Representational Change in Villeneuve's Dune

Curator's Note

Reboots, remakes, adaptations, and new franchise installments can pose a conundrum. Industrially, they are favoured because pre-known properties come with built-in name recognition and guaranteed viewers; however, they need to be “updated” for the contemporary context, and that can prove risky. In franchises with long histories of deep fan attachment, changes — particularly when they occur at the representational level — can provoke “significant anxiety” in audiences.[1] Think, for example, of the vocal negative reaction to the 2016 female-led Ghostbusters, the pushback against actors of colour in the new Star Wars sequel trilogy, or the clearly coded complaints that mixed-race actress Anna Shaffer’s hair wasn't “red enough” for her role in Netflix’s The Witcher.

Into this milieu comes Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune (2021). Based on a long-standing property notoriously considered “unfilmable,” with devoted, passionate fans, the film seemed poised to come under fire from dedicated fans for any number of adaptation decisions. Considering previous examples, Villeneuve’s diverse cast — in particular, Black British actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet Kynes, a role traditionally understood (and cast) as a white man — seemed an almost inevitable flashpoint in online discourse. The studio even appeared to anticipate the possibility of backlash, apparently attempting to mitigate negative reaction by, for example, waiting almost a year to officially announce her role and pre-emptively justifying her race- and gender-swapped casting in interviews and press coverage.

There were some fans who took to message boards like Reddit in order to express suspicion of or dissatisfaction with this casting decision. On the whole, however, there was not much negative pushback. There are likely many contributing factors: pre-emptive studio management might be one, while the lessening of the character's thematic importance may be another.[2] Perhaps there is less overlap than we might initially expect between the fans of the Dune novels and those of blockbuster scifi film franchises of the 1980s and fantasy video game RPGs, or perhaps audiences are more accepting of representational change in book-to-film adaptations (and perhaps Villeneuve’s auteur status helps this along).

As reactions to the recent announcement of a Superman reboot featuring a Black Kal-El demonstrate, representational change in these spaces is still prompting negative reactions from audiences. Villeneuve’s Dune is thus an outlier that deserves further attention; it suggests that we need to nuance our understanding of negative fan pushback as “diverse” casting practices become increasingly commonplace in blockbuster scifi franchises.


[1] Derek Johnson, “Resistance and Empire: Star Wars and the Social Justice Reboot,” in Film Reboots, ed. Daniel Herbert and Constantine Verevis (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 127; see also Bridget Blodgett and Anastasia Salter, “Ghostbusters Is For Boys: Understanding Geek Masculinity’s Role in the Alt-Right,” Communication, Culture and Critique 11, no. 1 (March 1, 2018): 133–46,; Peter Cullen Bryan and Brittany R. Clark, “#NotMyGhostbusters: Adaptation, Response, and Fan Entitlement in 2016’s Ghostbusters,” The Journal of American Culture 42, no. 2 (June 2019): 147–58,; Derek Johnson, “From the Ruins: Neomasculinity, Media Franchising, and Struggles Over Industrial Reproduction of Culture,” Communication, Culture and Critique 11, no. 1 (March 1, 2018): 85–99,

[2] Kynes is central to the novel’s ecological and messianic themes, which are not yet fully developed in Villeneuve’s film adaptation (covering just the first third of the novel).

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