Once upon a time, in 1994, disillusion was de rigueur. It was the year of “The Ice Storm” and “Prozac Nation”, under the reign of Bret Easton Ellis. At that time lived a collector of legends, a longtime storyteller. In the literary abyss, she offered something improbable: a book of fairy tales, “The Djinn in the eye of the nightingale”.
AS Byatt’s collection begins with several Grimm-style fables. But hidden behind them is a feminist novella, the title story of her book, which first appeared in the Paris Review. Formally, it’s quietly daring, an intricately unfolding puzzle box. A thread about a scholar and a jinn serves as the stage for tales from many sources, from Scheherazade to TV news. All explore the theme of the Turkish narratology conference where the two main ones meet: “Stories of women’s lives”. Together, they prove that classic fantasy and realism without embroidery don’t need to disagree. On the contrary, their chemistry produces a powerful way of seeing our world.
George Miller’s new film, “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” adapts Byatt’s short story but distracts from the scholarly Alithea (Tilda Swinton) and the jinn (Idris Elba). Miller and co-writer Augusta Gore retain the stories the djinn tells Alithea while more or less removing the rest of the text. Miller’s direction illuminates the tales of the djinn to their maximum potential; there couldn’t be anyone better for the job than the director of ‘Mad Max’ and ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ (and ‘Happy Feet’ and ‘Babe: Pig in the City’).
Without the intertwining stories, especially those told and experienced by the scholar, what remains becomes sheer, lavish fantasy, likely the purpose of the film. Still, it’s disappointing to lose Byatt’s heterodox perspective and down-to-earth intimacy and see its theme subverted by a narrowing of the heroine’s role.
The fictional researcher loves her job. Fortunately, she is divorced. In the book, she grew up children. She likes conferences to see the world and her colleagues. In Istanbul, she talks about the subject of the patient Griselda, the Job woman in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”. Then she travels the land and its temples with her hosts, hearing epic myths of all kinds. In Turkey, the clash between religious tradition and secular modernity operates at its peak, underlining the centrality of past stories in present life.
Back in Istanbul, the scholar buys a bottle of “nightingale’s eye” at the bazaar, from which a djinn appears in her hotel room to grant her three wishes. First, she wants a younger, but not “perfect” body. She tells the jinn that she was molested by a friend’s father in college, which she blamed on the power of her young body. She therefore wishes to regain her form of 32 years, and presto! The jinn goes back in time 25 years. When referring to “what women want most”, the researcher assumes that it is equality with men. The jinn will not confirm, so the question persists.
Maybe Miller felt out of depth trying to address these topics and events (he’d probably be right), or maybe he just wasn’t interested. Perhaps he also feared that the scholar would somehow steal the thunder from the jinn, for he reduced her to the familiar figure of the asocial intellectual. She arrives at the conference, and within minutes the djinn appears in her room and takes over. In both the book and the movie, she asks for his story, then wishes he would love her. Their affair, inventively explicit on the page — it’s sex with a genius! – barely gets a chaste nod in the film.
Miller devotes his considerable imagination to the tales of the djinn. He illustrates them faithfully and extravagantly, and they are marvels to behold. The title of the film refers to the captivity of the jinn: first with the Queen of Sheba, then with a slave and, finally, with a lady genius. Sheba, herself half-jinn, falls in love with Solomon, who seduces her with enchanted instruments. Their desire makes everything sparkle with gold in the desert palace of Sheba, where the landscape of “Fury Road” meets Wakanda style. When they unite, Solomon throws the jealous djinn into the Red Sea in a vial. It’s a sumptuous amalgam Arabic and Jewish folklore, derived from pieces of the Bible and the Koran.
After 2,500 years, the vial ends up in Turkey. He travels to the medieval court of Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Roxelana, who grew from white slave to sultan’s wife and changed the Ottoman Empire. The djinn, uncorked by a harem girl, witnesses gory plotlines and harrowing CGI spiders (anyone who’s run around screaming since “Captain EO” as a kid, cover your eyes). A few sultans later, the crown falls on Ibrahim, a prince with a fetish for fur-lined bedrooms and the fattest concubines his mother can procure. Much of this is a historic record. In Miller’s hands, it’s a visual feast.
After a traffic jam in the Bosphorus, the djinn lands with the thwarted polymath Zefir. She would have rivaled Da Vinci with her brilliant inventions and artistry – if only she were a man. The jinn becomes her lover and master but cannot escape her frustration. Soon it is back in a bottle, the one the scientist buys a few centuries later.
In the book, the jinn and the scholar attend a second conference. With the help of the jinn and his knowledge of obscure folklore, the scholar talks about wish fulfillment, aging and longing. The episode brings the story full circle and leads her to set him free. In the film, however, the two leave Istanbul for the scholar’s London home. Modern technology convinces the jinn that humans no longer need magic. When the scholar frees him, she is not generous: the electromagnetic waves destroy him.
In her alternation of stories, Byatt has created a kinship, and a narrative equivalence, between princess, peasant, prostitute and teacher. Together, their parables of embodiment and social roles reflect what has changed and what has not changed for women since antiquity. In a story with drowned pregnant slaves, courtesans resembling sumo wrestlers, and virgin jinn queens with fur-covered legs, the heroine’s experiences on her own body are no accident. It is unfortunate that Miller treats them this way by removing them from his story.
In the world of literary fiction, Byatt’s work remains deeply offbeat. The late Angela Carter stands out as a rare travel companion. But accomplished filmmakers have more often associated legends with in-depth studies of women’s lives: Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Carter’s “The Company of Wolves”, “Bluebeard” and “Sleeping Beauty” by Catherine Breillat, Agnieszka Smoczynska’s mermaid tale “The Lure” and older classics like “The Red Shoes” are just a few. Another Idris Elba film, Debbie Tucker Green’s BAFTA-winning Second Coming, deals with the aftermath of the Immaculate Conception.
While Miller declines the challenge of depicting the most significant aspects of history, his spectacular rendition of tales of the djinn makes his film a lesser counterpart to Italian folk collections like “Kaos” and “Tale of Tales.” It’s a tradition forged by Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life” – itself resolutely carnal and overflowing with social criticism. Miller, however, is not a neo-realist.
And so, our noble director leaves the realm of feminist fiction, traveling beyond his domination of English-speaking penguins and pigs, to the realm from which he will send his next film: another installment of “Mad Max”, on a young Furiosa. Maybe one day we’ll see how Tina Turner’s Aunty entity copes with retirement. I’m sure it’s a story worth telling.
Johnson has written for the Guardian, New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Believer and others. She lives in Los Angeles.