarian belief in complete gender equality, and this is clearly a major driving factor in Villenueve’s “Dune.” That’s right — “Dune” is feminist. The films take the story and retell it in a way that’s not only excitingly fresh, but also a brilliant example of making a narrative more accommodating and accessible given the cultural norms of modern audiences.

First and foremost, we must look at the character of Chani, who is perhaps the most dramatically changed character from the novel to the Villenueve adaptation. A proud and loyal Fremen warrior, Chani generally serves as Paul’s main point of contact with the native people, as well as a close emotional confidant and romantic interest. Chani’s nature and demeanor, however, vary starkly between the novel and films. In the novel she was a passive, unquestionably loyal love interest to Paul and unconditionally supported him, even as he began his descent into darkness. By the end of the book, she had settled into her new role as Paul’s royal concubine, loving him while also understanding the two can never marry for political reasons. She’s still a relatively heroic character, and undoubtedly able and competent in her own right, but from a narrative standpoint she is little more than a romantic peripheral to Paul. Villenueve overhauls her character, turning her into the token outspoken skeptic of the main cast. Despite loving Paul just as much as in the original, Chani faces a strong conflict between her loyalty to him versus her people and planet, which she believes are being corrupted by their fanatic reverence of Paul. As Paul gradually comes to accept and weaponize his growing reputation as a religious leader, Chani acts as the audience surrogate, giving us a ground-level perspective on the damage and chaos caused by this progression. By the end of “Dune: Part Two,” she refuses to take any place by Paul’s side, instead striking out on her own. Chani’s character in the movies ultimately has much more agency and positive self-interest, not only making her a much more prominent actor in the story, but also making the story itself more dynamic and interesting via her conflict. Perhaps her predominantly passive, unconditionally subservient role from the novel was a better fit in the social climate of the 1960s, but I believe that it would be off-putting and frustrating for most modern audiences. In this sense, Villenueve’s re-imagining of Chani doesn’t just introduce a compelling new angle to Paul’s conquest of Arrakis — it also goes beyond the scope of fiction by bridging the gap of culture shock between “Dune” and 21st-century gender norms, creating a more accommodating and immersive experience for the modern moviegoer.

Chani isn’t the only character in “Dune” whose adaptation reflects a shift in gender norms. This can also be seen with Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor. At the end of the novel, the Emperor is ultimately overthrown by Paul, who forces Irulan to marry him in order to cement his newfound political power. In that book and its first sequel, this is essentially her entire role, ultimately serving as little more than a plot device that gives Paul his political power, falls in love with him anyways, and then raises his children for the other sequels. Beyond that is a character with strikingly little depth, agency, or relevance to the story of “Dune,” or at least far less than what you’d expect from the Empress of the galaxy. While her overall impact in the story is mostly the same in the films, there are some noteworthy changes. Not only does Irulan have much more screen time, including scenes that better showcase her political savvy and role as princess, but her engagement to Paul is now somewhat on her own terms as well, as she only agrees to it under the demand that her father’s life is spared. Irulan’s ending is still rather unfortunate for her, as the former heir to the Emperor’s throne is relegated to a political trophy wife. But just like with Chani, her film portrayal makes the story more dynamic and multifaceted by emphasizing her unique perspective on the given conflict.

These changes don’t contradict or betray the original story and themes of “Dune.” Much of the book’s core remains intact, and is arguably enhanced by the changes made to these characters. Chani’s resistance to the growing cult around Paul, for instance, gives the audience a compelling, direct perspective to the corruptive influences of systemic religion, which is a major theme of the book. On top of that, I also believe that the films’ expression of feminist gender norms is moreso an extension of the novel’s gender commentary, rather than a correction. In other words, I believe it’s actually a gross oversimplification to say that “Dune” was ever sexist in nature. Now, that’s not to say there’s no sexism present at all. After all, as I just discussed, it is true that many of the individual female characters in the novel are merely peripheral to and unconditionally accepting of the domineering, male decision-making presence. There is an undeniable suggestion of benign sexism (meaning sexist attitudes towards women that seem positive in tone, but still indicate inferiority/deference to men) in the novel, likely spurred by the social climate of the time and Frank Hebert’s own lack of perspective. But “Dune” is also a story of the dangers of that very same male authority, and the consequences of the typical masculine quest for vengeance, justice, and power. As was previously mentioned, Paul’s own “heroic” quest ultimately ends with him becoming a corruptive dark messiah, dragging the galaxy into a holy war that even he cannot stop. “Dune” is also a story about female-dominated societies and organizations, such as the women-only Bene Gesserit, a religious organization whose influence kickstarts much of the plot to begin with. Ultimately, “Dune” was always a story rooted in the exploration of gender roles and norms, and while it’s true that the original novel is unfortunately steeped with the sexist attitudes of the time, I believe that’s all the more reason that the changes brought upon by this new adaptation should be seen as a healthy step forward for the work as a whole.

The new movies aren’t unjustified or unfaithful in their changes, and I think it’s unnecessary to label change as unjustified in the first place. Instead, the Villenueve films are actually exemplary of what an adaptation should strive to accomplish. It remains true to the central thematic messages and narrative beats of the source material, while adjusting the work to reflect the vastly different social norms of the modern day in a way that expands upon the original’s fascination with gender commentary. The result is a pair of films that are undeniably “Dune” in their presentation and nature, while also still being bold enough to plunge into new territory and find their own sense of identity. It ultimately is that search for a unique identity, that exploration of values, that ‘justifies’ an adaptation. After all, things would get awfully stale if adaptations did nothing but copy stories into other mediums. Some purists might say that’s more respectful, but it’s also creatively sterile. In practicing such rote reproduction, all an adaptation would do is discourage creative engagement with the original story and seeing how it can be adjusted and played off of. Ironically, I would argue that is a greater disservice to an original piece of creative media. Rather, examples such as Villenueve’s “Dune” movies exemplify how adaptations can, and should be able to, play with and expand upon the tropes and narrative of a work while still remaining true to its core values and themes.