Dune's Most Underappreciated Character Is Way More Important Than You Think
History will remember Lady Jessica.
In Dune: Part Two, the roles of Paul Atreides, and his mother, Lady Jessica, will be drastically different than Part One. For fans of the original Frank Herbert novel, the broad strokes of this transformation are written in stone. But, for the new film adaptation, the devil is in the details. Because Jessica largely remains in Sietch Tabr with the Fremen in the latter stages of the novel, does that mean Rebecca Ferguson will be out of the action in the film? In a new interview, director Denis Villeneuve says no.
In a new profile of Rebecca Ferguson, published in Town and Country, Villeneuve makes it clear that his goal with Dune: Part Two was to make sure that Jessica remains the other primary protagonist of Dune. “Lady Jessica kind of disappears in the second part of the book, and I made sure as I was writing the screenplay to do the opposite, to make sure that she will be active, to bring her back to the front of the story.”
From the beginning, Villeneuve has made it clear that his cinematic Dune films would honor the essence of the novels insofar as the female characters control much of the narrative, even if it seems like the plot structure favors Paul’s journey. So, is Lady Jessica really sidelined for half of Frank Herbert’s novel? With all respect to Villeneuve, not really, but we know what he means.
Does Lady Jessica “disappear” for the second half of the Dune?
The short answer to this question is no. Lady Jessica is not absent for the second half of Dune. In fact, Dune: Part One stops at the point in the book well before Lady Jessica makes her biggest transformation. Just as the Bene Gesserit order has a leader in the form of a Reverend Mother, it turns out the Fremen do too, mostly because this religious idea was planted there by the Missionaria Protectiva years prior. In the pages beyond what we’ve seen in Part Two, Jessica replaces the old Fremen Reverend Mother, takes the mind-altering Water of Life, and gives birth to the super baby, Alia. So, in terms of stuff that Villeneuve surely had to film for Part Two, Jessica clearly has a lot to do in this movie!
So what did Villeneuve mean when he said that she “kind of disappears in the second part of the book.” Well, the emphasis here should be on kind of, and what he’s likely talking about is the simple fact that Jessica is inside for a lot of these pages. She’s mostly in the Fremen stronghold, and not out on the dunes with Paul and Stilgar. Now, this doesn’t mean that Jessica isn’t doing important work — but for a feature film, it’s possible that Villeneuve simply wants Jessica to get out more. The book creates several opportunities for this to happen creatively. One great scene from the book, which (hopefully) will make it into Part Two, is the moment when Gurney is reunited with Paul and Jessica, and both mother and son have to convince Gurney that Jessica did not betray Duke Leto.
This plot point — that Duke Leto’s loyal servants suspected Jessica was the traitor — isn’t really emphasized in the new movie at all. But, it’s possible that we could get more of that in Part Two.
Why Lady Jessica holds all versions of Dune together
Although Jessica spends a lot of time coordinating the Fremen in Dune: Part Two, she does get the final words of the first novel. Essentially, although Paul marries Princess Irulan for political reasons, Jessica confronts Paul’s true love, Chani, pointing out that “history will call us wives”; meaning, she and Chani have political power wielded that is stronger than what they’d have in a formal marriage. Chani and Jessica are similar in this way: Neither married their partner because they are politically shrewd. This shrewdness and the ability to manipulate unfair systems is part of what makes Jessica such a powerful character. In fact, everything about Paul’s journey is, essentially, because of Jessica’s choices, including her decision to decide on his gender against the wishes of Bene Gesserit.
Jessica’s power exists before the first novel begins, and extends well beyond the third book, Children of Dune. She outlives Duke Leto, her son Paul, Chani, and even her daughter Alia. Jessica is the survivor of the first Dune book trilogy and the fulcrum of all the major events in the first novel. In Dune: Part Two, it sounds like Denis Villeneuve will make sure she gets out a little more. But, no version of Dune could reduce Lady Jessica’s importance. In almost every way conceivable, she’s just as much of the main character as Paul.